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PBS Home Video presents
Pioneers of Primetime (2005)

"We'll try to make show business bloom right inside your living room." 
- Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: November 07, 2005

Stars: Steve Allen, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Ebsen, Bob Hope, Rose Marie, Donald O'Connor, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball
Director: Stephen J. Boettcher

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:55m:42s
Release Date: November 08, 2005
UPC: 841887050586
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-BB C+

DVD Review

Remember when television was brand new, and who the first family on your block was to get one? Yeah, I don't either, and for Americans born after 1950 or so, the ubiquity of TV is a given, the hearth we all huddle around. So this documentary is useful for those of us who weren't present at the creation, and will probably be a nice little walk down memory lane for those who never missed a new episode of Your Show of Shows or Texaco Star Theater. In truth, this hour is more a love letter than an overview or a history, though it is especially interesting in discussing the deaths of a couple of entertainment media (radio and vaudeville) and the rise of television from their ashes.

Many of the aging lions of the early days of TV are interviewed, and a number are no longer with us—here's a chance to see a reflective Bob Hope, a hepcat Sammy Davis Jr., a clowning Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle. The documentary starts with a quick whip through the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the fledgling television industry was desperate for programming—established comedians were pretty much given free rein, and, as the documentary reports, some of them soared, but others, like Ed Wynn, crashed, quickly running out of material. The vaudeville act that was perfected over decades burned out pretty quickly on TV—in a flash, millions of people have seen your bit, and they're immediately after something new. There are, of course, the obligatory nods to the earliest successful sitcoms, particularly I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners.

The chronology is rather askew, though, for the film then backtracks, to vaudeville, and then to the glory days of network radio—some of the ancient vaudeville footage is kind of amazing, and a handful of historians are interviewed as well to connect the dots for us. Finally, after a time, the movie hones in on its thesis: the most highly regarded pioneers of the title are those who thrived in all three media being discussed. It's a short list that includes not just Berle and Hope, but Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. There's too much overly adoring narration, and not enough of the stars performing their acts—it's almost as if the filmmakers take too much for granted, skewing this for the AARP demographic. There are some terrific surprises, though, my favorite of which was a cameo by Steve Allen's mother, Belle Montrose, whose deadpan act would still kill even today. 

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The archival footage is of course scratchy and badly aged; the transfer to DVD seems to have been done cleanly enough.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Adequate transfer, again with the variability of the condition of the older clips.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
6 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Six extended interviews (26m:15s all in) of the veterans of the early days of TV focus on vaudeville—Milton Berle discusses his earliest billing, and Steve Allen the rigors of the road; Donald O'Connor's memories are fonder and more sepia-tinged. Red Skelton is a hoot discussing crisscrossing Canada via train and avoiding the conductor, so as not to pay the fare; Buddy Ebsen remembers his days as a hoofer. And Rose Marie talks about starting on stage at age 3; later here she's joined by Morey Amsterdam, her co-star on The Dick Van Dyke Show, a series which seems impossibly modern by the vaudevillian standards discussed elsewhere on this disc.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

An uneven, intermittently informative valentine to the merry band of clowns who were the first welcomed into our home via cathode-ray tube.


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