New comedy collection is worth its beans
By G. Michael Dobbs
Two DVD "bricks" and a rather inexplicable silent double feature are in this week's DVD column.
I vaguely remember seeing "M Squad" when I was little -- the half-hour crime drama ran from 1957 through 1960 -- a time I was more concerned with cartoons and "Howdy Doody."
Now Timeless Media Group has brought out the entire 117 episodes in a 15 DVD set -- a pretty daring movie for a relatively obscure television show.
"M Squad" is a procedural police drama that spends more time showing the cops pounding the pavement and in the crime lab in order to solve a crime than firing their guns. The show is clearly a reaction to "Dragnet," Jack Webb's highly successful police show.
There are key differences here. One is that " M Squad" is centered in Chicago and exteriors were filmed there. Another is use of jazz for the score's show -- Count Basie wrote the theme music for the second season. The tone of the show is more film noir-ish and gritty than other police shows at the time.
And then there was the star, Lee Marvin. Marvin was coming into his own as actor and his portrayal of Lt. Frank Ballinger was far more interesting than Webb's straight-laced and straight faced Joe Friday.
Marvin plays his cop as both a committed public servant and someone who has seen it all. In the first episode, he is seen checking out a pretty girl while investigating a murder -- something most cop characters wouldn't have done at the time.
The half-hour shows move fast and I was surprised in this time of multiple "CSI" franchises to see just how much footage was devoted to forensic investigations.
Marvin's characterization probably will seem more modern and naturalistic to today's audience than those from other cop dramas of the same era. He walks an interesting line between appearing not to care and obviously caring very much.
For serious crime drama fans who don't mind dropping a chunk of change, this set from 51 years ago will provide some fresh material.
Harry Langdon: Three's a Crowd and The Chaser
Of all of the great silent comedians -- Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon -- it is Langdon who has had the hardest time establishing a new audience in the home video age.
Landon was a vaudeville star whose film persona was that of the "man-boy" a physically mature male who nonetheless has the emotional maturity of a seven-year-old. This type of character has certainly been a popular one in American film. Lou Costello, Huntz Hall, Jerry Lewis and Adam Sandler have all had their take on this shtick.
Langdon's character was often described as having the maturity of an infant. He seems almost incapable of dealing with the world. Made by the right hands, Langdon's films were highly popular, but Langdon himself directed the two films in this double feature and that was clearly a mistake.
Langdon's waif in "Three's a Crowd" is a mover's helper who finds a pregnant woman staggering about during the winter in the slum where he lives. He takes her in and cares for her only to see his heart broken when she reconciles with her husband.
In "The Chase," audiences are asked to accept Langdon as an errant husband chasing women and partying to his wife's disapproval. A judge makes Langdon stay at home for 30 days and take care of the house while wearing a dress. Many of the gags revolve around suicide.
I love silent films and am a huge fan of silent comedy, so I wanted to give Langdon another try, but I just couldn't understand why his character was so popular. I just want to shake him!
These two films from KINO on Video can boast of great scores by Lee Irwin and good-looking restored prints.
Mr. Bean: The Ultimate Collection
Okay, if you're a "Mr. Bean" fan this is your dream collection. The seven-disc collection has all of the television episodes originally aired on HBO, the animated series, and the two feature films.
That's a lot of beans.
If you're not familiar with Mr. Bean, you should know he is the first largely silent comic star developed since the advent of talking films. He can be an incredibly resourceful but also amazingly mischievous.
Rowan Atkinson was already a comedy star here and in his native Great Britain when he developed Mr. Bean with writers Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll. In an informative documentary in the set, "The Story of Bean," Atkinson and his fellow writers describe how the character was developed, which partly came from Atkinson's youth.
The star described Bean as a nine-year-old boy who operates under the rules as long as they suit him.
I love the "Mr. Bean" series and I think the shorter productions are those in which the character is best suited. The animated cartoons are not my cup of tea and the first feature film "Bean: The Movie" was a mixed bag, I thought.
The extras here are a lot of fun with several Bean skits seen in the United States for the first time: "Torvill & Bean," in which Mr. Bean takes to the ice with the British skating star, was a hoot!