Judge Bill Gibron often passes more than mere words.
The password is…interesting.
Boob tubes fans tend to forget that, before all this kvetching about "reality" TV and unscripted shows, the Big Three (ABC, NBC, and CBS) used to make quite the killing on the ultimate in authentic real life human drama—the game show. Yes, the broadcast big wigs used the radio staple to sell a public wary of the cathode ray on its inherent entertainment possibilities, and once all the rigging and purposeful fixing were purged from the format, massive hits like Beat the Clock, I've Got a Secret, What's My Line?, and Concentration became late '50s / early '60s living room staples. What was even more astounding however, was the notion that major league movie stars—Jimmy Stewart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, James Mason—would take time out of their busy Broadway schedule or recent LA shoot to sit down and partake of a little quiz show quaintness. Imagine Brad Pitt or Matt Damon on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? and you've got an idea of how surreal this seems now.
But back during the medium's many growing pains, shows like Password presented a chance to see celebrities interacting with their adoring public, and now thanks to DVD collections like The Best of Password, we have a chance to revisit their amiable antiquity in all its slow paced pleasantness. Hosted by famed host Allen Ludden (who, believe it or not, got his start as a teen advisor columnist), the simple premise (players pair up, using one word "clues" to guide their partner toward the "password," each attempt earning a decreasing amount of points) allowed for insight into personality as well as a sure sense of being "brainier" than the individuals onscreen. With a casual, collective cool approach to the proceedings and an air of mutual respect and fun, the entire enterprise felt like a normal night in some famous person's parlor. Money and/or material gain was not the main draw. No, Password and shows like it thrived on a feeling of fame, familiarity, and found fun.
Of course, forty years later, it's hard to say if these shows hold the same sway they had during their initial run. Seeing names like Sammy Davis Jr, Jack Benny, Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, Betsy Palmer, Iran Ryan, and Olivia de Havilland sweat under studio lights, trying to figure out the meaning from a series of random hints might have a minor nostalgic value today, but it's a prime example of the law of diminishing returns, to say the least. After a while, the whole thing grows tiresome. What's most impressive, and indeed one of the strongest selling points for this set, is what could best be called the "OMG" factor. A prime example of this comes early in Disc Two, when the noted comedy team of Allen and Rossi make an appearance. What? Never heard of them? Are you kidding? As the poor, poor man's Martin and Lewis, these nightclubs staples show up and take Ludden and his entire Password production on a sublime stumblebum journey into their limited appeal. Marty "Hello Dere" Allen makes so many lame jokes you think the set is literally going to sink under their staleness—and since he can't croon, Steve Rossi just beams through recently capped teeth (which everyone constantly references).
Another similarly unhinged installment finds the genius himself, Jerry Lewis, growing more and more frustrated as he loses game after game to Audrey Meadows. You can literally watch his ego crumble amidst the smell of menthol cigarettes and Vitalis. From the now suspect pairings of Bob Crane with The Beverly Hillbillies' Granny (Ryan) and Ellie Mae (Donna Douglas, looking frightened), to the 'how the mighty have fallen' fun of witnessing the mighty Ms. Crawford match wits with a blasé Barry Nelson, there is some basic banter enjoyment to gain from this three disc collection. But after a couple of hours, you do grow antsy. The challenge is quite imbecilic and builds to very little. Some shows reference past games, while returning "champs" get a moment or two before being shuttled off for another nameless '60s suburbanite. The laypeople players are more or less interchangeable, nondescript and dull. Some seem disheartened by the less than literate play of their illustrious associate. As an example of what TV was like back before cable came along and shook things up, The Best of Password is a pleasant enough primer. Beyond that, it offers little of lasting value.
Some fans have complained that a previous version of this package offered more episodes than the 30 presented here. A quick glance across Messageboard Nation cannot confirm or deny such statements. One thing that was at issue previously was the video quality, and while not pristine, one has to admit the full frame image here is pretty good. Sure, there are some clear kinescope-esque problems, and more than a couple contain harsh edits and abrupt jump cuts (probably to remove commercials and other advertising tie-ins). The color episodes look crisp if slightly soft, and while none are unwatchable, it is easy to see purists balking at such basic treatment. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do with treble-filled Mono soundtracks, no matter how you dress it up with Dolby, and the DVD package offers no bonus features to speak of. So aside from the true fan, or genre devotee, there is limited digital appeal here.
Perhaps, sometime in 2051, viewers of the latest technology will wonder what we ever saw in shows like Tool Academy and Celebrity Apprentice. One peek at a production like Password may offer some insight, if little else beside a basic curiosity factor.
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