Judge Dennis Prince put on some clean socks for this delightful hop back to the 1950s—or was it really the 1970s? He doesn't really care; he's happy these days.
These are perhaps the happiest of the happy days, before the intrusive live audience—and well before Fonzie jumped the shark.
Paul LeMat's tires had hardly cooled from draggin' Harrison Ford in American Graffiti when now-legendary TV producer Garry Marshall dropped another dime in the jukebox to keep the sudden '50s flashback alive through a weekly sitcom entitled Happy Days. Although American Graffiti was set in California circa 1962, Marshall chose to set his weekly visits with the Cunningham family in Wisconsin (Milwaukee, to be precise,) circa the mid-1950s. Though Happy Days premiered to a lukewarm reception in America's living rooms, it went on to become an icon of the 1970s television scene, running for 10½ seasons and spawning all manner of spin-offs, including one of the most recognizable pop culture figures of the decade. (Hint: "Aaaayyyyyyy!") Many of the long-time fans of Happy Days, though, tend to overlook the original tone and style of the show as launched on September 15, 1974. Now they can rediscover that original style through this first season collection, which includes some of the best episodes of the program's vast 255-show canon.
Facts of the Case
A platter spins; a tone-arm stands ready, awaiting the vinyl 45rpm single that will be mechanically lowered to the playing surface. The jukebox blares to life with glaring neon and the unmistakable rocking of Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," inviting us to enjoy these happy days.
Meet the Cunninghams, a well-adjusted family of five living in the heartland of middle-class America. Father Howard (Tom Bosley) owns and operates a hardware store, mother Marion (Marion Ross) is the dutiful stay-at-home wife, eldest son Chuck (Gavin O'Herlihy) is a basketball scholarship hopeful, and middle child Ritchie (Ronny Howard) is still trudging the halls of Jefferson High School. Sister Joanie (Erin Moran), the youngest, is the quintessential pesky sibling. Ritchie is the focus here. He pals around with Potsie (Anson Williams) and (sometimes) Ralph Malph (Donnie Most), the three generally sharing the same interest: girls! When not in school, the troupe whiles away its time at Arnold's, the local drive-in diner. When they're not feeding on burgers and malts, they ingest the unrivaled street wisdom and "coolness" of local dropout Fonzie (Henry Winkler). It's a weekly slice of Americana as Ritchie and the gang bounce from one post-adolescent adventure to another, with Howard and Marion on hand to try and sort it all out and offer parental guidance as necessary.
There are few among us who require formal introduction to the Happy Days phenomenon—yet it's interesting to note that, even though the show became one of the top-rated sitcoms of the 1970s (even crawling part way into the '80s), it failed to break into the Nielsen Top Ten during its first two seasons. In fact, it didn't even place in the Top 30 during 1974 and 1975. It reached #11 during its third season, charting a path to reach the coveted #1 spot by 1976's fourth season. Despite its seemingly overlooked and unwatched status during its flagship season, I distinctly recall faithfully watching it every Tuesday evening (my mom loved hearing the old songs from her sock hop days), subsequently seeing the immediate impact Winkler's Fonzie (aka 'The Fonz') had on the would-be tough guys at my junior high (rivaling the level of attitude adoption that Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli triggered some eight years later). Although the ratings didn't reflect it, Happy Days was an immediate hit with kids and their nostalgic parents.
It was the returning-to-television Ronny Howard (The Andy Griffith Show) who gave lift and loft to Happy Days, virtually repeating his American Graffiti role of Steve Bolander with a bit more TV-friendly Opie Taylor innocence added to the mix. Howard's signing to head up the cast helped creator/producer Marshall bridge the gap between George Lucas' big screen excursion and the small screen jaunt, adding visual continuity if nothing else. Keeping with the aural texture of the film, Marshall interspersed original '50s hits throughout each episode. Beyond that, Marshall pretty much started over from scratch, from supporting characters to the local hangout (electing not to reprise the role of Mel's Drive-In). Potsie Weber was created to fill a role similar to Graffiti's Terry the Toad (Charlie Martin Smith); Potsie was not such an afflicted loser, but still had a tendency to be on the downside of most situations while serving as both friend and foil to Ritchie. Arthur Fonzarelli took over the role of "street hood," and took the peer role of Graffiti's John Milner several layers deeper; rarely speaking yet always communicating his approval or disdain for the antics of the rest of the gang, he was the embodiment of pure "cool." Interestingly, the first season puts a strong focus on the relationship between father Howard and son Ritchie, the two working cooperatively and sometimes combatively through the ups and downs of teenage life. In the early episodes, Howard was often a hero to Ritchie (see Episode 10—"Give the Band a Hand") when he opens up and shows his son some of his more worldly skills and experiences. Sadly, this relationship was pushed to the background in subsequent seasons, reducing Howard to something of a fatherly buffoon.
Even though Howard retained top billing, the show ultimately became Winkler's. Though he uttered just a few lines in each of the first few episodes, his role of Fonzie quickly expanded with each successive show, producer Marshall recognizing that the no-nonsense yet big-hearted greaseball was a key draw. While relegated to a rather nondescript gray windbreaker in early episodes (the ABC execs thought he'd be too threatening if clad in leather), Winkler ultimately got to don the black cowhide jacket which, along with his thumbs-up and "Aaaayyyyyyy" endorsement, rocketed the character and actor to the top of the charts in the nation's consciousness. One of Fonzie's leather jackets is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. And, despite the probable allure of having the series re-titled, "Fonzi's Happy Days," Winkler gave a fast thumbs-down to the idea in deference to the rest of the cast, who were so instrumental in making the show work. How cool is that?
This three-disc set contains the first season's compliment of 16 uncut episodes, presented in original broadcast order:
• All The Way
• In The Name Of Love
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's to rebut? Frankly, this first season is well-written, well-produced, and well-received (forget about Nielsen, alright?). What's more, the transfers that Paramount has slipped into this digital jukebox look anything but retro. Presented in the original 1.33:1 full frame format, these transfers give the show its best look since…ever! Truly, with the detail level crisp and consistent, the colors rich and true, and the usual TV-laden grain virtually eliminated, you'll find these episodes look better than their original airing. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio track, though not stellar, is likewise clear, crisp, and intelligible. The only gripe about this set (and it's an arguably big one) is the complete absence of any extra material. TV spots, interviews, bloopers, and the original pilot (it started with a Love, American Style episode named "Love and the Happy Days") are all missing. There's really no excuse for such an apathetic approach to extras relating to such a pivotal TV franchise. Thankfully, the clean and uncut episodes dull the sting here.
Happy Days on DVD makes for an interesting jaunt back in time. It's a double dose, really; returning us to the 1950s while simultaneously ushering us back to 1973 to relive the show's inauspicious beginnings. It remains family-friendly without having deteriorated to seeming crass or corny. It's just as entertaining today as it was 30 years ago.
There is no crime here; all are free to go, though this court issues a severe warning to Paramount Home Video: let's dig up some extras with the next season's release.
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