Of course, Judge George Hatch sees Red, but will anything in this collection of old TV shows help him see enough black to move it to the credit column in his ledger?
"Red learned the art of entertaining live audiences in vaudeville. Movies helped him develop sight gags and learn how to play to the camera. Radio taught him the technologies and demands of live broadcasting. There were few entertainers better prepared to enter the new medium of television than Red Skelton."—Narrator, "Hollywood Remembers Red Skelton"
The Red Skelton Show won two Emmy Awards for its first season in 1951: Best Comedy Show and Best Comedian. Up against ever-growing competition, the second season floundered and NBC cancelled the show. CBS picked it up immediately and it ran every Tuesday night for another 17 years. There was no real demographic for the show because people of all ages loved Red Skelton. I saw most of his shows in the early 1960s; his skits and gags were the hot topic every Wednesday in the high school cafeteria as well as over backyard fences.
Facts of the Case
Red Skelton opened with a few one-liners and monologue about something unusual that had happened that day. He shied away from political material because he knew he was no Bob Hope. A long pantomime about something routine followed—a man changing a tire, or how different people wave goodbye—and Skelton blew the simplest things hilariously out of proportion. The second half opened with a stylishly choreographed production number that was a lead-in to the evening's main skit involving one of Skelton's characters. Orson Welles said he always used a nose to help find the nature and soul the characters he played; Red Skelton used hats. Sheriff Deadeye wore an oversized ten-gallon hat; punch-drunk Cauliflower McPugg had a plaid cap pulled down to his eyes. Hobo Freddie the Freeloader, who lived in a shack in the city dump, dignified himself with a beat-up old top hat; and country rube Clem Kadiddlehopper had a curled up fedora two sizes too small balanced on the top of his head.
Frequently, guest stars made appearances. George Raft showed up as (what else?) a gangster named Mr. Lasagna, Edward Everett Horton and Jackie Coogan were city dump neighbors, and Reginald Denney played Skelton's butler. Vincent Price appeared in two episodes; one featured him as a crooked art dealer, and in the other he played a ham actor (!) who gets into the ring with Cauliflower McPugg. I admit fast-forwarding through the last ten minutes of this episode, but the sight of Price in boxing shorts is an image that will haunt me forever.
Passport Video has released The Red Skelton Collection, a boxed set of five discs including 10 episodes of the show and two shorts. The following half-hour episodes from assorted years are very thinly spread across the first four discs:
• "Lord Beaverhead"
• "Freddie and the Spies"
• "Mr. Lasagna"
• "Deadeye and the Indians"
• "Vinnie the P"
• "Freddie's Masterpiece"
• "Halloween Show"
• "Thanksgiving Episode"
• "Cop and the Anthem"
• "Freddie and the Yuletide Doll"
• "The Look Awards"
• "Hollywood Remembers Red Skelton" is a 25-minute documentary made in 1998 following the comedian's career, with trailers for his films from the 1940s taking up much of the time.
A while ago, Koch Vision started releasing a series of DVDs of The Abbott and Costello Show (early 1950s) and used "transfers from the original 35mm masters." The episodes looked so spectacular you'd think they were shot last week. Don't expect the same in Passport's handling of The Red Skelton Collection. The quality of the transfers ranges from decent to bad, with poor definition and harsh contrast. In a few episodes, ghostly images try to catch up with fast moving faces and hands; speckling and vertical lines are not uncommon. Dolby Digital probably couldn't do much with the source material because voices are still muffled, and The David Rose Orchestra sounds a little tinny. I tried to find what years these episodes were made, but the few that did have closing credits were incomplete. So I did some detective work and started watching for topical references. The easiest was the first episode, "Lord Beaverhead." Skelton is holding the two Emmys he won for his first season, so this one aired in 1952. In "Freddie's Masterpiece," Vincent Price reads a headline about Jack Parr's famous walk-off in the middle of his show. That places the episode in February of 1960. McPugg gets punched through the roof and comes back with a tiny satellite (don't ask!) and mentions Sputnik, which the Russians launched in 1957, so "Vinnie the P." must have been made within a year or two. Researching further, TV Tome says: "September 27, 1955—Color/1st Show of season 5." I don't know if it refers to that single show, or if the whole series went color. In the 1960s, I watched them on a black-and-white Motorola, so I don't know. All the episodes presented here are in black-and-white; the only color to be seen is in "Hollywood Remembers Red Skelton."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a shame that someone doesn't remaster the two Christmas episodes, "Cop and the Anthem" and "Freddie and the Yuletide Doll." They're both poignant without being overly sentimental. "Yuletide Doll" is a totally silent pantomime with music and may not click with today's audiences. But "Cop and the Anthem" is a wonderful adaptation of O. Henry's classic short story, and Freddie the Freeloader deserves a spot somewhere between Charlie Brown, Rudolph, and Frosty.
Red Skelton was the second greatest pantomime artist—right behind Marcel Marceau—and there was both humor and pathos in his performances. He excelled at slapstick, and had the best timing when delivering the punch line of a joke. He created a half-dozen memorable characters that often winked and made funny, out-of-context asides to the audience, and no one topped him at ad-libbing. All that talent comes across in these episodes, but The Red Skelton Collection may have only nostalgia value for those who grew up with the show—and have a great deal of patience to sit through these miserable transfers. The jokes aren't just stale; they're mummified and (sorry) "corny-fied." And does anyone these days really enjoy or appreciate pantomime? Red Skelton's films, such as DuBarry was a Lady (1943), The Fuller Brush Man (1948), and I Dood It (1943) still appeal to everyone, so some Skelton fans may want to give this collection a shot. I'd suggest a rental, but I think most places allow you one disc at a time from packages. These discs have only two or three episodes each. Or, if you pay for unlimited online rentals, you can watch a three-episode disc in less than 90 minutes and ship it right back.
Lastly, Red Skelton always turned serious at the end of the show. "CBS, our sponsors, and I want to thank everyone here in the audience, and those of you who allowed us into your living rooms." Then he closed with his signature line that is not included in any of these episodes, so I'll make a small addition to it here: "Good night and may God bless…Red Skelton."
Passport is guilty and I've deducted 40 points for their presentation of a classic comedian who always gave 100%.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
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