Television’s Lost Classics: Volume Two Blu-ray Review

Early Pre-Trek William Shatner Television Appearance

Four rare pilots, including a lost episode of Nero Wolfe starring a young William Shatner, comprise VCI Entertainment’s second volume of television episodes from the 1950s. Television’s Lost Classics: Volume Two features four half-hour episodes. Newly restored for Blu-ray from the only known archival elements, it’s interesting to watch the evolution and history of television during its Golden Age. This is a peek back at television’s early days, complete with commercial sponsors.

“The Case of The Sure Thing” is the pilot for Racket Squad and first aired on CBS in 1951. Racket Squad would last three seasons and earn two Primetime Emmy nominations. It stars Reed Hadley as Captain Braddock, Louise Currie, and Milburn Stone. Sponsored by Philip Morris, this is a teledrama about two con artists targeting a businessman with a scam. Think a police procedural made to fit the demands of formulaic television. This type of criminal dramatization ripped from reality was popular with viewers in the 1950s.

“Cool and Lam” is an interesting 1958 pilot modern viewers will recognize as an early procedural using two detectives as the investigators. Penny-pinching Bertha Cool runs a detective agency with Donald Lam (Billy Pearson) as her partner doing most of the investigation. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, it was based on a series of detective novels. Author Erle Stanley Gardner actually introduces the pilot, hoping for the characters’ success on television. This is a lighthearted detective show that could have been fun if it had remained on air. It aired once and disappeared from television.

This batch of pilots are punchy and have a light touch

“The Life of Riley” is an early proto-sitcom starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as Chester Riley. Produced in 1948, Chaney would be replaced by Jackie Gleason when the show’s first season went into full production a year later. Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, it’s a close relative of early family fare like The Honeymooners. It’s worth speculating how Chaney’s career might have turned if this show had been a hit with him. Chaney was replaced by William Bendix as Riley and the show ended up running for five seasons in the 1950s. The familiar formula for family sitcoms was already being crystallized by 1948 and this pilot is no exception.

“Nero Wolfe” is the real attraction on volume two, a “lost” pilot that has been uncovered and presented here for the first time. The 1959 pilot co-stars a young William Shatner as the assistant to Nero Wolfe (Kurt Kasznar), master detective. Wolfe declares that a space scientist has been murdered and dispatches his young assistant to investigate things. It’s easy to tell that Shatner is a star in the making, showing off his charisma as a ladies’ man. The episode isn’t bad as a short mystery.

VCI’s first volume of lost television episodes from television’s golden age was harder to get into being serious dramas from a different time. They came off as staged plays made for television. This batch of pilots by comparison are punchy and have a light touch. They “feel” much more like proper television shows from the 1950s. There’s humor and serious talent on display.

Shatner absolutely steals Nero Wolfe with his smooth performance. It’s too bad that Cool and Lam never made it past the pilot. The lighthearted pairing of a man and woman leading a detective agency is the kind of formula that television has used again and again. There is a fun show with those characters just waiting to happen.

If you enjoy Golden Age television programming, this second volume delivers in spades.

Video

VCI Entertainment dips once more into the Golden Age of television using restorations by Jeff Joseph of SabuCat. All four episodes included on Television’s Lost Classics: Volume Two are contained on a BD-25. None run longer than thirty minutes.

Each episode is presented in its native 1.33:1 aspect ratio at 1080P resolution. Produced over a wide range of years from 1948 to 1959, each black-and-white pilot shares roughly comparable picture quality.

Employing the only known archival elements that survive for these rare programs, each pilot looks fairly excellent with acceptable clarity and definition. Laying off the processing and using solid-looking elements, the presentations are better than expected.

They are soft with serviceable black levels and decent contrasts. They haven’t been upscaled from standard-definition transfers, but clearly taken from new scans of the extant elements. Detail isn’t great in these made-for-television productions.

Audio

Each episode on Television’s Lost Classics comes with monaural audio in serviceable 2.0 PCM. There isn’t much in the way of dynamics to the thin recordings. Dialogue is intelligently presented in clean fidelity. There are no serious flaws to these television soundtracks made in the 1950s.

Optional English subtitles appear in a white font.

Extras

The lone special feature is a gag reel from the 1950s.

CBS Blooper Reel (12:16 in HD) – James Arness hosts this compilation of bloopers and fluffs from television productions, intended for affiliates. Worth watching to see Rod Serling flub one of his iconic introductions to The Twilight Zone.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray release was provided to us for review by the label. For information on how we handle all review material, please visit our about us page to learn more about DoBlu’s editorial policies.

Television's Lost Classics: Volume Two
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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Television’s Lost Classics’ second volume contains four rare pilots from TV’s Golden Age worth watching to witness the nascent medium’s early evolution.

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