Headquartered in Eugene, Oregon, Timeless Media Group is an independent distributor of classic movies and television shows on DVD. It has recently entered into a licensing and distribution deal with NBC Universal in which it will bring several of the classic television westerns from Universal's vaults back into the public spotlight. Among the highlights of this deal were the first season of the highly regarded series Wagon Train, which it released in December 2009 and the first season of The Virginian, which will be released in May 2010.
For this spotlight feature, we'll take a look at some of the other series being distrbuted by Timeless Media which come from the vaults of old Hollywood. All of the following series graced the airwaves during the 1950s and 1960s.
M Squad: The Complete Series
Appearing in various supporting roles in war-themed movies beginning in 1951, Lee Marvin (1924-1987) did not truly become a leading man until his role as hard boiled police detective Frank Ballinger in this series gave him name recognition. Airing for 3 seasons (1957-1960) and 117 episodes on NBC, M Squad was never a monster hit, but its combination of gritty crime drama on the mean streets of Chicago and notable acting made it a favorable companion piece to fellow NBC crime drama, Dragnet, which created the template that M Squad attempted to follow.
While the audio and video quality of this set varies from episode to episode, all are quite watchable in spite of the relative softness of the picture as compared to DVD releases of more modern shows. This is to be expected for a series that is over 50 years old that has not undergone an extensive (and expensive) restoration process from original camera negatives.
As with the other series under review in this column, there are several notable guest stars appearing throughout the show's run, many of whom were relative unknowns when they encountered the M Squad, including Charles Bronson, Angie Dickinson, Leonard Nimoy, Burt Reynolds, and many others.
Timeless Media Group has done a commendable job in assembling all the episodes in order as well as including a bonus CD of the series' 1959 soundtrack, The Music from M Squad, featuring the theme song composed by legendary musician, Count Basie.
In short, M Squad: The Complete Series is a great opportunity to discover a rarely seen gem from the Golden Age of Television in its totality, and offers an interesting glimpse into the early career of film actor Lee Marvin, who would get back into films following the conclusion of this series, but now as leading man, in many prominent 1960s films including Cat Ballou, which earned him his Best Actor Oscar.
M Squad: The Complete Series is a must for any TV-on-DVD enthusiast.
MSRP: $119.98 (15 DVD set with bonus audio CD)
The Guns of Will Sonnett: Complete Series Seasons 1 & 2
Short-lived western series (1967-1969) by legendary producer, Aaron Spelling, who produced this series along with Danny Thomas (Make Room for Daddy). Spelling and Thomas would go on to greater success the year after Sonnett debuted with their hit series, The Mod Squad. Of course, during the 1970s, Spellling, in collaboration with new partner Leonard Goldberg, would become a virtual hit machine for the ABC television network.
However, while this early effort was a solid drama anchored by a strong performance from veteran actor Walter Brennan, one of the most highly regarded character actors in Hollywood history, and the only actor – even to this day – to have won three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, it failed to find an audience and was canceled after 2 seasons.
The premise of The Guns of Will Sonnett is that Will (Brennan) and his grandson, Jeff (an early role for soap actor Dack Rambo (Dallas, Another World)), are traveling through the Old West in search of James Sonnett, Will's son and Jeff's father, a troubled man who does not want to be found. Stories often followed the formula of the duo riding into a new town only to encounter someone who was out for revenge against James, but would satisfy themselves by killing Will and Jeff in his place. In spite of this rather constricting story structure, the episodes were often quite good, and Brennan's presence alone elevated this series to a higher level. His character always dealt with people plainly, honestly, and directly, and he often punctuated any compliment he gave to himself (such as his claim of being an unmatched gunfighter) with the catch phrase, "no brag, just fact." Additionally, as his name implied, the elder Sonnett often began and ended each episode with a voice over recited in rhyming verse.
Although the series only lasted a short time, it did manage to resolve its initial quest: James Sonnett was found by his family and was convinced to stop running and to settle down with them. This happened in the final episode. Had the series been renewed, it seems that the plan was to follow the 3 Sonnetts in their new careers as marshal and deputies of a small town.
The Guns of Will Sonnett has rarely been seen since it went off the air in 1969, which is why it's such a shame that the only prints that Timeless Media was able to secure were the syndicated cuts offered by King World (now absorbed into CBS Television Distribution). The picture has not been restored, and on a color series like this (as opposed to the black-and-white M Squad and Arrest & Trial), the lackluster quality is quite noticeable. Further, because these are syndicated versions, at least three minutes is cut from each episode, which often wreaks havoc with story flow and leads to jumps in time and location that are often too severe and glaringly apparent. The audio quality, in spite of it being in 5.1 surround sound, is also quite poor and in some cases the dialogue is overly muddy and indistinct. This is especially true of many of the early episodes, but quality does improve somewhat as the series progresses.
As with M Squad, this is a series that boasts a number of about-to-be-famous guest stars including the only other actor to have won three Oscars, Jack Nicholson, who appears in a bit part in episode 7.
Given the poor-to-average quality of this presentation, we cannot recommend this as a purchase, but on the other hand, the series is too good to dismiss it without consideration. Hopefully one day, Timeless Media can get ahold of the original 35mm negatives or at least full versions of the 16mm prints and re-release this series in better shape than it is now.
We want to mention that Timeless did go the extra mile by putting some interesting bonus features on this set. Beyond biographical features on star Walter Brennan, there are two vintage television episodes from anthology series that were popular during the 1950s. From the series Cavalcade of America (known as DuPont Theater in its final season) in which Brennan appeared as a guest one week, we get "Woman's Work" from Season 5 from 1956, and from Schlitz Playhouse of Stars comes another Brennan episode, "Lucky 13," from Season 3 of that series, dating back to 1953. Better still, each episode clocks in at over 25 minutes, which would seem to indicate that neither episode is a syndication edit. Well done! Frankly, if Timeless can get its hands on all available episodes of these, or other, anthology series, they'd make for great releases.
Arrest and Trial: volumes 1 & 2
Our final selection for this review spotlight is a rather interesting series entitled Arrest and Trial. If that sounds suspiciously like Law & Order to you, you aren't far off the mark.
Airing for only a single season from 1963 to 1964 on ABC, this series, much like the Law & Order franchise that followed it two decades later, splits its time between being a police procedural (the "Arrest" part) and a legal drama (the "Trial" part). In contrast to the more popular Law & Order, however, is that each episode of Arrest and Trial was a full 90 minutes long (approximately 75 minutes without commericals). Additionally, the legalities were told from the perspective of the defense side rather than the prosecution's as it is in Law & Order.
Ben Gazzara plays police sergeant Nick Anderson of the Los Angeles Police Department, while Chuck Connors is unfortunately miscast as defense attorney, John Egan. Veteran television actors Roger Perry, Don Galloway, John Larch, John Kerr are all on hand to lend strong support to leads Gazzara and Connors.
Connors had just wrapped production on his hit series, The Rifleman, in early 1963 and jumped right into this role that fall. After the failure of Arrest, he headed back to more familiar territory in the western series, Branded, which lasted for two seasons and has been released on DVD by Timeless Media.
Arrest and Trial tried to differentiate itself from other crime dramas by the way it handled its criminal suspects. Often, the series perspective was sympathetic and even apologetic on behalf of the accused, whose backstory was told in shades of grey whereby one could, if so inclined, feel sorry for the accused and "understand" how he or she could commit a criminal act. How you are wired politically will greatly affect how you process these stories.
Thirty episodes were produced during this series' single season on air, and these two box sets from Timeless contain 9 episodes each, leaving 12 more episodes yet to be released.
Volume 1 contains episodes 3, 4, 7, 11, 15, 21, 22, 23, and 30, the final episode. Notable guest stars in this set include Mickey Rooney and Martin Sheen among many others.
Volume 2 showcases episodes 5, 8, 13, 14, 15, 19, 24, 28, and 29. Anne Francis (Honey West), Roddy McDowall, Harold Gould, and Peter Fonda are among the many interesting guest stars in this set.
We'd like to see Timeless issue just one more set, composed of four discs, to finish off this series as it certainly merits being released in its entirety.
More than just a curiousity due to its similarity to Law & Order, Arrest and Trial is a good series in its own right, and would make a great gift to fans of police and legal dramas.
MSRP: $29.98 each