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The Loretta Young Show: 100th Birthday Edition

(NBC; US DVD: 12 Feb 2013)

Every Sunday night from 1953 to 1961, American audiences sat in front of their televisions waiting for a door to open. From this door would spring Oscar winner Loretta Young, dressed in stunning movie star clothes and holding a letter from one of her fans. Said letter would contain a question which Ms. Young would answer in dramatic form. This was the basic premise of The Loretta Young Show, an anthology television series that has become one of the most iconic symbols of TV’s Golden Age.


In order to commemorate the centennial of Loretta Young’s birthday, Timeless Media Group has released The Loretta Young Show: 100th Birthday Edition, a special edition compiling the best episodes of the legendary show. Spread over a mammoth-sized boxset of 17 discs, featuring over 140 episodes (making us wonder why didn’t they just go ahead and release all 165 episodes of the show…) this might be one of the most important classic television releases in recent years.


The set includes the show’s pilot, in which the luminous star addresses her audience establishing she came up with this “special entertainment” as a way to help her loving fans. On the first episode, the actress helps clear a young woman’s mind, as she asks Loretta to help her defne the intentions of the rich man who has fallen in love with her. Originally titled Letter to Loretta, the show became a groundbreaking example of both audience-star interaction and the cries for help sort of entertainment that have become staples in shows like Dr. Oz among others.


Why would people assume an Oscar winner like Young would, not only read their letters, but actually reply to them is a fascinating issue that demands a more serious sociological examination. Is fanmail still a thing? Would Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts answer our letters? Regardless of how we perceive the idea of celebrity worship in our times, Letter to Loretta remains a peculiar time capsule. Young, who had a reputation for being both extremely religious and a consummate perfectionist, found an ideal way to establish a relationship with her fans. In several episodes she warns people watching the show that they might recognize themselves as the senders of the letter, but for obvious reasons she can’t share their real name.


To take this even further—and considering letters were mostly coming from female fans—Young herself plays most of the lead female characters in every episode, therefore creating a strange transference between audience and performer. Can you imagine having a movie star play a different average Joe on TV week after week? If this was seen as a kind of retribution for all the money people spent on movies in this era (remember moviegoing attendance was much higher 50 years ago than it is now) then Letter to Loretta is truly a marvelous example of how celebrities came to appreciate their audience. If not because they owed them anything in a literal sense, because people like Young knew that to please her fans equaled a longevous career.


Besides its importance as a tool of audience interaction, the show was also a groundbreaking example of the future television held in the entertainment industry. At a time when the movies were everything, Young quit them and consciously decided to move to TV. She and her husband funded the pilot of Letter to Loretta and presented it to NBC, which would profit highly from it. Young’s hand as mastermind behind the program meant that her special guest stars included the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Ricardo Montalbán and a very young Dennis Hopper.


It can be said that Young brought the glamor of movies to television, but was she in a way predicting a phenomenon that has become more common in the years of cable? See how celebrated actresses like Jessica Lange and Glenn Close have migrated to TV in recent years.


Despite its undeniable campiness and simplistic world view (there was nary a sad ending and nothing Loretta couldn’t fix with a Biblical quote) Letter to Loretta remains a true gem because it gives us insight into a time now long gone. How for example, Young as a producer carefully requested that her entrances and farewells were removed when her show entered syndication (she didn’t want her fashion to be dated when future generations saw her show). 


The show can become quite addictive, and at 30 minutes per episode, it’s great to see how this legendary program evolved from its humble start to a more sophisticated proof that television held great promise for the art of storytelling. Extras included in this set (for when you’re done with the 17 discs) include a very short biography of the actress, conversations with her children, movie trailers and Young’s home movies.

Rating:

Jose Solís wanted to be a spy since he was a child, which is why by day he works as a content editor and by night he writes and dreams of film. Although he doesn’t travel the world fighting villains, his mission is to trek the planet from screen to screen. He has been writing about film since 2003 and regularly contributes to The Film Experience and PopMatters. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.


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