‘Watch Around The Clock’: Retro Adventures in the Oft-disputed Golden Age of TV

A new DVD collection of vintage cartoons, movies, TV shows, and commercials shines an entertaining light on what television was like in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Watching You Asked for It (especially the charming bit when two trained conure parrots perform tricks) isn’t really very different from a modern episode of America’s Got Talent.

When, exactly, was “the golden age” of television? Is it now, when the plethora of various network, cable, DVD, and streaming options makes pretty much everything available at any time to everyone? Or was it, as defined by some pop culture experts, the years between 1947 and 1967, when the medium truly began and unforgettable classics were just getting started?

Watch Around The Clock, a five-disc DVD set of black-and-white TV shows, cartoon shorts, and movies that clocks in at over 24 hours, definitely tries to sell us on the latter, advertising itself as “a full broadcast day from television’s golden age”. There’s a little bit of overselling going on here, considering that most of its offerings are a part of the public domain, but the end result still makes for an interesting concept that shows us a lot about our pop culture past.

In fact, its main selling point lies in its retro-cool packaging and presentation. Watch Around The Clock comes with a booklet designed to look like an old TV listings magazine, complete with reproductions of vintage advertisements and a “15 cent” price tag on the cover. Inside of its pages and the on-screen menus, the shows and movies are listed in six-hour grids, divided into four programming blocks: “Kid’s Clubhouse”, “Daytime Variety”, “Prime-Time Favorites”, and “Midnight Movie Marathon”.

In this self-described “TV time capsule”, early mornings consist of old animated shorts (Betty Boop, Felix the Cat, and Popeye), only with vintage commercials included, and no hosts or station identifiers. Oddly sandwiched in-between these and several puppet-based shows, is 1961’s Calvin and the Colonel. An animated series starring two untrustworthy crooks (a Cajun-accented coyote and a cigar-smoking bear), it originally aired during prime-time and was partially geared towards adults. It’s completely out of place here, but also the most watchable program on the disc.

Time hasn’t nearly been as kind to the aforementioned five ‘50s-era puppet shows that follow it, however, including the iconic Howdy Doody Show and the innovative-for-its-time early video game-like mechanics of Winky Dink and You, which mostly served as a way to peddle various types of candy and decoder-ring-type merchandise to preschoolers in a time before infomercials. The morning closes out with single episodes of Lassie and the George Reeves-starring Superman.

Afternoons mostly consist of game shows and the early precursors to what we now call “reality TV” (although most of these offerings originally aired during the prime-time hours), and it’s surprising how relevant some of these shows still are in 2017. The Price Is Right, for example, is still on the air, and ABC recently launched a new, less family-friendly version of To Tell the Truth. Those of us over the age of 25 likely remember CBS’ Kids Say the Darnedest Things, which was a remake of this set’s Art Linkletter and the Kids. Who Do You Trust? has a similar concept as The Newlywed Game, which would go on to air at different points throughout the ‘60s through ‘90s, and as recently as 2013. Watching You Asked for It (especially the charming bit when two trained conure parrots perform tricks) isn’t really very different from a modern episode of America’s Got Talent. The only question is which one of these old shows will be revived next.

The “Prime-Time Favorites” disc serves as a fairly accurate sampler of what viewers in the late ‘50s through mid-‘60s were watching during the evening. There were Westerns (Annie Oakley, The Roy Rogers Show), cop shows (Dragnet), variety shows (The Johnny Carson Show, and a slew of sitcoms (Make Room for Daddy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and The Milton Berle Show). Most of these series frequently air on nostalgia-based networks or as filler aired on local television stations (and in higher quality prints), but there’s something to be said for seeing them in their original context: unedited for syndication and complete with commercials from the same era.

The advertisements contained within all of these programs ogive us a hint as to what society expected from people at the time, even though it presses these points in subtle, inoffensive ways. Many toy commercials reflect the common gender stereotypes of the time, with only little boys playing with various toy guns and trucks, and little girls mostly shown with various dolls. Personal care items are often advertised as a way to make young people more popular and lucky in love, such as a spot for toothpaste with the tagline, “Start going steady — right away (!) with Pepsodent.” There’s an especially disconcerting amount of cigarette advertising, with the irony that a product that forces cancerous smoke into lungs is often promoted as being “cool” or “refreshing”.

However, there were some good things to be found in those “good old days”: products are shown to be made out of stronger materials and advertised as being built to last, sales pitches are less pushy and rarely vilify competitors, and the sense of humor is often spot-on, instead of hokey and forced, like much of today’s advertising. Not to mention, it’s just plain fun to see some of the more ridiculous ads, like a spot for Hamm’s beer that stars a singing cartoon bear and goose. Some commercials are even remarkably ahead of their time, such as an alpha-bits cereal spot that shows kids of different “races” peacefully playing together (during a time when most public schools were still segregated) as the ad actually attempts to teach children how to spell various words using the product.

Another interesting aspect to these programs is just how many iconic celebrities are involved. The aforementioned Who Do You Trust? was hosted by Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, years before they teamed up for The Tonight Show. M*A*S*H‘s Jamie Farr and Green Acres‘ Eva Gabor also show up as the guests on Carson’s unsuccessful venture with CBS, The Johnny Carson Show. The “Daytime Variety” disc ends with episodes of GE Theater and Four Star Playhouse, featuring future President of the United States Ronald Reagan, the Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Cloris Leachman, Academy Award winner David Niven, and The Addams Family‘s Carolyn Jones.

The set officially ends with a virtually non-existent concept among modern broadcast networks: late night movie marathons. There are only three movies featured here (1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1950’s Cyrano De Bergerac, and 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm), and although these movies are easy to find online and air on various movie networks from time to time, they do serve as a good example of what would be on late night television at the time.

Watch Around the Clock has just one bonus feature, which is only mentioned in tiny print on the back of the box: a bonus holiday DVD. (One wonders if this was a last-minute addition designed to make the set a more appealing gift.) It contains about five and a half hours of Christmas and New Year’s Eve-themed episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Jack Benny Program, Sherlock Holmes, Gruen Guild Playhouse, Racket Squad, Dear Phoebe, and Telephone Time. It could have been made even better if it also included vintage holiday commercials, but all things considered, it’s still a very impressive bonus.

In short, considering the variety and length of what it offers, this DVD set makes for a rather inexpensive yet genuinely entertaining collection. Were the years 1947 through 1965 truly the “golden years” of television? Not exactly, but they were highly innovative and engaging years, when television was still a relatively new phenomenon and creativity was encouraged, as long as it fits within the realm of what was considered “normal” or wholesome. It had its successes and failures, and much of it deserves to be noticed and studied, today.

RATING 8 / 10


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