Monday, March 28, 2016

DVD Spotlight: Death Valley Days (Season 1)

With 453 episodes spanning 18 seasons, Death Valley Days ranks as the most successful anthology series in the history of television. Amazingly, it has never been released on DVD--but that will change when Timeless Media Group releases the first season on March 29th. For a series that debuted in 1952, the quality of this 18-episode DVD set is stunning. The prints are pristine and the sound strong and clear. Watching this classic black & white series is like stepping into a time capsule and traveling back to an era when a half-hour TV series was almost a half-hour long (without commercials, current shows might last 20 minutes!).

Jock Mahoney in "Swamp Ike,"
looking very Tarzan-like.
While many future stars appeared on Death Valley Days (e.g., Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley), the first season spotlights veteran supporting players like Denver Pyle, Lyle Talbot, Robert Hutton (Barbara's son), Hank Patterson (Mr. Ziffel on Green Acres), and Sheila Ryan (from Anthony Mann's film noir Railroaded). The biggest star may be Jock Mahoney, who would gain fame later as TV's Yancy Derringer (1958-59) and as one of the better big screen Tarzans (e.g., Tarzan's Three Challenges). (For the record, Mahoney also starred in one of my favorite "B" Westerns, the mystery-tinged Joe Dakota).

Supposedly, many of the Death Valley Days episodes were based on actual events. The plots range from serious ("How Death Valley Got Its Name") to comedy ("The Little Bullfrog Nugget," which concerns a woman with an affinity for eggs). An enduring theme, however, is the harshness of frontier life, in which finding food, water, and shelter was the difference between survival and death.

Donna Martell as Rosie.
One of the best first season episodes is "She Burns Green," in which Rosie (Donna Martell), a young refined woman, marries a prospector and moves to the edge of the desert. Though Rosie believes she's strong, she quickly finds herself ill-equipped to live without family, friends, and luxuries like scented water. Rosie loves her husband, but his failure to find gold leads to her having second thoughts about her marriage. Yet, she perseveres and, while her husband never find golds, he discovers a lode of borax...that will make them rich. (If you've forgotten the many uses of borax, check the Wikipedia like I did.) The episodes's title is a reference to how one confirms the discovery of borax: If you burn it, the flame turns green.

One of the many Borax products.
If you remember the original broadcasts of Death Valley Days, you will notice the irony with this episode. The syndicated TV series was created and sponsored by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which sold borax under its 20 Mule Team Borax brand (which was later sold to the Dial Corporation). Death Valley Days  began as a radio series in 1930 when Pacific Coast Borax hired Ruth Woodman, a British-born Vassar graduate, to be head writer. The company specified that the radio scripts be steeped in the history of Death Valley, so Woodman made numerous trips to the region for many years. In 1944, the radio series title was changed to Death Valley Sheriff and later simply The Sheriff until it ended in 1951.

The following year, Pacific Coast Borax launched the Death Valley Days TV series. For its first five years, Woodman wrote all the scripts before graduating to script editor. She earned numerous honors from governors and historical societies during her Death Valley Days career. The University of Oregon is now the repository for the Ruth Cornwall Woodman Collection, which consists of letters and scripts.

Stanley Andrews as the Old Ranger.
From 1952 until 1963, Stanley Andrews introduced each episode as the "Old Ranger." He began the episodes by telling viewers: "Many's the tale of adventure I'm going to tell you about the Death Valley country. True stories, mind you. I can vouch for that." Andrews was succeeded by Ronald Reagan for the 1964-65 season (with Rosemary DeCamp filling in after Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California). Robert Taylor took over hosting duties from 1966-69 until poor health caused him to step down. Dale Robertson hosted the final year. During their tenures as hosts, Reagan, Taylor, and Robertson also starred in some of the episodes.

Sheila Ryan in "The Bandits
of Panamin."
The first season of Death Valley Days is a great introduction to this classic TV series. It's an effective reminder that the anthology series format deserves a major comeback. Without the confines of regular characters or a continuing story, an anthology series can explore any storyline within its scope or setting. And Death Valley Days offers a unique setting with its scorching sands, jagged peaks, and, yes, beds of borax.

Timeless Media Group's "Collector's Edition" of the Death Valley Days' first season comes on three discs. As mentioned earlier, the visual quality is exceptional. There are no extras.


Timeless Media provided a copy of the DVD set for this review.

2 comments:

  1. Funnily enough, I was thinking about this show a couple of days ago - and how long it has been since I saw it. That is all about to change. (I'll never get anything done around the house!) Thanks for the good news.

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  2. I've never even heard of this! It sounds fascinating, and I like your point about the television anthology making a comeback.

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