‘Shogun’ still sexy, exotic

Times Staff Writer

Don’t despair if you’re already disappointed with the new television season. There are plenty of miniseries, series and even a documentary that have just been released on DVD for the discerning coach potato.

Twenty-three years ago, NBC kicked off its fall season with the mammoth 10-hour miniseries adventure “Shogun” (Paramount, $80), based on James Clavell’s bestselling historical novel set in 17th century Japan.

“Shogun,” like “Roots,” “The Winds of War” and “The Thorn Birds,” became a national event. And two decades later, “Shogun,” which was shot on location in Japan, is still a great juicy melodrama filled with exotic locales, violence, sex and intrigue.


Richard Chamberlain was perfectly cast -- no wonder he was king of the miniseries in the 1980s -- as the rugged John Blackthorne, an English navigator working on a Dutch trading ship who finds himself a stranger in a strange land when a storm causes the vessel to run aground in Japan. The feudal Japan in which he finds himself is locked in a power struggle between two warlords. The great Toshiro Mifune excels as the magnetic warlord Toranaga; Yoko Shimada is the beautiful interpreter who becomes involved with Blackthorne; and John Rhys-Davies is a colorful Portuguese sailor who befriends Blackthorne.

The five-disc DVD set includes a comprehensive 13-segment documentary on the making of the miniseries and three historical mini-documentaries The only disappointment is the selected-scenes commentary from director Jerry London. The scenes and, as a result, his comments, are so short, it leaves viewers wanting more.

One of the WB’s most acclaimed and popular series is “Smallville,” which cleverly puts a new twist on the “Superman” myth by chronicling the teenage years of the Man of Steel in Smallville, Kan.

As the Superman in waiting, former model Tom Welling beautifully captures the hero’s nobility, shyness and frustrations; Kristen Kreuk is ideal as Lana Lang, the girl of his dreams; and Michael Rosenbaum embodies the role of Clark’s nemesis, Lex Luthor.

Warner Home Video is offering the complete first season of the show ($65), including commentary on the first episode with creators and producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and director David Nutter; deleted scenes; pre-production storyboards; and an interactive tour of “Smallville.” Totally unnecessary extras include promos for the new season of the show and the new WB series “Tarzan.”

One of the most popular radio and, subsequently, TV series in the 1940s and ‘50s was “You Bet Your Life.” Audiences, however, didn’t tune in because the game was unique or difficult: Two contestants were teamed to answer questions on a subject and the team that made the most money went to the final round.


People loved the show because of its wisecracking host, Groucho Marx. The most popular and recognizable of the Marx Brothers, Groucho had a field day interviewing the contestants and lobbing off-the-cuff zingers and one-liners as he puffed on his trademark cigar. And if the contestants said the “secret word,” a duck with Groucho glasses would drop down and the team would receive an extra $100.

Sony Music has just released the three-disc set “You Bet Your Life -- The Lost Episodes” ($50), which is a must-have for any Groucho-phile.

Gary Cooper’s mother is one of the contestants in an early episode, and she more than holds her own with Groucho. Also featured on the show are such famous contestants as the eccentric Lord Buckley, a former vaudeville performer, and Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, a young man from Texas who went on to have a brief acting career. Although minorities were rarely seen on TV at the time, except in minor and stereotypical roles, “You Bet Your Life” featured African American, Latino and Asian American contestants.

The 18 episodes on the discs had not been seen since their original broadcasts and were located at the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress.

Among the extras are original commercials for DeSoto, Plymouth and Lifebuoy; “Stag Reels,” which features racy outtakes; Groucho’s radio audition from 1947 for “You Bet Your Life”; “Behind the Scenes of You Bet Your Life,” an original short film that was made for a 1952 DeSoto dealers convention; a 10-minute segment with Groucho and Bob Hope of “The Walgreen Hour” radio show; and more.

Before they became superstars on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Kermit and the gang received a lot of exposure on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”


Sofa Entertainment has just released “Muppets Magic: From ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ ” ($13), an entertaining DVD that features clever, funny sketches starring the beloved puppets on “Sullivan.” The only installment that falls flat is a routine with Arthur Godfrey as Santa from 1967. Among the classic sketches are “Rock ‘n’ Roll Monster” and “Inchworm” from 1966, “I Feel Pretty” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” from 1967, “Christmas Reindeers” from 1968 and “Octopus’s Garden,” which aired in 1970.

Arriving Tuesday from A&E; Home Video is “Mr. Bean -- The Animated Series, Vols. 1 & 2” ($30), which features 18 episodes of the genial British cartoon series based on Rowan Atkinson’s award-winning live action series, “Mr. Bean.” One of the original series’ creators, Robin Driscoll, penned several of the short films. And the end result is amusing, but not as successful as the live-action show.

The animators did a near-flawless job of capturing the essence and spirit of Atkinson’s man-child and his beloved companion, a teddy bear named Teddy. In one episode, Bean causes havoc in the wild when he decides to shoot photos of wildlife; in another, he captures two thugs who are stealing teddy bears. Also featured is a “making of” documentary that shows Atkinson attending story meetings, acting out scenes from the script for the animators and recording Bean’s dialogue.

World War II had been over just seven years when NBC began airing its ambitious 26-part documentary series on the global conflict, “Victory at Sea,” in the fall of 1952.

The entire series makes its DVD bow Tuesday on A&E; ($80). Originally shown without commercial interruption, “Victory at Sea” was a big success with audiences and critics alike and received numerous awards. Even Richard Rodgers’ evocative score became a big seller.

Narrated by Leonard Graves, “Victory at Sea” utilized combat footage not only from American cameras, but also from the Germans and Japanese. The narration may sound a bit too flowery now, but the images are still powerful. Peter Graves provides an introduction to each episode.