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New on Disc: 'An American Family: Anniversary Edition'

5 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

An American Family: Anniversary Edition

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
By far the biggest wavemaker PBS had ever had up to that time (if not still), 1973’s An American Family chronicled parents-of-five Bill and Pat Loud — an affluent San Diego couple who allowed a film crew to follow them around from late May through New Year’s Eve 1971, punctuated by a Loud divorce in the middle. Of course, this isn’t the real deal but a distillation of a dozen one-hour episodes into a two-hour remembrance. How big was this program at the time? Well, outside of Watergate and probably ’73’s winding down of the Vietnam War, this must have been the op-ed event of the year. Two separate spinoff documentaries emerged with the passage of time. In one obvious way, Family was the granddaddy of today’s so-called “reality TV.” But it wasn’t cast, scripted and generally canned the way those shows are.
Extras: Understandably, there’ll be some who shrug off this release in hopes of someday seeing the full-octane totality (never released officially for the home market), but the bonus interviews here are as compelling as this series overview itself.
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The Atomic City

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Gene Barry, Lydia Clarke, Lee Aaker.
This agreeably modest black-and-white espionage thriller is enough of a time capsule — on levels both semi-universal and specific — that its 85 minutes go by with relative ease. The semi-universal level of which we speak (and there was no bigger deal in the early ‘50s) is its portrayal of that magical day when the family’s first TV arrived at the house — back when the medium still was all new and wonderful. The specific time capsule level has to do with where the family lives: Los Alamos, N.M., where the patriarch is a hotshot physicist. As matters evolve, the story’s cast of characters ends up worrying about creeps bent on stealing atomic secrets. They kidnap the physicist’s son, and from this point on, the movie becomes an FBI procedural led by an agent played by Milburn Stone. There’s a lot of material here that must have seemed advanced or at least cool at the time.
The print is clean, and Olive has done another pleasing job of making a vintage Paramount title look the way it used to.
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The Catered Affair

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald, Rod Taylor.
Gore Vidal penned this screen adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplay about the plight of a Bronx Irish-Catholic cab driver and family, first presented the previous year as a Thelma Ritter starrer for “Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.” Ernest Borgnine plays the cabbie, Bette Davis is the leading lady and Debbie Reynolds plays their daughter, who wants to get married in a simple, cheap ceremony so she and her honey (Rod Taylor) can take the opportunity for an immediately available cross-country honeymoon on wheels. But the Bronx biddies think she’s pregnant, so mom opts for a much more lavish break-the-bank ceremony just as dad wants to invest in a new cab. If you analyze Affair only a little, you discover one sick, twisted movie about a mother living her life through — and against the needs of — a child. The lovely score is by Andre Previn and the cinematography is by Mr. Film Noir himself, John Alton — more indication of the talent budget MGM coffers blew for a film that was never likely to be much of a hit.
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