Early Color TV Shows: The 1950s

7 Feb

I’ve been researching TV shows filmed in color in the 1950s and determining how many examples of such shows I have in my collection and how many are available on DVD and it’s basically amounted to the discovery of a whole new world. For a long time, the only 1950s shows I’d actually seen in color had been what I’d finally seen after I got a color TV set for the first time in 1978. These were “Adventures of Superman,” with George Reeves, and “Bonanza.” Of the Bonanza episodes I saw back then, I’m really only sure of one that was from the first season (1959-60), “Enter Mark Twain,” which guest-starred Howard Duff as a reporter named Samuel Clemens recently arrived in Virginia City and which aired in 1959. It’s quite possible that I saw some color episodes of “The Lone Ranger” back then, although I may be confusing that memory with the color “Lone Ranger” spin-off movies that were produced in the 1950s that used to run on local TV from time to time.

Comparatively few series were produced in color in the 1950s because so few viewers had color sets. Color series were often distributed in black-and-white because it was cheaper to make b&w prints and cheaper to transmit them. Same with color movies. So even if you had a color TV, you weren’t guaranteed seeing all of the color shows then being produced in color. I remember my mother reading a letter from her brother in California in which he lamented buying a color TV for the first time and realizing that the only shows he could see in color were “Bonanza” and “Ruff and Reddy” (a Hanna-Barbera cartoon show).

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Only the most far-sighted producers made their shows in color, anticipating a day when color TV would replace black-and-white and make their shows more marketable in syndication for far longer. Of the series I was able to access for this piece, five from the 1950s were produced entirely in color: “The Cisco Kid,” “My Friend Flicka,” “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” “Judge Roy Bean,” and “Northwest Passage.”  A larger number of series started production in b&w in the 1950s but eventually shifted to color. “The Lone Ranger” began production in 1949, the earliest series covered here, but shifted to color only during its last season, 1956-57.  “Adventures of Superman,” on the other hand, shifted to color, relatively early, for its third season, in 1955, and continued in color through its sixth season, which ended in 1958. “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” shifted to color midway through its run from 1951-58, while “The Gene Autry Show,” shifted to color only for its last season, 1955-56. Other long-running western series began production in the 1950s and lasted long enough to shift to color in the 1960s. These included “Gunsmoke,” “Death Valley Days,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “Laramie” and “Wagon Train.” “Death Valley Days,” a syndicated anthology western series, began production in 1952 and didn’t switch over to color until 1964, but it lasted until 1970. “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” was a long-running sitcom that began in 1952 but didn’t switch to color until its very last season, 1965-66. This shift became much more common among series in the 1960s, when any series that began production in b&w in 1962, ’63 or ’64 that lasted more than two seasons invariably switched to color by 1965 or 1966. By the fall season of 1966, virtually every program being produced for television was in color.

TV Westerns 2

The world of 1950s color TV really began to expand for me two years ago, in January 2012, when I bought the low-cost DVD box set, “Ultimate Westerns,” which offered 150 TV episodes from 28 different western series from the 1950s and ’60s. These were public domain or “gray market” copies of films and TV shows that had either slipped from copyright protection or whose copyright owners were not in a position to protect them as diligently as, say, the major studios and TV networks would. The set included six series that offered color episodes. Among the offerings were twelve episodes from “The Cisco Kid” (1950-56), which was the first filmed series to be produced for television entirely in color. Some of these episodes looked great, while others didn’t, given the varying quality of the prints used for this set. I don’t recall if I ever saw “The Cisco Kid” on TV when I was a child or not. I tend to think I must have, since I was familiar with the character long before I first read O. Henry’s short story about him in school.

Leo Carrillo as Pancho, Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid

I’m really impressed with this show. It’s got two endearing heroes, Cisco and his sidekick Pancho, both Hispanic characters played by actual Hispanic actors (Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo), who intervene in every episode to help ordinary people being victimized by assorted criminals, bandits, con men, swindlers, land grabbers and corrupt sheriffs. There’s plenty of action and frequent location shooting.

The quality of the supporting cast is often quite high; I spotted TV’s first Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates in one episode:

And B-western stalwart Peggy Stewart in another:

In this set, there was one color episode of “The Lone Ranger,” entitled “Message from Abe,” in which James Griffith dresses up as Abraham Lincoln to recite the Gettysburg Address for a local pageant, but gets mixed up in a crime while preparing it. This episode looked quite good, but the color episodes from three of the other series, “Judge Roy Bean,” “Northwest Passage” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” were all rather poor in quality.  I’d never seen “Judge Roy Bean” before, at least as far as I can remember. I’d seen episodes of “Northwest Passage” before, in high-quality TV prints, when it ran on cable station TNT back in the 1990s. “Sergeant Preston” had been a favorite of mine on TV when I was a child, but I hadn’t seen it in over 50 years, and certainly never in color. There were also episodes of “Bonanza” on this set, but none from the first season.

The Lone Ranger: “Message from Abe”:

Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger, Jay Silverheels as Tonto

It’s a good episode and Griffith turns in a nice performance, but it had less action than the b&w “Lone Ranger” episodes offered on the disc. I’d love to see more of the color episodes.

I was greatly disappointed in “Northwest Passage” as a series. It was supposedly based on the novel by Kenneth Roberts about the exploits of Rogers’ Rangers during the French-and-Indian War,  that was also the basis for King Vidor’s 1940 MGM Technicolor historical adventure of the same name which starred Spencer Tracy. The film was quite a spectacular recreation of a little-filmed chapter of American history and featured extensive location shooting in Idaho and Oregon. The series, on the other hand, despite being produced in color by MGM, looks just as cheap as any B-western-inspired black-and-white series of the time, with cramped sets and very few outdoors shots. The stories used for for it were all extremely hackneyed and formulaic and make little use of the French-and-Indian War setting. It starred Keith Larsen, Buddy Ebsen and Don Burnett.

(Yes, that’s DeForest Kelley, TV’s future Dr. McCoy in “Star Trek” on the left in this picture.)

Judge Roy Bean” has the benefit of casting the irascible Edgar Buchanan as the title character, previously most famous as one of the main characters in a 1940 western, THE WESTERNER, in which Walter Brennan won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Judge Bean. The character would later turn up as the subject of a film by John Huston, written by John Milius and starring Paul Newman (THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, 1972). I somehow doubt that most of the TV episodes had anything to do with actual events in the life of the real Judge Roy Bean, but it was a moderately entertaining series anyway. I’d love to see a good quality color print of at least one episode, though.

So what else did I have in my collection? Just “Adventures of Superman,” which I wrote about here on January 5, 2014 (George Reeves Centennial), and the box sets of Seasons 3-6, the color seasons, 1955-58. These, at least, were legit copies from the series’ current copyright owner, Warner Bros., and they looked great.

Imagine what it must have been like after seeing the series only in b&w for so many decades to finally see iconic shots like these in color:

Here are shots from the very first color episode, “Through the Time Barrier,” with Sterling Holloway as Professor Twiddle, the one where the main cast of characters goes back in time to caveman days. This is widely considered one of the worst episodes in the entire series.

Here are shots from the infamous “Great Caesar’s Ghost” and other episodes:

As you can see, the color episodes cut costs by avoiding large sets or lots of action. With some exceptions, they’re a pretty static bunch. Not like we got in the second season, which I discussed in my entry on George Reeves’ centennial.

So what else was out there? “Bonanza” was certainly available in box sets and I do have Season Three (See Asian Stars in TV Westerns, Part 1, Jan. 8, 2013), which dates from 1961-62. I have another western box set that contains episodes of “Laramie” in color, but they were from 1961, the series’ first color season, and they weren’t quality prints, even though they were legit copies. “The Gene Autry Show” shifted to color for its last season (1955-56), but I didn’t have any of those episodes (I’ve since ordered the color season). The color season of “Tales of Wells Fargo” is available on DVD, but I haven’t ordered it yet and those episodes were only from the series’ last season, 1961-62. Where to turn?

Long story short: YouTube. As mentioned in my last entry, “Rediscovering Classic TV,” I’ve found a host of old TV programs on YouTube and have put a certain amount of time in discovering which color programs from the 1950s are represented and which boast the best quality. “My Friend Flicka” (1955-56) was the first filmed color TV series to be produced by a major studio. (20th Century Fox made it and based it on a Technicolor feature film it had released in 1943.) I had seen it as a child, but never, of course, in color. I found a channel that posted nearly every episode of the series. There’s also a whole channel devoted to “Science Fiction Theatre” (1955-57) a series I only learned was in color (first season only) after posting a general question about pre-1965 color series on the Home Theater Forum. I found some very good quality episodes and watched a few. Finally, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” is available in some very sharp digital restorations on YouTube.

One episode of “My Friend Flicka,” “Rogue Stallion,” was of remarkable quality and it spurred me to buy the box set offered by Amazon, which turned out to be a bootleg set. After spot checking most of the episodes, I was somewhat dismayed to realize that “Rogue Stallion” is, possibly, the only one of the 30 episodes in the set to offer such quality. And it was a great episode, too, with strong characters, a conflict that made sense within the context of the ranching community depicted, and lots of outdoor horse action. The series stars were Johnny Washbrook, as Ken, the young owner of the horse, Flicka, and Gene Evans and Anita Louise as Ken’s parents. I’ve embedded a YouTube link at the bottom of this entry. Here are screen grabs from this episode on the DVD:

Claude Akins as the bad guy in the piece, who captures the rogue stallion illegally with barbed wire:

Compare these pics with screen grabs from other episodes.

Yikes! Where’d the color go?!

Why doesn’t Fox release a legit edition of this as a remastered box set? (The total is 39 episodes.)

As far as I can tell, YouTube is the only source for “Science Fiction Theatre,” which ran for two seasons, from 1955-57. Reversing the usual pattern, the first season was produced entirely in color, while the second season was forced to save money by shooting in black-and-white. I found a few episodes that had pretty good color on YouTube. The stories tend to have fewer sci-fi trappings than other science fiction series of the era, e.g. “Tales of Tomorrow,” and certainly later sci-fi classics like “The Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits.” In fact, the episodes I saw had virtually no special effects and tended to deal with suggestions of science fiction rather than explicit manifestations. The one episode I saw that had the most concrete sci-fi concept was “The Negative Man,” in which a lab worker (Dane Clark) exposed to a harmful blast of energy suddenly develops super hearing. We know this because he sits at a soda counter and watches a pretty girl (Beverly Garland) in the phone booth and repeats what he hears being said to her over the phone and gets more and more agitated at the abuse her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend is heaping on her. The poor soda jerk (Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer) is quite befuddled at this demonstration. Later on, the lab worker, seated in the apartment below the woman’s, is able to hear the gas turned on in her apartment and rushes up to rescue her from her suicide attempt. Here are digital shots taken of the YouTube page:

Dane Clark and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer in “Science Fiction Theatre”

Beverly Garland and Dane Clark in “The Negative Man”

The best episode of this series that I saw is called “The Strange People at Pecos” and deals with a tract housing development in New Mexico near an experimental rocket base. A worker (Arthur Franz) at the base is alarmed at some strange phenomena he witnesses and soon connects it to some new neighbors he and his sons consider rather odd. They find the neighbors’ behavior peculiar enough to raise alarms with the local sheriff about aliens from outer space living in our midst. It makes for quite a fascinating human drama to see how things get resolved. It’s all about how people in a small community react to newcomers who are “different” from them. But it’s handled so subtly and with only a slight trace of ambiguity that it puts to shame so many similar efforts done on “Twilight Zone,” which would have amped up the melodrama and sci-fi gimmickry. Here it’s all in the way a little girl (Beverly Washburn) acts (for reasons that are ultimately satisfactorily explained) and how her father (Dabbs Greer) tries to protect her and reason with potential persecutors. The performances by Washburn and Greer are so nuanced and their situation so delicately portrayed that it elevates this episode to the top tier of the recent discoveries I’ve made in researching classic television. I’ve embedded a YouTube link at the bottom of this entry. And, for more information, please see my IMDB review of this episode:

IMDB Review: The Strange People at Pecos

Here are digital shots taken off the computer screen:

Arthur Franz:

Dabbs Greer:

Beverly Washburn:

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” mixes cheap studio sets with second unit shots of dog sleds racing over the snowy landscape, but a good color print gives us the bright red of Preston’s Royal Canadian Mountie uniform. The shows have a lot of action and suspense and I could see why I liked this show so much when I was a kid. And Preston is quite a courageous, two-fisted hero, working practically singlehanded, with only his dog, Yukon King, as a partner, to fight crime in a vast Yukon territory. I see that there are DVD sets available on Amazon, although I’m not sure if they’re legit or not. The set that seems legit is quite expensive. I certainly don’t want to get a bootleg or p.d. set.

And here’s the way the episodes look on the DVD in the Ultimate Westerns set:

Finally, I found some color episodes of “The Gene Autry Show” on YouTube and they looked quite sharp. Here’s what “The Stage to San Dimas” looks like:

Pretty good, huh? If only Roy Rogers had shot some of his TV episodes in color. I haven’t seen “The Gene Autry Show” since I was quite young, so now I’ll be reacquainting myself with it.

Anyway, my goal is to compile a complete list of color TV shows produced before 1966 and I have a lot of it compiled already and will post it in a future entry. I just wanted to share some of my discoveries so far in doing the research.

Here are links to some color episodes I found on YouTube:

My Friend Flicka: “Rogue Stallion” (1955)

Science Fiction Theatre: “The Strange People at Pecos” (1955)

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon: “Luck of the Trail” (1956)

ADDENDUM: Since doing this piece, I’ve purchased legit box sets of three of the series that I’d only seen on YouTube: “The Gene Autry Show” (color season), “Science Fiction Theatre,” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.” The plan is to do a Part Two of this entry, with proper screen grabs from these shows.

 

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5 Responses to “Early Color TV Shows: The 1950s”

  1. Robert Regan February 7, 2014 at 7:58 PM #

    Another winner, Brian. I love your sense of history. My first look at color tv, and my only one for many years, was probably in ’58. I was invited to the home of a school friend named Penny Takasch whose father was a tv repair man. They may have been the only people in New Brunswick with a color set. Even the “rich” kids din’t have one at that time, but everyone had a “Hi-Fi”, at least that’s what they called their record players. We watched a prime time Steve Allen variety show. The only part I remember was Orson Welles. He was sitting in front of a mirror applying his make-up while talking about Macbeth. Suddenly, he put on a headpiece, turned away from the mirror, and was totally in character for one of the famous soliloquies. It must have been pretty impressive. Look how long I have remembered it!

  2. Bill Baldwin February 10, 2014 at 4:04 PM #

    Some TV series had a color pilot when they were looking for a possible NBC network pick-up, when that didn’t happen, the series went to B&W for production. Few color prints were
    struck and the color never aired. Such was the case with Ivanhoe. Silver seps were made of the color neg rolls, so with the computer image matching technology of today
    a color master could be made… but no one is going to that expense for any 1950s TV series. No money in it.

  3. Celia McCann September 18, 2015 at 11:13 PM #

    Thanks for the CISCO KID mention here. Have been watching just about all of the episodes – they’ve been on COZI TV and the rest are available on hulu. Great fun! The fans on facebook love all of this as well: https://www.facebook.com/groups/64439729135/

  4. Steve Burstein October 25, 2016 at 11:19 PM #

    Roy Rogers DID film episodes of his TV series(later ones)in color. Other series filmed in Color in the ’50s but only shown in B/W were I LED THREE LIVES, COWBOY G-MEN, and THE EDDIE CANTOR COMEDY THEATER.

  5. Mitch Walker October 11, 2017 at 9:41 PM #

    CBS at that time experimented with filming and broadcasting a few of its popular shows in color. They wanted to present an episode of “I LOVE LUCY” but Desilu decided against it because creating new sets, costumes and the color film stock made them decided it would have been cost prohibitive. But an episode of “Burns and Allen” and a couple of episodes of Jack Benny were filmed and broadcasted in Color. One Xmas episode of “Dragnet” was filmed and broadcasted in Color on NBC…

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