THE DVD SHELF: "Mad Men" Season One, and Duvall's "Faerie Tale Theatre"

A look at DVD releases of the first season of the AMC series "Mad Men" and the seven-disc set of Shelley Duvall's star-studded "Faerie Tale Theatre."

http://images.playbill.com/photo/s/u/suskinSept08DVD.jpg

*

There used to be a photograph on the wall of the manager's office of the 46th Street Theatre, tucked away behind a door in the back of the lobby. A horizontal, glossy black & white 8-by-10 in a simple black frame. On stage — the picture seems to have been taken from one of the mezzanine boxes — is the cast of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, the men in their 1960-style business suits, the women in colorful-seeming office dresses. It's the curtain call, with a full and enthusiastic house, but no one is looking at the stage. Everyone, including the actors (who are applauding wildly), is looking up the house right aisle. Standing tall and thin around row G, waving at the stage, surrounded by his wife and a retinue of guards (in their 1960-style business suits), is the President; tall and thin and looking like the model in a Madison Avenue photo shoot for "handsome American hero facing the adoring public."

Years back I tried to locate this photo for use in a book — it seems to have disappeared when the theatre (now the Rodgers) was sold in 1978 — but I hadn't thought of it in years, until I was sitting over the last few days watching the first season of Mad Men [Lionsgate]. Kennedy is only peripherally mentioned in the series; the Madison Avenue ad men have a slight involvement in the 1960 presidential election, and over the course of the fall campaign they screen and discuss several commercials from the Kennedy and Nixon camps. But the spirit of Kennedy is there, as is the spirit of those 1960 days (to say nothing of the design, clothes, and accessories) and even the ghost of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Not the ghost; Bobby Morse himself in the flesh, small and shrunken in an old-man's guise with a scraggly goatee, but with that same old (or rather young) twinkle underneath.

"Mad Men" is the dramatic series that caused something of a stir this last season. A hoped-to-be-replacement for "The Sopranos," devised by one of the executive producers of that long-running franchise, the project was rejected by HBO and Showtime as well. Seven years after the pilot was written, the show finally landed on AMC as that cable channel's first original series. It is a television rarity; a gripping, well-written, intelligent and inordinately clever series that got great critical reviews and nevertheless managed to catch on with the public.

Mad Men are the men of Madison Ave., of course. They smoke, they drink, they joke, they carouse, they demean women, and they smoke. Cigarette smoke is the connective thread of the series; everyone smokes (except the children), everywhere, all the time. Yes, they sit and discuss the dangers of smoking — one of the major clients is Lucky Strikes, struggling to find a way to sell their product despite the beginning of rumblings from medical and governmental institutions — but they smoke. Pregnant women? Of course; it's glamorous and good for you, too! Even doctors, during examinations. Matches and cigarette lighters abound; a key moment relating to the mystery that is threaded through the first 13-show season centers around a fellow lighting a cigarette. Executive producer and creator Matthew Weiner has surrounded his hero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), with a core of about a dozen distinctive characters; it takes six or so episodes before he begins to center in on who the other major characters will be. (The show is as well cast as it is written and designed. Mr. Weiner apparently oversees every last detail, from writing and directing to choosing matchbook covers; and it's every last detail that makes "Mad Men" so addictively watchable. He even had them outfit Draper's house with the very same kitchen cabinets I grew up with.)

As "Mad Men" goes on from season to season, one imagines that we will begin to see a stream of these performances filling in their dark time on New York stages. Elisabeth Moss, who plays the secretary Peggy Olsen (a character name borrowed from "The Apartment" and Promises! Promises!), is already on the marquee over at "Speed-the-Plow." John Slattery, who was prominent through the first season, is an occasional stage actor who appeared to good effect in the Roundabout's revival of Betrayal and Manhattan Theatre Club's Rabbit Hole. Bryan Batt, as the art director who obviously has an as yet undisclosed little secret in his closet, is also a stage frequenter. Guest stars are frequent and many; up front in the first episode was John Cullum, as an aging tobacco man with a twang. Waltzing in on stockinged feet every once in a while to purloin a scene is Robert Morse, as the somewhat dotty (or perhaps merely brilliant) owner of the agency. Mr. Morse is no longer in his mid-20s; he was born, by the calendar, in 1931. He looks almost like an old man, in fact, but that irrepressible twinkle is still there. This fellow started his career opposite the wily and crafty Ruth Gordon, Jackie Gleason and Rudy Vallee; I suppose that if any of them ever managed to steal a scene from the young Bobby, he had it figured out by the next performance and nailed 'em. The atmosphere at Sterling Cooper is very much like World Wide Wickets, Inc., the home base of — yes — Bobby's own How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. How strong is the How to Succeed influence? Well, "Mad Men" gives us a character for a couple of episodes named Elliot Lawrence. Not Elliott with two t's, like everyone spells it; but Elliot, which is how Elliot Lawrence — Bobby's Tony Award-winning conductor for How to Succeed — spells it.

As for Bobby, there's a touch of Rudy Vallee's J. B. Biggley characterization in his Bertram Cooper, yes, although he seems to have leaned more on How to Succeed's chairman of the board, Wally Womper. And there's some Walter Pidgeon eyebrows mixed in there, too. Perhaps I go on too much about Mr. Morse; it might be that people who've never heard of him will barely notice his comings and goings (although when he finally gets some lengthy scenes in the last few episodes, the acting is superb). I suppose I simply have Morse on the mind because of that photograph of John F. Kennedy waving to Bobby — center stage in the curtain call of How to Succeed — in that long-vanished-but-remembered photograph that used to hang on the wall of the manager's office of the 46th Street Theatre.

Shelley Duvall began her career in 1970 as a somewhat eccentric actress in several Robert Altman films, beginning with "Brewster McCloud," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and "Nashville." She was especially prominent in two 1980 films, opposite Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" and Robin Williams in "Popeye." While filming the latter, she happened to be reading Grimm's version of "The Frog Prince." She asked her co-star what he thought of frog princes, he offered his talents and support, and "Faerie Tale Theatre" was born. This being a series of 27 programs that aired on the Showtime Network from 1982-1987. Duvall served as creator, executive producer, narrator, and occasional star.

What's more, she seems to have served as a magnet for talented performers. Oh, you know, people like Mr. Williams and Terri Garr in "Tale of the Frog Prince"; Christopher Reeve and Bernadette Peters in "Sleeping Beauty"; Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell in "Little Red Riding Hood"; Mick Jagger in "The Nightingale"; Tatum O'Neill, John Lithgow and Carole King in "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"; Liza Minnelli in "The Princess and the Pea"; Vanessa Redgrave, Vincent Price, Elizabeth McGovern and Rex Smith in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"; Susan Sarandon, Klaus Kinski and Anjelica Huston in "Beauty and the Beast"; and Paul Rubens, James Coburn, Carl Reiner, Lainie Kazan and Jim Belushi in "Pinocchio." Now, there's a group I wouldn't want be to stuck in an elevator with. Or how about "The Three Little Pigs," starring Billy Crystal and Jeff Goldblum? And the list goes on, with the likes of James Earl Jones, Leonard Nimoy, Matthew Broderick, Eve Arden, Jean Stapleton, Alan Arkin, Ben Vereen, Art Carney, Joan Collins, Gregory Hines, Burgess Meredith, Lee Remick and more.

There are some interesting directors as well, like Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Idle, and Tim Burton. Many of the episodes are designed in the style of famous artist/illustrators, ranging from Jan Brueghel to Jules Feiffer, which only adds to the series' many charms for discerning viewers. What you get, overall, are child-friendly fairie tales with adult sensibility, packed with real, honest-to-goodness humor.

Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre [Koch Vision] has been released in various forms at various times. It has now been restored and remastered in a mystically enchanting new seven-DVD set. Included is episode 19, which was previously thought to be lost and has never before been issued. Also included is a lavish 112-page booklet, with information on each of the episodes and a special deck of playing cards. I missed "Faerie Tale Theatre" when it was originally telecast, but the episodes I've watched so far are pretty wonderful. Thanks mostly, I suppose, to Ms. Duvall's comic sensibility. And you'll be hard pressed to find such a remarkable range of acting talent, all of whom seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, in one series.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)