DVD Review: The Great American Dream Machine

GreatDVDSTUDIO: S’more Entertainment | DIRECTOR: Various | CAST: Marshall Efron, Andy Rooney, Studs Terkel, Chevy Chase, Ken Shapiro, Albert Brooks, Elaine Stritch, Mel Torme, Henry Winkler
RELEASE DATE: 10/20/15 | PRICE: DVD $39.98, Blu-ray none
SPECS: NR | 777 min. | Television | 1.33:1 fullscreen | Dolby Digital stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

The critically lauded but sadly short-lived (1971-73) series The Great American Dream Machine stands as a remarkably entertaining and informative example of all that PBS could be, and actually was from the Sixties through the Eighties.

The-Great-American-Dream-Machine-Albert BrooksThe show was an uncategorizable mix of comedy sketches, cartoons, very well-made mini-documentaries, themed montages, “man on the street” interviews, editorial commentaries both serious and funny, musical numbers, dance pieces and readings from great modern literature. If that sounds overly ambitious, it was, but somehow the producers paced the show excellently, as is demonstrated by the episodes found in this four-disc box set.

Many of the episodes have themes related to the “American dream” concept, among them love and marriage, cars, living quarters, notions of femininity, politics, and death. In the last instance, we are treated to: a production number set to a humorous Tom Paxton song about Forest Lawn; filmed interviews with little kids on their concept of death; readings from cummings, Sandburg, and Twain by Dick Cavett; humorist Marshall Efron giving a lesson in how to deliver “famous last words”; a dance piece set to an elegiac song performed by an Alvin Ailey dancer; Kurt Vonnegut reading from Slaughterhouse-Five; a montage of movie death scenes called “The End, Hollywood Style”; tongue-in-cheek dramatic readings of mourning-card poems by Viveca Lindfors (The Way We Were) and Hurd Hatfield; and no less than four poignant mini-documentaries related to different aspects of death. The best of the quartet is a chilling interview with an African-American ex-army medic, who discusses how his experiences in Vietnam changed his view of death to the point that he has no emotional reactions at all to it.

A number of fledgling performers are seen in these segments, including Chevy Chase (Three Amigos), Linda Lavin, Henry Winkler (Here Comes the Boom) and Albert Brooks (This Is 40), whose short film “Famous School for Comedians” is the prototype for the work he did on Saturday Night Live just a few years later.

Although there is no bad material included here, certain segments are particularly impressive, including profiles of “Great American Heroes” that range from Evel Knievel and roller derby star Ann Calvello to stripper Blaze Starr and hot-rod designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Also of note are three short films about male-female relationships written by Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna (Bologna directed). One of the films is enjoyably dated — a parody of verbose French cinema, with Salome Jens (Seconds) and Bob Dishy — but the other two are tight little character studies that are timeless in their depictions of relationships.

The-Great-American-Dream-Machine-Chevy-Chase-9Without question the performer who emerges here as the MVP of Dream Machine is Marshall Efron. For the most part his segments are brilliantly funny Consumer Reports-style analyses of products one could buy in a supermarket or department store. He deftly blends real details about the products (in particular the unhealthy additives present in the food) with sharp spoofs of cooking shows and “Mr. Wizard” science programs for kids.

In the liner notes for the package, TV critic David Bianculli extols the virtues of Dream Machine, declaring that “there has never been a more literal variety show in the history of TV.” Bianculli is spot-on, since the series went far beyond the confines of the standard Fifties/Sixties variety series — and current programs like SNL and The Daily Show — because of the inclusion of the serious, very often moving mini-docs, which were overseen by Sheila Nevins, who went on to win multiple Emmys and now serves as the head of HBO Documentary Films.

The sheer intelligence of Dream Machine, even when it was presenting some ridiculously silly comedy concept, is what stays with one after watching this box. And, of course, the wish that there was something on TV this smart and eclectic these days….


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”