Let me start with an apology.
Mel Brooks in "The Inquisition," the musical number featured in History of the World: Part I and discussed in a new box set devoted to Brooks' career. (Photo: Shout! Factory & Fox)
In these cash-strapped times, the point of these so-called holiday gift guides is often to showcase quality items offered at low prices, thus allowing consumers to blanket friends and family members with affordable presents while retaining a few bills in the wallet.
That's not the case here. Sorry.
The four box sets highlighted here won't be found anywhere for dirt-cheap — in other words, don't rummage through a Walmart bin expecting to come across one of these puppies for a mere $9.99. These aren't gifts for casual acquaintances or distant relatives, but rather for those near and dear to your heart.
Whether your loved ones deserve such extravagance is up to you, but these collections won't disappoint ... at any price. As broken down below, they each offer hours of quality entertainment as well as features not found anywhere else.
On second thought, maybe it's best to buy these gifts for yourself after you've spent all those rolled pennies on everyone else. After all, charity begins at home — or, in this case, with your home entertainment center.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION
The Scoop: One of the greatest — if not the greatest — filmmakers of all time is honored with this compact set that includes 15 of his movies. Janet Leigh's ill-fated shower; Cary Grant's crop duster encounter; James Stewart's fear of heights — yup, all present and accounted for.
Highlights: My favorite Hitchcock film, 1960's Psycho, makes the, uh, cut, along with universally acclaimed efforts Rear Window, North By Northwest and Vertigo. The set also includes Shadow of a Doubt, the Master of Suspense's personal favorite among his own works; Marnie, a misfire during its original release but now considered a cult item whose stature continues to grow; and two flicks that never fail to give me pleasure, Saboteur and Rope.
Alfred Hitchcock, hard at work (Photo: Universal)
Low Points: Even Hitchcock made the occasional dud, and one such film is the dull Topaz, his attempt at helming a straightforward spy yarn. The lighthearted efforts The Trouble with Harry and Family Plot (his final film) are also on the weak side, conclusively demonstrating that his delicious dark humor works best when it isn't front and center but instead woven into the fabric of his projects.
Extras: There are about 90 bonus features totaling over 15 hours, with more than a third in support of Psycho, Rear Window and The Birds. Practically all of the extras are carried over from past DVD editions, with the documentary The Birds, Hitchcock's Monster Movie apparently the only new addition. Among the more notable extras are excerpts from the classic Hitchcock interviews conducted by François Truffaut; audio commentary on North By Northwest by its screenwriter, Ernest Lehman; the foreign ending to Vertigo; an alternate ending to The Birds; and a lengthy making-of documentary on Psycho. The collection also comes with a 58-page booklet.
Retail Price: $299.98 (as of this post, lowest online price according to www.dvdpricesearch.com: $149.99).
ALL IN THE FAMILY: THE COMPLETE SERIES
The Scoop: You get all nine seasons of the groundbreaking television series that ran from 1971 to 1979. That's a total of 208 episodes centering on the irascible bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), his "dingbat" wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and "meathead" son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner).
Highlights: All in the Family has long earned my vote as TV's all-time greatest show, so picking favorite episodes can be a daunting task. "Sammy's Visit," in which Sammy Davis Jr. (playing himself) visits the Bunker household, is arguably the most famous episode, and it certainly ranks in the upper echelons. Other gems include "Edith Has Jury Duty"; "Archie Gets Branded," a shocking episode about anti-Semitism; "The Games Bunkers Play," with terrific work by Reiner; "Everybody Tells the Truth," a comic take on Rashomon; "Joey's Baptism," guest-starring Clyde Kusatsu as Rev. Chang ("Chong." "Whatever."); and pretty much any episode featuring George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) or Maude (Bea Arthur), characters so popular that they ended up landing their own long-running shows.
Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor in All in the Family (Photo: Shout! Factory)
Low Points: The series took a hit once Reiner and Struthers left after Season Eight (their characters moved to California), and while Season Nine is pleasant enough, it pales compared to the greatness that preceded it.
Extras: The most valuable — though not necessarily most enjoyable — extras are the two pilot episodes that were shopped around and rejected by ABC. Both starred O'Connor and Stapleton but cast different pairs of performers as Mike and Gloria. Justice for All (with O'Connor as Archie Justice!) and Those Were the Days both failed to excite the network, so creator Norman Lear tried a third time — now with Reiner and Struthers in tow — took the pilot to CBS, and the rest is television history. While it would have been nice if this set had also included an episode of Till Death Do Us Part, the British show that served as the basis for All in the Family, consumers are hardly shortchanged: The collection also includes the first episodes of the popular spin-off Archie Bunker's Place (1979-1983), Gloria, which lasted all of 21 episodes in 1982-1983, and the critically savaged 704 Hauser, a 1994 attempt to again capture lightning in a bottle (starring John Amos, it died after a pitiful six episodes). Other bonuses include a pair of comprehensive documentaries and a new interview with Lear. The set comes with a 40-page booklet.
Retail Price: $199.99 (as of this post, lowest online price according to www.dvdpricesearch.com: $117.21).
Format: Blu-ray (also available as a DVD set).
The Scoop: Just in time for the franchise's 50th anniversary, all 22 previous installments in the James Bond canon (all except, of course, the now-in-theaters Skyfall, though there is a disc placeholder for it) have been gathered in a hefty cardboard container that should be neither shaken nor stirred but instead treated with the utmost care.
Highlights: With the release of Skyfall, practically every scribe has taken to ranking the Bond films in order. I'll wait until Skyfall hits Blu-ray to engage in that undertaking (how else to separate myself from the pack?), but I'll go ahead and admit that I'm in the majority when it comes to declaring 1964's Goldfinger the best of the best. Roger Moore is repped among the treasures by 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me and 1981's often underrated For Your Eyes Only, Daniel Craig makes the list with 2006's Casino Royale, and even one-time-only 007 George Lazenby comes into play with 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Roger Moore and Barbara Bach in the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me (Photo: Fox)
Low Points: The worst Bond flick? No, not 1979's Star Wars-inspired Moonraker, but another Moore outing: 1985's A View to a Kill - as well as Pierce Brosnan's 1997 Tomorrow Never Dies. Another Brosnan effort, 1999's The World Is Not Enough, deserves mention for the blockhead casting of Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist partial to short-shorts, and I've always found Connery's 1965 blockbuster Thunderball to be somewhat overrated.
Extras: Absurdly, this set includes neither a booklet nor any sort of guide listing all of the extra features (most imported from previous DVD incarnations). That's a huge downer, although a list of extras can be easily found on the Internet — or you can, you know, check the discs themselves. The amount of bonus material is simply staggering: It would take roughly 120 hours to watch all of it, so plan those vacation days accordingly! I wouldn't even know where to begin in listing some of the extras, but rest assured that the set includes the usual suspects: audio commentaries; vintage featurettes; interviews (with Connery, Moore and others); behind-the-scenes pieces covering various aspects of production; music videos; and much more. An unusual extra I enjoyed is World of Bond: Title Sequences, which allows the viewer to watch the opening credits sequences of all 22 films in a row.
Retail Price: $299.99 (as of this post, lowest online price according to www.dvdpricesearch.com: $149.99).
THE INCREDIBLE MEL BROOKS: AN IRRESISTIBLE COLLECTION OF UNHINGED COMEDY
The Scoop: Not to be confused with 2009's The Mel Brooks Collection, a Blu-ray set consisting of nine of his motion pictures, this offering is far more eclectic, examining the comic genius through performances, television clips and more.
Highlights: It would be impossible to overstate the historical significance of this set, which pays proper tribute to one of the only entertainers to have won the Oscar, the Grammy, the Tony and the Emmy. Practically the entirety of Brooks' career is represented here, from his early work on trailers and commercials, his rapid ascension as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar's TV hit Your Show of Shows, his unqualified success as a filmmaker, and his late-career blossoming as a Broadway icon. Among the many nuggets are classic TV appearances with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson; the pilots for the '60s spy spoof Get Smart (which he created with Buck Henry) and the short-lived '70s Robin Hood spoof When Things Were Rotten (a show I loved as a kid); his Oscar-winning short The Critic; one of the three Mad About You episodes on which he guest-starred (winning Emmys for all three!); the 1981 documentary I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks; and Mel's music video, "The Hitler Rap."
Mel Brooks (left, with Marty Feldman) discusses Young Frankenstein and other works in a new box set. (Photo: Shout! Factory & Fox)
Low Points: Are there any? To quote from "The Inquisition," the splashy musical number from History of the World: Part I, "Not a one; nay, nay, nay!"
Extras: Given the scattered and varied nature of the material included in the set, The Incredible Mel Brooks is pretty much nothing but extras. The collection does include a CD of songs from his movies (including The Producers' "Springtime for Hitler," Blazing Saddles' "I'm Tired" and, naturally, "The Inquisition") as well as audio from TV shows whose visuals are long gone. The packaging also includes a 60-page book.
Retail Price: $89.93 (as of this post, lowest online price according to www.dvdpricesearch.com: $54.39).