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Published: Thursday, 7/25/2002

New set shows `M*A*S*H' hitting its stride

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Finally our long national nightmare is over: Jamie Farr is on DVD, and the reds in his summer dresses have never looked better.

This week Toledo's favorite son gets his digital close-up with the arrival of M*A*S*H: Season Two ($39.98), a nice three-disc set of the landmark show's 1973-1974 episodes. It's the season when Farr's famous cross-dressing corporal, Maxwell Klinger, became a series semi-regular; that is, when he would pop into a room wearing a racy little number and then pop out of the room and then anyone new to the 4077th would give a look like “What the??” and then McLean Stevenson would reassure the visitor that Klinger is totally sane.

The first season arrived on DVD last winter - if you're used to the grimy, washed-out colors of reruns, this 24-episode set looks even crisper than the first season - and when I wrote about it, Mr. Farr himself e-mailed to clarify something that might help you decide which season to get. I wrote back then that Farr wasn't in the first season. Not true: He was a day player, hired for about a half-dozen episodes. He did about a dozen episodes for season two, and had co-star billing by season three.

As for the quality of season two: There's a line of critical thinking that a TV show never really gets good until its sophomore year. That's pretty well supported here. Episodes deal with war atrocities and homophobia and fidelity in subtle ways that give off an uneasy tension - today it all looks very HBO, actually. (If Sex & the City is the first show where you can sense the amount of money in people's pockets, M*A*S*H is the first show where you can feel the humidity on the set.) However, to understand just how subtle this series could get, you'll need to exercise a great feature carried over from the season one DVD set: the ability to flip the laugh track on and off.

When I was eight, Mad Monster Party, one of the strangest children's films of all time, haunted my dreams, and I had not even seen it. I'd only seen stills in the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland, my InStyle. Mad Monster Party was stop-motion animated by Rankin-Bass, the team responsible for Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, and that meant lots of herky-jerky, dead-eyed puppets lurching like zombies juiced on triple-shot grande caramel macchiatos.

Creepy.

Last week the new Mad Monster Party DVD ($19.98) from Anchor Bay Entertainment arrived in the mail. Anchor Bay is a Troy, Mich.-based video company skilled at creating elaborate DVDs of films that nine people care deeply about. Anyway, I popped the disc in, and though this was my first viewing, I waited for the inevitable suppressed childhood trauma. Instead I had this sudden urge to watch The Nightmare before Christmas, then check out e-Bay.

Could I bid on the film's eight-inch stars?

In this day of digital Yodas, Mad Monster Party is the best Halloween special never put on annual rotation. It's like watching a dollhouse pop to life. The plot, at a leisurely 95 minutes, features a David Hyde Pierce-esque puppet being picked by his uncle Frankenstein to run the Isle of Evil. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Werewolf, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, and Frankenstein's monster (voiced by Boris Karloff, no less) exercise their veto powers and there is lots of puppet-laced drama.

I especially liked the scene where Phyllis Diller (or rather, her puppet doppelganger) danced the Mashed Potato with the Mummy.

The disc was transferred from the 1967 film's original 35 mm negative - previous video editions came from the 16 mm - and it looks great. As for extras, oddly, most of the stills and poster art can be found only in a 23-page booklet included with the DVD.

New on video: The Time Machine (Misguided, cheesy, boring, depressing stab at the H.G. Wells classic; but the time machine looks cool); Crossroads (Britney Spears' movie debut; she's not a box-office star, not yet an actress; the film is not a disaster, not quite worth watching for its camp value); Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (Bad What's Up, Tiger Lily?-ish parody of martial arts movies).

New on DVD: Tarzan & Jane ($24.99 VHS, $29.99 DVD). You Disney, me bored. No, I am not a child and did not expect the Mouse's new direct-to-video sequel - at 70 minutes, a quickie even by animation's standards - to play to anyone but children.

And no, I do not have kids and probably do not appreciate how hard it is to get them to sit still. But I do think they deserve better than this warmed-over retread of the 1999 feature, which feels like a longer version of a Saturday morning cartoon. Surprise: The story actually is a series of flashbacks to moments from the animated Tarzan TV series.

The plot: Tarzan doesn't know what to get Jane for their one-year wedding anniversary gift. One suggestion: The far-richer special edition DVD of the original movie.



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