They’re perfect, dammit, and you know it.
By Paul Mavis
I was tooling around my vast subterranean DVD vault last night (until my golf cart died in the south wing, sublevel 4) when I spotted the dusty, spooky “orphan” section. You know those DVDs—they’re the sets and collections that were started by some releasing company years ago…only to be abandoned for who knows what reasons (clearance issues, low sales, copyright claims). And glittering on the top shelf, in sequined glory, was The Best of Donny & Marie: Volume 1, released by something called Entertainment Software in 2006. Sadly (as far as I know), no “Volume 2” was ever attempted, which makes zero sense to me. I mean…it’s Donny and Marie. Who didn’t love them, hate them, loved to hate them, and hated to love them?
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Once the first disc cued up and the show started…when Donny and Marie turn away from their trademark silhouette opening, and start wildly dancing in perfect synchronization to The Bee Gees’ Jive Talkin’, it’s like someone slamming you in the chest with a cardiac needle, pumping equal parts confusion and vivid nostalgia directly into your flat-lining heart. After recovering from the initial, blinding shock at the beholding of their benevolent, sequined grandeur, you ask yourself, “My God, did we actually watch this? And then…it all comes flooding back to you, and you resoundingly answer, “Yes! Yes, I did—and I loved it!”
The Best of Donny & Marie: Volume 1 is more than just a vintage stroll down TV memory lane, though: it’s a gestalt time-capsule that zaps you right back to the mid-to-late ’70s and sums up an entire segment of your childhood. Donny and Marie are incomparably cute and energetic, while their musical talents are above reproach. The comedy is corny, but don’t feel so superior; they knew it, too, and they’re having just as much fun with it as you did. Secretly.
I write “secretly,” because about 4 minutes after Donny & Marie premiered, no self-respecting kid admitted to watching it—even though we still did, religiously. There was something about the Donny & Marie show, something so “wholesome” (can you imagine that word being seriously used about any young star today?) about these Utah-born show business pros, that it instantly earned them the good-natured (and envious) scorn of others in the business, and the unilateral hatred of the jaded critics.
Was it because Donny & Marie (and by extension the past success of The Osmond Brothers) represented to the critics and entertainment-makers what they perceived to be the polar opposite of the prevailing social order; i.e. polite, clean-cut youngsters who put “God” and “Family” first in everything they did? Was it because of the sometimes-saccharine nature of their act (Donny’s single, Puppy Love, is icky squared)? Or was it because despite the critics’ pompous derision (can you believe they actually mention God in their show—how gauche!), they couldn’t convince Middle America that these kids shouldn’t be popular?
Kids are funny; they can like something on their own, quietly, but the minute they perceive that that particular song or movie or TV show is somehow “uncool”—whether from their friends or the media—they clam up, and protest they don’t watch it, or listen to it. Donny and Marie Osmond were the kind of kids our parents wanted as our friends; they were polite and well-spoken, and your parents wouldn’t ever have worried about what you’d get up to with them. And usually, those kind of nerdy kids were the exact opposite of the punks you really wanted to hang out with…or were (ahem).
But you still respected those squares; their sincerity was obvious, even if they did seem hopelessly out of it. And that was Donny and Marie: two super-talented kids (she was only 16 when the show aired in 1976; Donny was just 18) who weren’t putting on an act. They really were the characters they portrayed on the show, it seemed (except, of course, that Donny was no dummy). And you gave them credit and respect for that. And maybe, because of their example, you wanted to be a little bit more like them. Just a bit.
The Osmond Brothers singing group, initially consisting of older brothers Alan, Wayne, Merrill, and Jay, were a staple on the popular Andy Williams Show in the 1960s. Their wholesome harmonizing, along with their real-life family camaraderie, captured the imagination of still-innocent early 1960s TV. With the addition of youngster Donny, a natural born showman and future frontman of the group, the group really took off in popularity.
By the very early 70s, The Osmond Brothers were a wildly successful and respected pop/rock singing group (no less than Lester Bangs in Rolling Stones gave his seal-of-approval to the group), while Donny was carving out a solo career with teenybopper classics like Puppy Love and Go Away Little Girl (oh god…). Younger sister Marie was no slouch, either; her country classic, Paper Roses, charted at number one in 1973, making the then-13-year-old the youngest singer ever to top the Country charts.
The early to mid-’70’s were heady times for the Osmonds, who were rapidly amassing a fortune—not from their spectacular record sales (Jimmy Osmond claimed the record companies ripped them off), but from live concerts and merchandising (that’s where you make serious moohla: all those kids’ grubby little nickels and dimes). When Mike Douglas asked Donny and Marie to host his nationally syndicated show for a week, it was a sign that the young singers might be ready for a cross-over move into more adult-oriented venues. Fred Silverman, then the reigning wunderkind of programming over at ABC TV (“the Man with the Golden Gut”), saw them perform on the show, and was taken with their natural chemistry together, as well as with their musical variety skills. He offered the pair a shot at a one-time variety special on ABC, one that killed in the ratings over the summer of 1975.
Silverman, now presiding over the network that would soon overtake old, staid CBS in the ratings with bubblegum shows for the kids like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, and T&A jiggle-fests like Three’s Company for the adults, sensed that the country (now high on the upcoming Bicentennial) wanted a return to the mindless, fun entertainment of the 1960s…and Donny and Marie were about as fun and mindless (by shrewd design) as you could get. From the special’s ratings, Silverman bet that he had a wholesome successor to the old Sonny and Cher Show on CBS, so he ordered up a commitment for a mid-season weekly variety show starring Donny and Marie to premiere in January, 1976.
Silverman showed his genius by teaming up Donny and Marie with TV producers Sid and Marty Krofft. The Kroffts, producers of brilliant, bizarre kids programs like Pufnstuf, Lidsville and Sigmund and the Sea Monster, were brought in by Silverman to produce the Donny & Marie show not only because of their proven ability to connect with young audiences, but because of their past experience in big-scale musical variety shows. It turned out to be an inspired combination. In that first half-season, the Donny & Marie show finished 26th in the ratings for the entire year.
What the Kroffts did was to take Donny and Marie’s natural chemistry, and apply it to the age-old comedy formula of the straight man and the dummy—with Donny as the dummy. In their monologues and skits together, Marie was cast as the wise-cracking, slightly naughty, spunky, adorable sister who constantly bedeviled Donny. He was portrayed as the toothily-handsome, awkward klutz, who was always the butt of Marie’s corny jokes.
To the surprise of everyone in the industry, they were natural comedians. Donny was a total pro at taking a joke at his own expense, and Marie, despite her young age, was cute and funny, with an ever-so-slightly devilish quality that was attractive and endearing. Of course, all of this pretense went out the window when the pair sang, because both were seasoned pros (Donny in particular) who were extremely versatile, whether singing, dancing or playing various instruments.
And that’s what the family audiences tuned in for: Donny and Marie’s proven talent. Sure, they were a little goofy. Sure, they were corny. But they were truly talented, too, and you can’t fake that—nor hide it, no matter how many sequins and feathers you pile on top (the Kroffts did not remember this when they tried to take the dancing and singing-challenged Brady Bunch in the same variety show direction…). The Kroffts were responsible for the early look of the show, complete with a crazy ice rink stage, powder blue tuxedo jumpsuits for Donny (embroidered with matching peacock feathers), and the silly skits like “Captain Purple” that took advantage of the schlocky special effects that were the hallmark of previous Krofft spectaculars.
In season two, the Kroffts upped the ante by having Marie go ultra-sophisticated, with legendary Carol Burnett costume designer Bob Mackie changing Marie from a cute ingenue into a lovely, sexy adult singer. Donny (to his consternation) stayed the same (with the exception of his hairstyle, which more and more resembled the “John Travolta look”). But it was Donny and Marie who connected directly and honestly with the mainstream audience out there in the Great Middle West; no amount of Hollywood gilt courtesy of the Kroffts could manufacture that kind of connection.
Unfortunately, the Osmonds decided in 1977 that they no longer needed Hollywood (a decision that was based on religious as well as artistic reasons). After prolonged negotiations with ABC and the Kroffts, they took over production of the show, and moved all of their operations back to Utah, where they built a spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) state-of-the-art television production facility.
The last two years of Donny & Marie would be produced there, without the benefit of the Kroffts’ involvement. The Osmonds changed the show’s format, creating more of a stage concert look to the proceedings, while their guest star roster suffered, probably because of their distance from Hollywood. The ratings, which admittedly were on the way down after the first season (Dad was right—shouldn’t have gotten married, Donny…), took a serious nose dive after season two, with the show getting the axe in 1979. Reportedly, this expensive move was also one of the catalysts for the Osmond family eventually losing a large portion of their 80 million dollar recording empire (that…and unscrupulous business partners who took advantage of the trusting Osmond family).
The Best of Donny & Marie: Volume 1 consists of four edited shows, one from each year it aired. The first two episodes show the Kroffts’ influence at full steam, particularly in the psychedelic production numbers, and the professional gloss that was a hallmark of the series. There’s an assured drive to the proceedings that indicates the Kroffts had a steady hand on the show’s direction. Donny and Marie clearly shine under this guidance, and it’s easy to see why the audience loved them; they really are adorable.
The last two episodes on the disc dramatically illustrate the wrong turn the series took by going back to Utah. The look of the shows, from the production design to the lighting, is undernourished and slightly dark, with a hesitancy in Donny and Marie’s delivery that may indicate the stress of the show’s new direction. Their interactions together are strained, with Donny looking particularly uncomfortable in the final episode. He even comes across as slightly bullying towards Marie, while he sweats profusely under the lights (a small but significant detail that a professional Hollywood production would never have allowed). The quality of the guest stars also seems to be in jeopardy: a reliance on Ruth Buzzi’s talents should have been a red flag to somebody in the production.
So….when are the rest of the shows coming out on DVD?
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.