Chris Hicks: Utah native Loretta Young’s 100th birthday brings DVD set of her TV series

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 12:30 p.m. MST

When movie stars’ careers begin to wane, they often find themselves forced to take whatever comes along, work-for-hire jobs they never would have considered in their prime. Sometimes they need the money; sometimes they just want to keep working.

And given the number of bad movies that pour into theaters and DVD releases week after week, often with name actors you haven’t seen in a while, it’s fair to say that not many hold out for something of integrity.

But Utah native Loretta Young did just that. A huge star of the Golden Age with an Oscar under her belt, Young saw that as the 1950s approached movie studios were changing in a way that saddened her. So she decided to walk away. Scripts continued to come but she felt the films being offered were beneath her.

Young was a devout Catholic and especially at this point in her life she wanted to do things that were worthwhile and uplifting, putting into action something she once told an interviewer:

“Fortunately, reality — contrary to some beliefs — is not restricted to shocking or sordid themes, nor gritty gutter language, nor gratuitous violence, etc. Reality is also healthy, wholesome love and romance. It's courage, adventure, inspiration and heroism.”

At age 39, Young made her last movie in 1952 (for release the next year) and saw television as her future. It was a gamble, given that the film industry saw TV as the enemy and several studio heads told her that such a move would ruin her career. But, undaunted, she mounted her own show and did it her way, in keeping with her beliefs.

And this week, 145 episodes of her anthology series have been released in a DVD box set to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday last month: “The Loretta Young Show” (Timeless, 1953-61, b/w, 17 discs, $99.99, featurettes including a vintage interview with Young; home movies; trailers for her films).

Young designed her show to provide uplifting, positive messages for her postwar middle-class audience. She also often included religious themes (she plays a nun named Sister Ann in three episodes).

And for her efforts, Young racked up no less than eight Emmy nominations, one for each year this weekly half-hour program was on the air — and she won three times. She was the first performer to have on her mantel both an Emmy and an Oscar.

Anthology series were quite popular in the 1950s and there were several that preceded hers, all hosted by men: “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” “General Electric Theater,” “Lux Video Theater,” “The United States Steel Hour” and more. Young became the first woman to host such a program, paving the way for others that followed, such as “The Barbara Stanwyck Show” a few years later.

Another distinguishing aspect of Young’s show was that Young herself starred in every show for the first two seasons — a total of 71 episodes in two years playing a different character each week in a variety of melodramas and light comedies.

Beginning with the third season she cut back to performing in about half of each year’s 30-plus episodes. Young still introduced each week’s stories over the eight-year run, however, except for a period during the third season when she was bedridden and had to rely on guest hosts.

The third season also marked a departure in format. The show’s original title was “Letter to Loretta,” and during the first two years she introduced each episode by reading a fan letter, a device that was dropped beginning with Season 3.

She still did her trademark entrance, however, dressed in a gown that twirled as she came through a door and approached the camera to canned applause. And at the end of each show she read a poem or a quote from Shakespeare or Mark Twain or the Bible to sum up that evening’s message.

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