Scaring Up A Good Yarn With Dr. Syn

Dec 14, 2008

Credit Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Forty-four years after its television premiere on The Wonderful World of Color, “Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh,” can now be seen by a wider audience through a splendid new DVD release.  Dr. Syn wasn’t so lucky in 1964.  The three-part series debuted on February 9 that year.  At that time, The Wonderful World of Color ran on NBC from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.  Overlapping that time slot was The Ed Sullivan Show, broadcast on CBS from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m.  And music fans know that on February 9, a popular British rock group made its first American television appearance.

Seventy-three million people tuned in to see The Beatles on February 9.  The Beatles subsequently appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show the following two weeks in 1964, mirroring the three-part broadcast of “Dr. Syn” on Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.  It would not be surprising to find few people that remember seeing the original broadcast of “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.”  But over the years, this series, based on the books of Russell Thorndike, has amassed a devoted following.  For years, it's been one of the most requested titles from the Disney vault.

Patrick McGoohan stars as the titular Dr. Syn, by day the vicar at a parish near Dover, and by night a Robin Hood-like smuggler who spreads the proceeds of his nocturnal exploits among the families of the parish.  McGoohan was already known in Britain for "Danger Man/The Secret Agent," but would find even greater fame and a cult following later that decade with his turn in the series "The Prisoner."  McGoohan is the perfect actor for the part, able to express the wit and wisdom of Dr. Syn, largely through reaction and facial expression, and transforming himself through body language into the Scarecrow.  George Cole delivers a fine supporting turn as Dr. Syn's sexton, Mr. Mipps, who doubles at night as Scarecrow's partner Hellspite.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh opens with action, but the first episode itself, about how the Scarecrow outwits a planned raid on one of his smuggling runs, is only a minor prelude to the second and third episodes of the series.  Those two deal with a traitor among the Scarecrow's men, and how Dr. Syn/The Scarecrow frees several prisoners destined for the British Navy's press gangs.

I was quite pleased to find all three of the episodes are characterized by strong acting and engaging storylines, and was sorry the series stopped with three episodes.  But on disc two of this DVD set, there's another way to enjoy Dr. Syn.  Following the series' initial run on television, the footage that made up the three episodes was edited into a feature film that was shown in theaters.  The film omits some of the weaker points of the television series, but I actually preferred experiencing the story one episode at a time, rather than as a complete feature (Interestingly, actor Patrick McGoohan himself admits in an interview on this DVD set that while filming, they didn't know whether they were making a movie or TV show).  Whichever way you choose to view it, "Dr Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" is good family entertainment.  And now it doesn't have to compete with The Beatles.

ALSO ON DVD, TWO MORE WALT DISNEY TREASURES

The Chronological Donald, Vol. 4

Those who have followed the Donald Duck series of Walt Disney Treasures DVD sets will now find themselves with an insane amount of ducky cartoons in their house if they purchase this set.  But Donald Duck, Vol. 4 improves upon its immediate predecessor with some real treats, including all of Donald Duck's shorts in Cinemascope, and some of the educational shorts starring Donald, such as "Donald in Mathmagic Land."  If only my third grade teacher could have explained math like Donald!  Animation historians Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin offer commentary tracks on two of the shorts.  One of them is "Working for Peanuts," Donald's only 3-D short, sadly not available in that format on home video.

The Mickey Mouse Club Presents Annette

For Baby Boomers, this set will be a real nostalgia blast, as it includes the 20-episode series that originally ran on the Mickey Mouse Club from early 1958.  The narrative follows Annette as a young orphaned girl from the heartland that moves in with her relatives in the big city.  Beverly Hills 90210 this ain't.  It's sweet in the way that we remember (or at least think we remember) most television series from the 1950s.  Extras on the two-disc "MMC Presents Annette" set include a look at Annette Funicello's career.

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