Still the best film adapted from a Neil Simon play, The Sunshine Boys (1975) is a true delight -- funny and perceptive, it's a marvel of construction and witty dialogue, and features three knockout performances. Warner Bros.'s DVD has some minor flaws, but compensates for this with several surprising extras that make this a must-see for anyone who loves classic comedy.
Walter Matthau stars as Willy Clark, an aging ex-Vaudevillian once half of the famous comedy team of Willy & Clark, "kings of comedy" for 43 years until partner Al Lewis (George Burns) abruptly retired 12 years earlier during an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Clark, cantankerous and stubborn, refuses to give up show business much to the chagrin of his beleaguered nephew-agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin).
Ben lands Clark a guest spot on a TV special celebrating the history of comedy -- but only if he'll reunite with Lewis to perform their famous "Doctor Sketch." Outwardly, Clark is utterly opposed to the idea and Lewis, now living quietly with his daughter and grandchildren in New Jersey, isn't too crazy about working with Clark, either. Both finally agree to work together, though it's not long before the two comedy veterans (supposedly modeled after Smith & Dale) lock horns once more.
The Sunshine Boys is nearly perfect, working on many levels. As a comedy, it's a real gem, with Simon carefully setting up gags to maximize their payoff. The picture opens with Clark on his way to an audition for a potato chip commercial. Simon's screenplay smartly shows the audience two smoothly professional auditions (by Fritz Feld and Jack Bernardi), and contrasts them with Clark's disastrous performance, making it all the funnier. Clark complains bitterly about Lewis's onstage spitting and poking, so that once the two start rehearsing, audiences know it's just a matter of time before all Hell breaks loose -- "the finger! He's starting with the finger again!" The "Doctor Sketch" is funny and authentically vaudevillian, and for a script that has Clark discussing the art of funny words ("Pickle. Pickle is funny"), the dialogue itself is ripe with them: for instance, a running gag involving a recently deceased "Saul Burton," a name impossible to say without sounding Jewish yourself.
The play / film is almost daring in its willingness to laugh at old men in failing health. One of the funniest scenes has Ben visiting Lewis in New Jersey. Ben reminds Lewis that they had met years before but during the conversation it becomes clear Lewis is getting senile. He repeats Ben's words back at him, and says the same things over and over. It's a terrific scene, hilarious in its surreal awkwardness, yet grounded in reality.
Indeed, the film subtly captures the essence of aging better than most serious dramas. Like a lot of old people's homes, Clark's Manhattan apartment overflows with clutter: spoiled food, rumpled laundry, old newspapers, photographs and months-old greeting cards. A running gag has Clark struggling with a lock on his door, refusing to admit he can't figure out how to work it -- he keeps insisting it's broke. Clark's showbiz blood obviously is his way of avoiding the reality that he can no longer care for himself, and a scene late in the film when Clark briefly lets his guard down with Ben is quite moving.
Matthau was only 54 at the time but is reasonably convincing as 79-year-old Burns's partner. This was the third of six film collaborations between Matthau and Simon, and before that Matthau originated the role of Oscar in The Odd Couple on Broadway. Jack Albertson played Clark onstage (Sam Levene was Lewis), but Matthau has just the right balance of broadness ("En-tahhhh!") and subtlety. He really captures the character in little gestures. Backstage at the TV special, Matthau's underplayed "hellos" to fellow performers sweetly express his quiet joy of working again. And despite Clark's intense dislike of Lewis as a person, he has nothing but praise for Lewis as a comedian; Matthau also makes these scenes believable.
George Burns famously pinch-hit for longtime friend Jack Benny, who fell ill soon after being cast as Lewis and had to be replaced. Burns won an Oscar for his efforts and deservedly so. He's quite funny and the authenticity of his playing makes one wonder if the character wasn't based on a few of his friends. (In a case of life imitating art, an increasingly senile Groucho Marx would walk off a guest spot on Donny & Marie the following year.) In his first scene Burns appears without his toupee, making him seem even older than he actually was.
Often lost in the praise for Matthau and Burns but easily at their level is Richard Benjamin. The two leads have the advantage of funny lines; even with inferior actors, the show still works thanks to Simon's dialogue. Benjamin, though, is the straight man, a part that easily could come off as one-note and/or irritating (see Sarah Jessica Parker in the ill-advised 1995 TV remake), but he succeeds in getting laughs on his own and brings out the best of Matthau and Burns. It's really one of the finest performances of its kind.
Video & Audio
Warner Bros.'s DVD of The Sunshine Boys is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and 16:9 enhanced for widescreen TVs. The image is nicely transferred, though the film elements used are not in the best of shape. Made at the nadir of MGM's long history, the film was processed by Metrocolor, a lab whose chaotic shuttering some years later may account for the less than pristine look of the film. The image is perfectly watchable, though it has more than its share of scratches as well as what seems to be serious water damage at the 1:24 mark. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is fine if unexceptional. A French audio track (also mono) is included, as well as subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
It's hard to get very excited about a lot of the supplementary material that's finding its way to DVD these days, but the extras on The Sunshine Boys really are something. The first is a Jack Benny and Walter Matthau Makeup Test, featuring what is possibly the very last film ever taken of Benny. The tests are dated September 18, 1974, less than ten weeks before he died. The 10 minutes of color footage (shot in standard format and in excellent condition) consist mostly of the two men standing around. Benny looks tired but in good spirits. Happily, these final images of the much-loved comedian show him laughing at Matthau's clowning. A pity this was shot without live sound.
Conversely, a Phil Silvers Screen Test has sound, but almost perversely gives the comedian no lines to read. Apparently dating from late-July 1974, the footage suspiciously suggests Silvers may have been brought in to test for the role of Clark as a courtesy rather than as a serious contender. Simon had written for Silvers's Sergeant Bilko / You'll Never Get Rich, which may account for the test, three-minutes of 4:3 footage of Silvers silently walking around an apartment set tidying up (!). It's a shame there's no footage of Silvers actually reading; conceivably, he might have been superb, but he was never bankable as a leading film actor, and had a recent history of health problems.
Also included is an interesting trailer in 16:9 anamorphic format, which markets the film more along the lines of MGM's That's Entertainment! rather than a comedy based on a hit show.
Richard Benjamin contributes an Audio Commentary Track, one of warmth and insight, though like most of Warner's commentaries (at least for its catalog titles) undermined by long passages of silence. What Benjamin has to say is consistently interesting, but the track desperately needs an interviewer to prompt Benjamin with smart questions and keep the conversation flowing.
Finally, a 17-minute, 4:3 featurette called The Lion Roars Again is included. Frequently shown on TCM, the short documents the 1975 International Press Conclave, a pricey junket with the press wooed with expensive lunches with stars as diverse as Fred Astaire and Bobby Van. The Sunshine Boys is highlighted in a lengthy segment filmed at the Hillcrest Country Club. Also featured are other MGM titles 1975-76: Logan's Run (where David Hasselhoff models Michael York's costume), Hearts of the West, Sweet Revenge (then called The All-American Girl), That's Entertainment, Part 2, and The Wind and the Lion.
The misguided 1995 remake with Peter Falk and Woody Allen only served to remind audiences how terrific the film version is. While some of Simon's plays have dated, The Sunshine Boys is as funny and poignant as ever, and this new DVD comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.