Its title obviously inspired by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's superlative Unknown Chaplin (1983), The Unknown Lives of Great Comedians (4-Pack) is an uneven but mostly rewarding portrait of four disparate acts (eight people in all, if you count Gummo and Zeppo Marx), and worth seeing mainly for their use of long-unseen archival footage. All four shows are the product of writer-directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, and driven as much by their clip licensing budget as anything else. This is readily apparent in the Jimmy Durante documentary, which easily the weakest of the batch, though all four are worth a look.
The best overall is The Unknown Peter Sellers, a solid documentary filled with terrific, rare clips and which works hard to expose the famously enigmatic actor-comedian. Of the four shows this one works best as a biography, has the best interviews, and the best and most varied clips. Both this and The Unknown Marx Brothers overtly emulate the Brownlow/Gill format, and in the case of their Peter Sellers show Leaf and Scheinfeld are largely successful.
Among the rare clips: scenes from Let's Go Crazy (1951), a 32-minute short with Sellers playing six characters including, strangely enough, Groucho Marx; In Focus (1951), another peculiar short more akin to the style of Wheeler & Woolsey than Sellers; A Show Called Fred, a surreal, anarchic TV series made in collaboration with future film director Richard Lester and fellow Goon Show alum Spike Mulligan; Carol for Another Christmas (1964), a weird, post-apocalyptic morality tale written by Rod Serling and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; and A Day at the Beach (1970), an unpromising, unreleasable feature written by Roman Polanski.
Where the other shows in this collection suffer from budgets that preclude extensive clip licensing, The Unknown Peter Sellers, while it does use (public domain) trailers here and there, never feels cheap or lacking. Indeed, about the only real shortcoming is its length. At 60 minutes it might have been even better had it been extended another 30 minutes.
Among those interviewed: Harry Secombe, David Lodge, Richard Lester, Alexander Walker, Joseph McGrath, Michael Palin, and Shirley MacLaine.
The Unknown Marx Brothers (not "Bros.") has the disadvantage to have been made in the wake of The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell (1982), a superior overview/biography. Unknown is a good companion show however, a nice supplement to Warner Bros.' and Universal's boxed sets of Marx Bros. movies (made at MGM and Paramount, respectively). Though not as impressive as the Sellers documentary, The Unknown Marx Brothers has its share of heretofore rare clips, including: Harpo Marx's appearance in the silent Too Many Kisses (1925); the team's varied solo appearances in '50s television shows (including Groucho spoofing You Bet Your Life with Jack Benny as a greedy contestant, Harpo clowning with Spike Jones and Milton Berle); Chico on a British variety series; and an aged but still funny Groucho interviewed on The New Bill Cosby Show in the early '70s. A lower budget is in evidence here, as there's not a lot clip-wise on their years at Paramount and MGM, but works when it focuses on their less familiar television careers (including a fascinating but wisely aborted TV series, featuring a sick-looking Chico).
Unknown Jonathan Winters is actually Jonathan Winters On the Loose, a 2000 documentary gets off to a bad start with an introduction that gives equal time to interviewee Robin Williams, the comic annoyingly "on." His shtick succeeds only in drawing attention away from Winters.
Mostly though, Jonathan Winters On the Loose is a good overview of the comedian's long career, and does a fair job dissecting his art and creative process -- in his case mostly an evolution from imitations and sound effects to a purer form of improvisation. It also delves briefly if honestly into Winters' battles with alcoholism and mental illness (he committed himself at one point, needing eight months to recover). Winters, who had an active hand in the documentary, is interviewed extensively along with his wife, Eileen, and several adult children.
Archival footage is sourced from variety shows and specials (notably The Andy Williams Show and The Jack Paar Program, where Winters was a frequent guest), as well as long-running commercials where Winters extolls the virtues of Hefty trash bags and California eggs. Some of the footage appears quite rare, especially an August 1953 appearance Winters made on TV's Chance of a Lifetime, in which he does an extended film noir monologue/parody.
The show's best moments are those where Winters is on a roll, and feeding off the delighted audience's reaction. On The Jack Paar Program, Winters does a brilliant series of gags using only a long wooden stick. At one point he settles into an extended imitation of Bing Crosby that's so uncanny Paar's jaw drops open in astonishment as if he can't quite believe what he's seeing -- a terrific moment. Nearly as good is Winters' appearance on The Rosey Grier Show, in which Winters improvises several minutes of dead-on '60s black jive that has Grier doubled-over with laughter.
Also good is Leaf and Scheinfeld's decision to follow Winters around his neighborhood: into a hardware store, at a local bank. At the latter Winters, apparently a regular customer, pulls off a long series of great ad-libs, while the bank employees have an obvious, sweet affection for their frequent visitor.
Unknown Jimmy Durante, actually 2001's Jimmy Durante: The Great Schnozzola is the least interesting of the quartet. Part of the problem is the sameness of the clips, almost all of which are derived from The Jimmy Durante Show, the comedian's 1954-57 variety series. (Other clips are apparently lifted from guest appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour and Four Star Revue.) Another problem is the relative lack of interview subjects to put Durante's appeal into context. Beyond his widow and daughter, only Leonard Maltin is there to try and explain Durante's appeal as the "ultimate everyman."
The clips highlight the warm sentiment of his unique singing and go-for-broke performing style (Durante's persona being the antithesis of subtle), and great talent for ad-libbing. The clips are mostly good Kinescopes, with Durante often paired with top-drawer talent like Frank Sinatra, John Wayne (who also turns up on the Winters show), Bette Davis, and Carmen Miranda. Although the documentary makes no mention of it, the clip of Miranda appears to be the performance that killed her. The famous Brazilian singer suffered a heart attack during her big number and didn't realize it. She later went to a party and died the next morning.
Also unacknowledged is the appearance of Mary Tyler Moore, in her pre-Dick Van Dyke Show chorus girl days, clearly seated with Durante as he sings "It's Da Nose's Birthday."
Video & Audio
The video on all four shows is standard 4:3 stuff, with the archival clips varying in quality, though generally good for clip shows. The shows have original stereo scores but the clips, of course, all are mono. There are no subtitles.
The majority of the extra features on all four discs are simply complete versions of interviews, commercials, and other TV appearances excerpted for the larger documentaries. The Unknown Peter Sellers includes a "never-before-seen" 1971 television interview, complete Barclays and TWA TV spots and a TWA behind-the-scenes featurette. The Unknown Marx Brothers includes a lot of bloopers from You Bet Your Life, some of which also turn up on Shout! Factory's The Best of Groucho. Also included is an okay trivia game and, like the Shout! DVDs, a "Zoomlinks" option to select the complete versions of clips within the context of the documentary. Both the Winters and Durante shows offer longer versions of their TV appearances; the Winters documentary has a fun sampling of interview outtakes worth watching.
These four shows are serviceable, but only the Sellers documentary is exceptional, while the Marx Bros. one is worth it for the rare clips alone. Nevertheless, fans of these comedians will want to snap these up.
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. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.