MPI Home Video's Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form, is another winner in their Comic Legends line of DVDs devoted to long-unseen TV highlights of famous performers (please see my reviews for their Tim Conway and Phyllis Diller discs). Featuring clips from Van Dyke's 1958 appearances on ABC's The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom, Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form is a valuable look at the versatile comedian right before he broke through to true TV superstardom.
I would imagine for most people, Dick Van Dyke's career falls neatly into three broad areas of recognition: of course, The Dick Van Dyke Show; movie actor in such films as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; and later TV star in Diagnosis Murder. But there's a whole lot more work in between those highlights, particularly his Broadway stage experience (he won a Tony for Bye Bye Birdie), and his early work in television prior to The Dick Van Dyke Show. Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form gives us a fascinating look at that nascent period in Van Dyke's TV career, when Van Dyke was practicing his silent movie-inspired pantomimes and humorous monologues for variety shows during the 1950s. One of the highlights of any The Dick Van Dyke Show episode was when Van Dyke would be let loose to do a particularly funny bit of slapstick or pantomime. It happened often, but that series' sitcom structure didn't allow such moments to take precedence over the storylines. Here, in Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form, we get the "pure" Van Dyke talent, if you will; his devotion to the classic silent comedy routines of pratfall and mugging are apparent, and he seems more at ease here, more joyful, than you've probably ever seen him before.
Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form has new filmed intros by Pat Boone, highlighting the various skits that Van Dyke performed. Looking fit and healthy, the good-natured Boone affectionately recalls his days working with Van Dyke on his Chevy Showroom series almost fifty years ago. Running from 1957 to 1960, The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom was a popular showcase for Boone, who was second only to Elvis in record sales for the 1950s. Clean-cut, wholesome, and refreshingly aware of his own squeaky-clean image, Boone was a pleasant, welcome addition to most people's homes in the late 1950s, and it's not surprising that he'd have a similarly genial, all-American comedian like Van Dyke work often on his own show.
When you first see Van Dyke here, you're amazed at how skinny he is. "Lanky" doesn't even begin to describe him. Looking like a cross between the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Stan Laurel, Van Dyke, in his Princeton haircut and Brooks Brothers suits, goes through his amazingly free-form pantomimes like a Chaplin for the Atomic Age. Far looser and nervier than you're used to seeing him on The Dick Van Dyke Show, these vintage kinescopes show Van Dyke absolutely fearless in his pursuit of a laugh. Often alone on a bare, darkened stage, and contorting his body grotesquely, he's utterly believable in his pantomimes, whether he's convincing you he's at an amusement park, or, in an imaginative bit, when he transforms himself into a common household cat.
What's doubly interesting is when Van Dyke combines traditional pantomime with sound effects (he has some trouble in one famous skit, Sneaking In, when the pre-recorded track gets slightly ahead of him), or with one of his monologues. I guess I always thought, after being subjected to Marcel Marceau as a kid (god help me), that pantomime had to remain silent. So it was new to me to see Van Dyke do classic mime with the aid of sound effects as well as his own funny patter. What comes through with Van Dyke, besides the laughs he easily generates, is his likeabilty. You can't help but like him when you see him on the screen. There's a Midwestern, all-American appeal to Van Dyke's comedy that's more akin to Harold Lloyd than to Van Dyke's stated idol, Stan Laurel. That likeability would go a long way towards making Van Dyke a big star in television and movies.
There's no denying that the quality of the kinescopes for Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form range from fair to poor. There are amazing things being done via computers to boost the image quality of these old 16mm films (see my Elvis Presley - The Ed Sullivan Shows review), but unfortunately, there's been no restoration on these particular prints. Still, that kind of restoration is expensive, and those kinds of efforts may only be made on material that the DVD companies feel will be big sellers. So, as a valuable record of Van Dyke's early career in television, the prints in Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form are probably as good as you're going to get.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono soundtrack is just fine for this kind of presentation. The dialogue comes across clear and strong.
There's an amazing find here in one of the bonuses on Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form. Included here is a full 30 minute episode of Dick Van Dyke's long-forgotten game show, Laugh Line. Van Dyke hosted this brief (it only lasted three months) NBC show in April, 1959. It's a fantastic premise. Audience members write in, describing a scene that the show's stock company of actors reenact -- like a "living cartoon." The punch line to the cartoon is provided by the home viewer, and the panelists' job is to come up with their own punch lines, generating certain amounts of cash for the home viewer depending on how hard the studio audience laughs at the improvised punch lines. It's a hilarious premise, with the panel getting laughs just from directing the stock company to rearrange themselves into humorous positions. And then once the punch lines come, the audience is ready for the big laughs. Including regular panelist Dorothy Loudon, the Broadway sensation from Annie, this episode features comedian Louis Nye and get this: Elaine May and Mike Nichols -- the smartest, hippest duo ever to come out of improv. They're hilarious, and obviously having a ball with this fun concept. The only one who doesn't look too comfortable is...Dick Van Dyke. Standing in as emcee, he has absolutely nothing to do on the show, and he frankly looks bored. Still, Laugh Line is an amazing find for me, and kudos to MPI for including it on this disc. As well, there are two short bonus skits of Dick Van Dyke working on an unnamed variety show (I'm pretty sure it's still the Chevy Showroom, but when Andy Williams hosted it during Pat Boone's summer hiatus).
If you're a Dick Van Dyke fan, then Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form is an absolute must for your DVD collection. The star of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is in all his skinny glory here, creating a direct line between the silent movie clowns he revered, his Broadway triumph in Bye Bye Birdie, and his coming sophisticated sitcom classic. The inclusion of an episode from his terrific game show Laugh Line as a bonus, only makes a good disc even better. If you're a fan of vintage TV comedy, MPI's Comic Legends line DVDs are always a safe bet, and Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form doesn't disappoint. I highly recommend Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.