The Spike Jones Show ran on television from 1954 through 1961 on CBS and gave popular band leader Lindley 'Spike' Jones a chance to entertain America with a combination of freewheeling jazz music, witty dialogue and slapstick comedy. A strange looking lanky man, Jones got his start playing in theatrical orchestras and playing in back up bands, performing on radio shows and records throughout the years until starting his own band in the form of Spike Jones And The City Slickers - made up of Freddie Morgan Doodles Weaver, George Rock, Sir Fredrick Gas and Billy Barty. The band toured and recorded and did radio shows before getting in front of the cameras allowing audiences around the country to appreciate the physical side of their considerable comedic talents.
So what made these guys different? Well, aside from being a group of talented and accomplished musicians, they'd parody popular music of the day and throw in... odd noises. For example in the middle of a song you might get taken aback by the band leader, decked out in a garish plaid suit, whipping out a cowbell and wailing on it or by loud crashing sounds. The band play with a manic energy, often times really tearing through certain numbers and performing with far more enthusiasm than other television performers of the era. And in the middle of it all is Spike. Skewering and parodying popular songs of the day, he was a witty, clever guy with a great sense of humor and a very natural charisma. You can't help but like the guy, as odd looking as he often was, and he's a great front man.
The three discs in this collection include the following bits:
DISC ONE - VOLUME ONE: Farandole / William Tell Overture Featuring Doodles Weaver / I'm In The Mood For Love Featuring Billy Barty / Minka / The Poet And Peasant Overture / It's Tough To Be A Girl Musician Especially If You Happen To Be A Man / Spike Jones Hits Medley / Our Thanks To You / Credits
DISC ONE - VOLUME TWO: Persian Market Medley / Cry / Sock Myself On The Chin / Melody In F / Hotcha Cornya / Goin' Down South / San / Stranger In Paradise / Life's Not So Bad In Prison Featuring Eddie Arnold And Joe Besser / Holiday For The Strings / That's Amore / Indian Love Call Featuring Mimi Benzell / Our Thanks To You / Credits
DISC TWO - VOLUME THREE: Pass The Biscuits Mirandy / Cold, Cold Heart / I'm Getting Sentimental Over You / Cocktails For Two Featuring Hugh Herbert And Lauritz Melchoir / That Old Black Magic / Baby Mustang / Has Anybody Seen My Gal / Pop Goes The Weasel / The Typewriter Song / Ricochet Romance / Bye Bye Blues / Love In Bloom Featuring Zazu Pitts / Changing Partners / Bye Bye Blackbird Featuring Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob And Clarabell / Older Than Dust Medley / Our Thanks To You / Credits
DISC TWO -A MUSICAL WRECK-WE-UM: Sabre Dance / Yes Sir, That's My Baby / Flight Of The Bumblebee / Yankee Doodle Dandy / I Don't Know Why / Linger A While / I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter / The Foreign Legion / All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth / Black And Blue Danube Waltz / McNamara's Band / 12th Street Rag / Secret Love Featuring Perez Prado And His Orchestra / Our Thanks To You / Credits
DISC THREE: Two unaired pilots - Foreign Legion and Wild Bill Hiccup, shot as a more traditional variety/comedy show heavy on sketches.
The odd mix of characters that make up The City Slickers compliment Spike's bizarre look quite well. You wind up with what is essentially a weird looking bunch of guys playing really hook-heavy jazz with plenty of obvious skill and talent, only to wind up being suckerpunched by some surprise moves from either Jones or one of the band members. Many of the songs that he and his group perform are going to sound very familiar even if you're not a big band aficionado or jazz enthusiast, but the changes that Spike and company make to the arrangements help them to carve out their own unique sound. The fact that this material (excepting the content on the third disc) was all recorded live makes it even more remarkable in that these guys just do not miss a beat and have impeccable comedic timing.
Aside from Spike and his band, the set also features some fun cameo appearances from Eddy Arnold, Zasu Pitts and Howdy Doody as well as regular appearances from vocalist Helen Grayco (who was Spike's second wife).
Everything on this set is presented in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. No information is given as to the source material used for the transfers but aside from the fact that the material is interlaced, it doesn't look so bad, though periodic ghosting is hard not to spot. It doesn't appear that any serious restoration work was done, as there are scratches and visible print damage visible throughout the various episodes contained in the set, but it's all perfectly watchable. Contrast wavers sometimes and there are a few spots where what should be dark black looks more like middle tone grey but for a bunch of older television shows, the material looks okay. Not great, mind you, but okay.
The contents are presented in English, Dolby Digital Mono, with no alternate language tracks or subtitles provided. Sound quality is about on par with the video quality in that it probably could have been cleaned up a bit more, but it's audible enough. You'll be able to follow the dialogue and lyrics of the various songs without any problems. There isn't a whole lot of range, but that's to be expected. The music sounds good, well balanced and nice and clear, and generally the audio quality is just fine.
Extras are slim, though the set does contain, on the third disc, two bonus half hour pilot episodes that are both done in the same vein as the feature content. These were originally shot in 1950. There are a few good sketches here, musical and non-musical, but there's better material scattered throughout the first two discs. It would have been nice to see Infinity/Hepcat provide some sort of background information on the people involved in the series. A featurette or short documentary could have been a really big boon to this release and given it some context, but that didn't happen. Each disc also contains menus and chapter selection options.
While some bits work better than others, the bulk of the material on The Best Of Spike Jones, as corny as it may be, is still pretty funny. Time has been kind to the man and his legacy and it's easy to see his influence on plenty of more modern acts while strolling through this collection. The presentation could have been better and more extras would have been a really nice touch, but the content itself is quite good and the set comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.