The line-up of talent goes like this:
Disc 1: September 5, 1969 Groucho Marx; September 19, 1969 Woody Allen and Ruth Gordon (with a cameo by Gina Lollobridgida); October 4, 1972 Bob Hope.
Disc 2: October 20, 1971 Woody Allen; April 6, 1970 Mel Brooks (with Rex Reed, Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Dr. Aaron Stern); November 10, 1971 Bill Cosby.
Disc 3: January 27, 1973 Jerry Lewis; May 25, 1971 Groucho Marx (with Jim Fowler and Truman Capote); February 21, 1974 Carol Burnett.
Disc 4: February 21, 1973 Jack Benny & Bill Cosby (with Joe Frazier); December 15, 1971 George Burns & The Smothers Brothers (with Adelle Davis); March 7, 1974 Lucille Ball.
The shows are mostly wonderful; particularly those with the luxury to concentrate on a single performer. (The program ran 90 minutes with commercials, and about 65 without.) The Lucille Ball and Jerry Lewis shows, for instance, are fascinating on several levels. Both performers/creative overseers are interviewed at the end of incredible 20-year runs as hugely popular stars, Ball for I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here's Lucy, and whose career would soon be damaged by the reception greeting Mame (1974), which had just premiered when the interview was taped.
Lewis, meanwhile, was at a career nadir, coming off his last film for a decade, the unreleasable The Day the Clown Cried, and nearing the height of his Percodan, Norodan, and Valium addiction, though he was finding some success teaching filmmaking classes at USC, which he discusses at some length. Both are somewhat defensive and skittish, even around an interviewer as on their side as Cavett obviously is.
A former writer for Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Jerry Lewis (on the latter's infamously disastrous prime-time talk/variety show, one of the biggest flops in the medium's history) and a stand-up comic himself, Cavett digs deeper than most interviewers about each comedian's process of creating laughter, and that same experience pays off when his subjects go for laughs, with Cavett doing a great job setting up jokes, playing straight man and the like.
The primitive nature of the show is pretty incredible at times. More than once police/ambulance sirens outside the theater disrupt interviews; during the Lucille Ball show an overhead stage light is heard exploding, while guest Bob Hope is startled by what Cavett describes as "blasting" nearby. By today's standards, the occasional awkward pauses and wandering conversations would drive current network executives to distraction and probably never make it on the air, but it also infuses the show with the kind of tension rare on late-night talk shows today.
Jerry Lewis, an unjustly maligned filmmaker who tends to be his own worst enemy in interviews, comes off here alternately tetchy and leery yet enthusiastic and open with an interviewer quick to defend Lewis's accomplishments. The Lucille Ball show is fascinating: she awkwardly positions herself in her chair so that she almost has her back to Cavett, as if to deflect his probing questions. Already a living legend, she's obviously uncomfortable being interviewed; she comes off as a 65-year-old housewife baffled why anyone would want to talk to her. She too opens up eventually, and her comments about long-dead friends (Carole Lombard, among others) and her easily-hurt nature show a much more fragile side to the tough broad that she's usually regarded as. (Cavett reminds her of one of the all-time great Hollywood anecdotes, the true story of how during World War II Lucille Ball thwarted a Japanese spy ring with her teeth.)
Another great show has Bob Hope, already 70 even then (though he looks to be in his early-50s), in a time-flies interview that gets more personal and less jokey than perhaps anything Hope ever did on the talk show circuit. He discusses a harrowing, near-death experience flying to Anchorage in which he and Jerry Colonna were told to put on their life jackets and parachutes, earliest memories of childhood in Bristol, England, fending off bullies stoning his dog, and the accident which shaped his famous nose. Once again and quite inadvertently, Cavett captures Hope at the perfect time to reflect back on his career, having just completed his final starring film (Cancel My Reservation, of which astoundingly unfunny clips are shown) but still full of that boundless energy that would keep him busy for another 20 years or so.
The best shows, however, are those featuring Groucho Marx, then in the midst of a major Renaissance because of the newfound popularity of antiestablishment Marx Bros. movies on college campuses and the syndication of his old quiz show. These episodes are a real surprise. This reviewer has seen Marx on The Bill Cosby Show and elsewhere, where the effects of multiple strokes and creeping Alzheimer's had taken a heavy toll. But here, in the September 1969 show especially, the Groucho of You Bet Your Life is nearly in full bloom. He's older but not the feeble man pushed on stage in subsequent years by his notorious companion, Erin Fleming. Cavett himself, in the show's introduction, is justly proud to note that he was able in this show to capture Groucho at the top of his game one last time, and for this show alone the set is worth purchasing.
The Woody Allen shows are less interesting because the writer-director-actor chooses to be "on" during these segments, as the nebbish-pervert-Bob Hope character of Allen's early films, though it's interesting to hear him play the clarinet. But Ruth Gordon's appearance is interesting; as the co-writer (with husband Garson Kanin) of Adam's Rib and other films, and for her work in films like Where's Poppa? and Harold and Maude, she's really in the same class with these other greats.
Video & Audio
These full frame presentations culled from ancient videotapes generally look very good for the age and the limits of the technology. As with the other Cavett boxed sets, the menus and organization of material is unusually well done (air dates and miscellaneous guests are noted, etc.), and chapter stops wisely come at the commercial breaks. Here's Dick Cavett a 24-minute special (featuring Groucho, Woody Allen, and the late Pat McCormick) and included as an extra, survives only in black and white though it's still perfectly watchable. There are no subtitle options, alas.
Besides Here's Dick Cavett, 30-second promos for most of the episodes are included, as well as an Alternate Opening for the September 1969 Groucho segment, and an extended Outtake Segment from the Woody Allen show. An August 1968 interview with Johnny Carson's then wife Joanne - at a time when The Tonight Show concurrently aired on another network - seems out of place, but a November 1966 stand-up appearance by Cavett on The Ed Sullivan Show helps bridge the gap between Cavett's references to writing for Carson and Paar to hosting his own show.
The best extras though are the informative Cavett Remembers the Comic Legends, an interview by Emmy-Award winning director Bob Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and a follow-up piece featuring Cavett, Weide, and writer Tom Whedon, who moved freely between children's shows and writing jokes for Cavett in the late-1960s and early-'70s. The latter conversation especially is like sitting in on lunch at a deli somewhere listening to show business veterans reminiscing.
Anyone with an interest in film and television comedy will want to pick up this set. It's great entertainment and, in some cases, offers rare glimpses at legends of screen comedy talking about their craft.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.