The line-up of talent goes like this:
One of the nice surprises about this set is that these shows counter many of the lasting impressions one may have carried about this or that Hollywood great. Hitchcock, for instance, comes off much better than one would have expected after reading The Dark Side of Genius and other portraits that assert Hitchcock was a doddering, near-senile old man by the early-1970s. He's outwardly almost totally inexpressive, his speech deliberately-paced just like it was on his famous TV show, and he has a way of explaining things that's a bit patronizing, like a grandfather telling a story to his restless grandchild, but his mind is clearly humming and wheels turning full-on. Frank Capra, who one imagines to have been a rather conceited veteran of his art-turned-cantankerous, bitter old man after more than a decade of disappointments and forced retirement, comes off instead as enormously gregarious and generous in the company of young upstarts like Robert Altman and Peter Bogdanovich, whose own public perception have likewise been colored via controversial books like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. (For his part, a chain-smoking Bogdanovich launches into a surprising attack on film critic John Simon, naming him as the basis for Kenneth Mars' boorish character in What's Up, Doc?)
Cavett has a reputation for interviews that are more like conversations. That's overstated but very much applies to his visit with Katharine Hepburn, who despite famous interviews with Barbara Walters and her own autobiographical documentaries comes off better here than just about anywhere. What was intended as a preliminary meeting between host and potential guest - she wanted to check out the studio - was, on the fly, videotaped at Hepburn's sudden, unexpected insistence. In raw footage we see her gripe about the table in front of her, the color of the carpeting, and at one point Cavett himself for interrupting her. She's bossy but clearly knows what works for her and what does not, and Cavett is savvy enough to quickly adjust to a style of talk that makes her feel most at ease.
Indeed, virtually all of the guests, from Groucho to Mitchum to Huston, are alike in that each has their own agenda and either commandeers the conversations very quickly on or tunes out when Cavett tries to lead them in directions they clearly don't want to go.
This was never truer than with Marlon Brando who, after six hours worth of long-distance calls to Cavett, agreed to fly in from Tahiti and come on if he could discuss Indian affairs with several Native American guests, presumably of his own choosing. One imagines Brando negotiated just how much time he'd agree to talk about himself, alone with Cavett, and how much of the show would be turned over to the plight of the modern day American Indian. The show begins with Cavett asking about Sacheen Littlefeather's notorious appearance at the Academy Awards when she refused Brando's Oscar on his behalf, citing the discrimination of Indians in Hollywood movies as a primary reason.
At this point Brando is very articulate and interesting, but whenever Cavett brings up specific films (notably The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris) or acting in general Brando clams up, refusing to go in that direction at all, mumbling monosyllabic answers, despite his host's persistence. (Indeed, the obviously uncomfortable Cavett, in a rare moment of bad judgment, pushes Brando too hard and at inopportune moments.) Once the conversation switches back to Indians, however, the actor carries on almost incessantly. Though in some respects a disastrous show, Brando is undeniably fascinating throughout, and you really can't take your eyes off of him.
Cavett likewise is intimidated by both Mitchum and especially Huston, who nonetheless make for some of the set's most interesting interviews. Mitchum, wearing the coolest sunglasses ever, exposes himself in unexpected ways, prompting a letter to the show from his sister, thanking Cavett for showing her brother for the person he really is. The Huston interview could have gone on for days and days, and is full of amusing anecdotes and observations about things like MGM's cutting of Huston's film of The Red Badge of Courage, the director's life in Ireland, etc. Conversely, Cavett gets on great with fellow Nebraskan Fred Astaire, who's as charming in this delightful interview as he is on film, if a lot less confident and more self-effacing. Interestingly, he gets probably the biggest ovation from Cavett's audience.
The Groucho Marx episode is notable for the comedian's racy innuendo with Debbie Reynolds, a woman not so easily taken aback. The seeds of Groucho's decline are apparent, however. The appearance of final guest Dan Rowan (of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In) prompts Groucho to chastise Rowan for misinterpreting an intended compliment he made sometime before - only it's clear that the elder statesman of comedy, in the early stages of senility, had already had this very same conversation with Rowan sometime before but had forgotten all about it. Rowan's appearance is preceded by an extremely uncomfortable chat with Groucho's infamous companion/manager, Erin Fleming, who obviously had used her employer's influence to win her a featured spot in the program. What's really interesting is that even at this early stage Fleming's eccentricities are readily apparent. A fascinating show.
Video & Audio
These full frame presentations culled from early-'70s videotape generally look good for the age and given the limitations of that era's 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, which Cavett sometimes introduces (Bird's Eye Frozen Orange Plus, Revlon's Fabu-Lash, etc.). The constant use of the show's theme on menu screens, etc., wears on the viewer, however. The 65-minute shows are complete and not-time-compressed, and surprisingly include often awful-looking film clips (including excerpts from The African Queen - in black and white!). There are no subtitle options, alas.
Seeing Stars with Dick Cavett and Robert Osborne is a nice overview of the set, mixing clips and Osborne's new interview with the talk show host. Much of Cavett's anecdotes are repeated in his introductions to each episode. Also included are the episodes' original 30-Second Promos and, best of all, Katharine Hepburn Uncut, a complete, unadulterated version of that show before it was trimmed and tinkered with for airing over two nights.
A nice 15-page booklet offers additional information on each episode.
For film buffs, The Dick Cavett Show - Hollywood Greats is a veritable treasure trove of one-of-a-kind material. If you love movies you're going to want to see most of these interviews, and probably will be delighted with the few you'd thought you wouldn't be interested in. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
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.