Despite bizarre behind-the-scenes headaches that have the makings of a great Tim Burton or maybe John Waters comedy, the show itself is unaffected, as funny as ever, even better insofar as its ensemble cast of coarse New Yorkers is richer and loopier than before.
Shanachie Entertainment's all-region first season release was an obvious labor of love, and featured a funny and informative interview (by comedian Robert Klein) with two of the show's last surviving stars, Hank Garrett and Charlotte Rae. This set has an equally beguiling, one-of-a-kind extra feature, plus good video transfers (that include original sponsor plugs in their opening and closing titles) while it thankfully dispenses with one of Shanachie's few missteps. Unlike Season One, Car 54's second season is presented in original broadcast order.
(This review incorporates information first reported in my review of Car 54, Where Are You? - The Complete First Season.)
For those who came in late: Car 54, Where Are You? was creator-writer Nat Hiken's hilarious follow-up to his phenomenally successful The Phil Silvers Show/Sgt. Bilko (1955-59), but unlike that popular and award-winning series, Car 54 didn't get a lot of attention or respect when it was new. In recent years though, this wonderfully funny, ahead-of-its-time sitcom, about a pair of misfit police officers working in the Bronx, has slowly but surely attracted a well-deserved cult following. (Its brief revival on Nick at Nite during 1987-90 certainly helped.) Filmed on location in New York, and at Biograph Studios on E. 175th Street, also in the Bronx, with mostly New York-based talent in front of the camera, Car 54 is notable for several reasons.
For one thing, on a primetime schedule dominated by WASPish, white bread settings and characters, Car 54 was richly diverse, populated with Jewish, Irish, Italian, and African-American characters. The cops look like real cops, and their beats were neighborhoods that looked like real neighborhoods, not idealized backlot sets.
For another, the scripts were often wildly absurd, complex farces; the kind of thing perfected by a later, more popular series also set (but not filmed) in New York, Seinfeld. Seinfeld's roots can be traced back to this series and the equally absurd though more Burlesque-rooted The Abbott & Costello Show (1952-54), but the line from Sgt. Bilko to Car 54 to Barney Miller to Seinfeld (by way of The Munsters) is clear.
The series starred Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross. Gwynne memorably appeared in an early Sgt. Bilko as a depressed soldier shamelessly exploited by Phil Silvers's conniving motor pool sergeant, while Ross was a semi-regular on the series as mess sergeant Rupert Ritzik.
The latter casting was ironic, as Ross was infamous as a world-class slob who wore at least as much food as he ate. (As Maxwell Smart might have told Ross, "Be careful, you're getting some in your mouth.") Ross was a profane, immensely unfunny comedian outside Nat Hiken's realm (more on this below), but as dim-witted Officer Gunther Toody, Ross was pure gold. Partly this was because the viewer quickly picked up on the fact that Ross himself wasn't a whole lot brighter than the character he was playing, much like Maurice Gosfield's Private Doberman on Bilko, unvarnished comedy in all its disheveled, tuna-stained glory.
Ross's catch phrases "Ooh! Ooh!" and "Do you mind? Do - You - Mind?" became the talk of the playground and eventually part of the pop culture lexicon. Excitable but stupid, with his coarse, ruddy features (including big ears that wobbled when he spoke) and stocky physique, he perfectly contrasted lanky, horse-faced Gwynne, who played Officer Francis Muldoon, Gunther's straight-man. Mutt and Jeff as cops.
But Car 54 was really an ensemble show. Paul Reed, who died in 2007 at the ripe old age of 97, was a good Paul Ford-type as their boss, Captain Block, while Hank Garrett, Bruce Kirby, Al Lewis, Nipsey Russell, Ossie Davis, and Frederick O'Neal turn up regularly as other officers at the 53rd Precinct. Also in the cast was Beatrice Pons, a delight as Gunther's long-suffering wife, Lucille; Charlotte Rae as Al Lewis's hotheaded wife, Sylvia; and Yiddish theater veteran Molly Picon as Mrs Bronson.
According to Kliph Nesteroff's incredible, jaw-dropping profile of Ross, by the second season Hiken had just about had it with the actor (and a few heart attacks besides) and considered firing Ross while promoting Al Lewis as Gwynne's new partner, a prescient near-pairing considering where they'd end up next.
But, to some degree, Hiken was stuck. The show's fans, unaware of Ross's four-letter lifestyle and the revolving door of hookers going and coming (so to speak) from his dressing room, adored the innocent-looking, loveable lug they saw onscreen.
Nevertheless, there's a slight trend to move the emphasis away from Toody and Muldoon, with more time devoted to more peripheral characters, especially Lewis and Rae, Beatrice Pons, and Paul Reed, among others. This is also evidenced in the line-up of guest stars, a beguiling mix of veteran TV talent (i.e., established character actors) and Hiken's sports world pals, and New York actors who'd soon become stars in their own right, but who were just starting out in the early '60s: Simon Oakland, Larry Storch, Don Keefer, Barnard Hughes, Barney Martin, James Karen, Kenny Delmar, Lu Leonard, David Doyle, Ossie Davis, Betty Garde, Katherine Helmond, Jean Stapleton, Arlene Golonka, Jake LaMotta, Margaret Hamilton, Jules Munshin, Conrad Nagel, Herschel Bernardi, Joey Faye, Hal Linden, Shari Lewis, Godfrey Cambridge, Richard Mulligan, Billy Sands, George S. Irving, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Dana Elcar. Dick Powell, shortly before his death, makes an amusing cameo in one episode.
Video & Audio
The 30 episodes, presented in their original black & white, full-frame format over four discs, look good despite being derived from less than perfect 35mm film elements. Generally though they're a pleasure to watch and don't appear edited or time-compressed. Most have their original sponsor spots. The all-region discs feature adequate English mono audio (no subtitles or alternate audio options).
As before, I dislike the packaging, with DVDs hard to remove from their plastic hubs, and with episode lists hidden behind the DVDs, meaning you'll need to remove at least two discs from the packaging to find a specific show.
The lone supplement is a hilariously-awful stand-up comedy routine performed by Joe E. Ross sometime after Car 54's cancellation, circa 1965 or so. It's a cleaned-up G-rated act trading in on his sitcom persona, but no less unfunny. Cheaply filmed in black-and-white, Ross does his own off-camera introduction, and plays to an audience of about five people who obligingly guffaw at every bad joke. The big finish has Ross impersonating Wallace Beery, in a scene from The Champ. Incredibly, Ross seems to be reaching for something like pathos here. It illustrates perfectly the contrast between the amusing sitcom character and the squirmily unamusing comic he was without Hiken's guidance. Fascinating.
A situation comedy milestone, Car 54, Where Are You? belongs right there alongside The Honeymooners, Bilko, I Love Lucy, and The Dick Van Dyke Show on your DVD shelf, and it's a DVD Talk Collector Series title.