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The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes (DVD Review)

22 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/23/13
Shout! Factory
$29.93 three-DVD set
Not rated.

Having already done well by Ernie Kovacs, Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor in recent times via lavish box sets, Shout! Factory now offers 18 restored “Jack Benny” eps from UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, while throwing in a moral lesson as a bonus. Which is: that if you live a good, clean life, help old ladies across the street and remain patient …

… you eventually will be rewarded with the unimaginable sight of Gary Cooper, backed by Benny’s in-house group The Sportsmen, performing a 1958 cover of the Everly Brothers’ Cadence hit of the day — “Bird Dog.” Repeat after me: Holy Moly.

I was recently trying to explain to a young person that, at the time, Cooper (seen here promoting Anthony Mann’s terrific Man of the West) was as big a star at the time as John Wayne. And that, in fact, he was probably even bigger, though after Cooper’s premature 1961 death, the Duke became “guy” cinema’s undisputed king. Of course, this is all kind of moot in terms of this three-disc set because Wayne shows up as well — coming out of his seat in the audience to promote The Alamo by (in a skit) enjoying a café date with singer Jaye P. Morgan (later of “The Gong Show” notoriety). This is an indication of just how big Benny’s CBS Sunday nights were for so long; years earlier, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart had made their TV debuts on the show in what turned out to be rare tube appearances for both of them. And just to solidify the show’s prestige, the new set also includes shows built around the appearances of former President Harry Truman (promoting the Truman Library in Independence, Mo.) and the Rev. Billy Graham, who tries to get Jack to cut down on insult humor aimed at Benny foils Don Wilson and Dennis Day. Neither guest walks through the role — and, in fact, happily trade zingers with their host. It is something to drop your jaw to.

The quality of these episodes is higher than what we’ve seen on past Benny collections, which have mostly existed because engineers and dumpster-divers (a descriptive term I’ve stolen from detailed line notes here by Martin Gostanian and Laura Leff) rescued them from destruction. Indeed, these same notes contain excerpts from network memos that name names and are totally indicative of the times — in that they offer front-office permission to destroy kinescopes of certain programs, a key reason that Golden Age television preservation has been so hit-and-miss. One hopes that there is a special place in Hell for these executive clowns, preferably in either the Pat Robertson or Idi Amin Suites.

Regarded as a real-life sweetheart of and nothing like the vain miser that characterized his public persona, Benny was the most generous of comedians, letting his colleagues (foremost among these, Eddie Anderson as butler/valet “Rochester”) get the lion’s share of the laughs as their boss responded with the funniest off-put stare in the history of show business. The Gostanian-Leff notes make an interesting point that the cast’s revolving players bring to mind some of the dynamics from Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — and also that the show’s integration of commercial messages directly into the script as part of the action was the model of its kind. From a marketing point of view, Arthur Godfrey might have been even better at the latter, but he wasn’t as funny (and certainly not as nice a guy).

Jack Paar gets referenced a couple times, once as a guest and another in a skit parody in which Benny is joined by Paar sidekick Hugh Downs. This one is the same show that also features Rock Hudson at his peak, promoting Come September and making women audience members swoon in what now seems as an ode to the quaint. To make hetero guys swoon as well, we also get Natalie Wood appearing with then recent husband Robert Wagner, which doesn’t keep Benny from stealing a kiss from her whenever he can sneak one in (this happens maybe half-a-dozen times). Fairly hefty supplements include excerpts from later specials in a TV career that lasted a long time, though despised CBS chief James T. Aubrey later canned Benny in famously cruel fashion before eventually taking over MGM and overseeing the distribution of such undying classics as George Kennedy in Zig Zag and Telly Savalas in Clay Pigeon. Benny’s own big-screen career was spotty, but To Be or Not To Be (coming Aug. 27 from Criterion) remains an all-timer and even swan song The Horn Blows at Midnight is better than the comedian said it was. He was set to take what became the George Burns role in the film version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys when he died, and the Boys DVD contains his wardrobe tests in an inclusion that delighted me, though I guess not as much as Cooper digging for pop gold with Bird Dog.

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