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Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection (DVD Review)

6 Nov, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory
Game Show
$69.97 DVD
Not rated
Stars Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams, Cesar Romero, Hans Conried.

On the January date in 2012 that marked the 50th anniversary of Ernie Kovacs’ woefully untimely death in an almost fluke-ish auto mishap returning home from a Billy Wilder party, one of my best buds, upon being alerted to the fact and without missing a beat, responded: “That’s when America started to go to hell. Right … there!

Of course, my friend is an illustrator who drawings since childhood have run toward the funky and a musician whose tastes run toward jazz, so it probably would have been news if his ’50s-bred psyche hadn’t gravitated toward an innovative pathfinder who was possibly the most “out there” performer until Andy Kaufman. But, really now: all one need do to have a profound love for one who spent the ’50s marching to his own tune is to be a little bit out there yourself. Kovacs’ humor is not for those who dug some stand-up’s mother-in-law or children jokes on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — or for anyone lacking a basic sense of irony. Thus, I would be amazed if, even today, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Tom Price, Steve Mnuchin or Sarah Huckabee Sanders are into, for instance, Kovacs’ poet and martini-swilling lisper: Percy Dovetonsils. And if I’m wrong, you can easily knock me over with one of Percy’s old swizzle sticks.

Accordingly, it was almost a dead certainty that a game show that further took advantage of Kovacs’ additional standing as a video pioneer would end up being largely performance art — or that the central running gag during its year-and-a-half ABC-TV run would be the perpetual inability of host Ernie to explain (or his panelists of three to comprehend) the basic rules of the contest. The show was “Take a Good Look,” and ABC plunked it into a 10:30 p.m. slot on Thursday nights. I’m not exactly surprised that ratings were low, though you have to wonder when CBS was competing for same the half-hour by alternating the final third of “Playhouse 90” and the same for its high-profile “The Big Party” fiasco while NBC was serving up James Gregory in “The Lawless Years.” That was opposite the first season of “Look.” Later, the 10:30 competition would be “local programming” (this would be when my own NBC affiliate would throw in something like Lee Bowman and Rocky Graziano in the syndicated “Miami Undercover”) and “Dupont Show With June Allyson.” You can just see the money coffers bursting from all this — though, as a footnote, you have to give it to ABC for its something-for-everyone lead-in to the Kovacs show: “Pat Boone’s Chevy Showroom” followed by “The Untouchables.”   

As for “Look,” it was conceived either to directly or more generally spoof such reliable Goodson-Todman CBS game shows like “What’s My Line?,” “I’ve Got a Secret” and “To Tell the Truth,” in that panelists had to guess some variation on the identity of a contestant (usually a newsmaker of some kind) — or, if he/she were fairly well known, something unpublicized that this contestant had done or was about to do. What set the show apart were the three video skit/hints that Kovacs concocted featuring himself and a couple babe foils — arcane affairs that were full of Kovacs humor but not very good as helpers, a situation freely griped about by the panelists, who were often (but not always) a trio mad up of personal favorites: Cesar Romero, Hans Conried and Edie Adams (Kovacs wife and his equal as a comic performer, in my estimation). This is another thing that set the show apart: the willingness of the host to insult his regulars and vice-versa, particularly when it came to Conried.

In other words, this is a not quite peggable game show that’s more compelling around the edges than down the middle, though the passage of time has made the middle (or guests) more interesting. We get lot of athletes, starting with an appearance on the very first show of Chuck Essegian, who had just become the first baseball player to hit two pinch-hit home runs in the same World Series, a record later tied, but just once, by Bernie Carbo. Other jocks include Series star relief pitcher Larry Sherry; Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher and Jimmie Foxx; quarterbacks Eddie LeBaron and Norm Van Brocklin (who, when he was with the Eagles, once memorably said that the best thing that could happen to the NFL and the Redskins would be for the latter’s owner George Preston Marshall to step in front of a cab); golfer Ken Venturi (who had just won Bing Crosby’s tournament in a windstorm, a wild news story I remember well); and even the universally loathed bating superstar Rogers Hornsby, who made Ty Cobb look like a Quaker. I was holding my breath over Hornsby’s potential bad behavior here, but his bellicosity was in check, and he even managed a few smiles. This was about a year-and-a-half before Roger Maris made waves by refusing to appear in a photo with him (“Rogers and Roger”), a gesture I really dug as a kid. For the record, Frank Lovejoy (Frank Lovejoy!??!) played Hornsby as a good guy, opposite Ronald Reagan, in 1952’s The Winning Team.

Romero and occasional panelist Ben Alexander (from the ’50s first go-round of TV’s “Dragnet”) were apparent sports fans, and sometimes they quickly identify the contestants. When this happened, it took some wind out of Kovac’s sails, but he still showed his instantly obsolete video “hints,” anyway, because he and his co-stars had put a lot of time into creating them (this added to the show’s odd tone). U.S. Treasury Secretary Ivy Baker Priest is another contestant who’s also identified early — on Alexander’s out-of-the-blue wild guess; another time, Romero goes 3-for-3 in quick order. We also get painter Thomas Hart Benton, stripper Sally Rand, the young Bobby Fischer, Exodus author Leon Uris and silent comedy royalty Mack Sennett. His appearance came a little more than six months before his death (same day as Ward Bond and Johnny Horton, as I’ve never forgotten), and he stumbles a little during his entrance. Generally, he gets through the proceedings, though he does keep you worrying.

Shout! Factory’s set is a seven-disc affair of all surviving episodes, missing only a handful. The shows were recorded on early and thus primitive videotape, though the glitches only add to the presentation’s other-worldliness. In keeping with his then prolific big-screen career, Kovacs keeps promoting his latest movie, which gives an indication of how busy he was at the time making money on which taxes weren’t paid, forcing widow Adams to work forever to pay off the IRS after his death. Along with her infectious laugh, she looks spectacular here in a weekly array of striking eveningwear that’s in contrast to Conried’s familiar bowtie look. Today, people come on TV in jeans (I even plead guilty myself), but in the old days, celebrities even dressed up for panels. For years, I wondered about humorist Henry Morgan’s chronic dyspepsia as a panelist on “I’ve Got a Secret” until I realized that he spent the entire show flanked by Bess Myerson and Betsy Palmer — in sexy cocktail dresses. This means that for years, this scowling sad-sack spent his prime TV years being horny every Tuesday night. 

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