Friday, April 15, 2011

Weekend Cinema Listomania (Special But a Good Cigar is a Smoke Edition)

Video Event of the Week: Might Shanachie's DVD box of Car 54, Where Are You? The Complete First Season (with special guests including Jake LaMotta(!)) conceivably be what we're talking about? Could the Criterion Collection's Blu-ray version of White Material, with Isabelle Huppert as a neo-colonialist in an unnamed African country possibly make the cut? Or --and I think you know where I stand on this -- might Warner Home Video's respective disc versions of Harry Potter and The Onset of Puberty The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 actually be The One(s)?

All sort of worthy, to be sure, but for my money they pale into utter insignificance in the face of Shout!Factory's quite fabulous new six-DVD box set devoted to perhaps the only real genius ever to have a show on prime time network TV -- The Ernie Kovacs Collection.

Actually, Kovacs was all over all four networks (including Dumont) in the 50s and 60s, in lots of different time slots -- starting with a local Philadelphia morning show in 1951 -- and in a lot of different formats, including game shows and even a stint hosting old silent movies. But the bulk of the work his reputation rests on -- the increasingly sophisticated and surrealist blackout sight gag sketches and what we would now call music videos (hilarious, groundbreaking and avant-garde even today) were mostly aired in prime time, which is an achievement that, shall we say, seems unlikely to be repeated by anyone else in the forseeable future.

Some of the stuff in the set has been available on video for a while -- most of it deriving from a PBS series in the late '80s -- but Shout!Factory's new anthology, straight from the Kovacs archives that his widow Edie Adams lovingly and presciently preserved, features a genuine treasure trove of material that will be new to even long-time fans. Which means, of course, that there are examples of both what we might call higher and lower Kovacs. Among the latter is the stuff on disc one (The Early Years), which features surviving kinescopes of the aforementioned morning show ("It's Time For Ernie," broadcast live in 1951), or disc four (The Late 1950s), including "Take a Good Look," the surprisingly bland quiz program, and "Silents Please," which are simply little intros of Ernie describing the 20s films he was about to show. Among the former, however, are things like the "Kovacs on Music" special (also disc 4), which features the famous all-gorilla ballet version of Swan Lake, and of course the five full ABC specials from '61 and '62 (the last of which, taped just before the tragic car accident that took Ernie's life at the age of 43, was first broadcast posthumously). CBS's Harry Reasoner (of all people) wrote and read a gorgeous obituary tribute to Kovacs on the network news called "A Shiver in the Sunlight"; it's included, along with all sorts of photos and memorabilia, in the very well done and informative booklet which is part of the set.

Here's Shout! Factory's DVD trailer to give you a better idea...

...and here are some representative clips.

Sorry that last omits The Nairobi Trio, or -- my particular favorite -- Ernie as Percy Dovetonsils (Poet Laureate) reciting his "Ode to Stanley's Pussycat." You'll have to get the set to see those, but of course you really should get it anyway for all sorts of reasons. In fact, if you don't immediately hie thee over to Amazon and pre-order it here, I probably don't want to know you.

Three final notes: As I said earlier, the set is a treasure trove, but there's actually a seventh disc of even more cool stuff -- including two complete episodes of The Tonight Show Ernie hosted in the summer of 1956 -- which you can snare for free from Shout! Factory if you're one of the first people to order the collection. Also, it is perhaps worth mentioning that at the time Kovacs was doing the sort of things in that clip compilation above, video had to be edited using an X-acto knife and Scotch Tape. And finally, the announcer seated with Ernie in the bit at the top of the trailer is, of course, the splendidly-voiced Bill Wendell, who went on to serve the same function for Kovacs devotee David Letterman for the entirety of Late Night's run on NBC.

Okay, and with that out of the way, and because things will most likely be a little quiet around here for a couple of days, here's an obviously relevant little project to help us wile away the idle hours till next week:

Best or Worst Screen Mustache!!!

Fiction films only, which is to say no documentaries allowed. So if you wanted to vote for Adolf Hitler in Triumph of the Will you're out of luck.

And my totally top of my head Top Five is:

5. Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)

That's Adenoid Hynkel, not Adolf Hitler.

4. Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Kline's Oscar-winning turn as the palindromically monikered Otto. Fun fact: The Kevin Kline Facial Hair Law -- which is that Kline must have a mustache in a comedy and be clean-shaven in a drama -- was first established here.

3. Henry Brandon in The Drums of Fu Manchu (William Witney and John English, 1940)

The greatest serial ever made, IMHO, and one that was considered lost for several decades (the only video versions up till now have been from inferior 16mm dupes). A near pristine copy has surfaced recently, however, and a restored DVD/Blu-ray is imminent; you can read more about it over here. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the most exciting film preservation news since the discovery of the complete Metropolis in '09.

2. Groucho AND Harpo Marx in Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)

For obvious reasons.

And the Numero Uno hair twixt nose and gullet in movie history simply HAS to be...

1. Ben Turpin in Million Dollar Legs (Edward F. Cline, 1932)

Billed as "The Mysterious Man," in case you've never seen it. One of the great surrealist comedies of the 30s, and all the funnier for Turpin being a walking sight gag.

Alrighty, then -- who would your choices be?