MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Laugh-In, Johnny and Friends, Homicide, Bob Hope, Pink Panther, Savage Innocents and more

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series
Textbooks could and probably have been written about the role played by “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in American television history, at a time when the divide separating mainstream entertainment and the counterculture could be measured in miles. No one at NBC knew what to expect when the show’s pilot debuted on September 9, 1967. President Johnson was still expected to run for re-election and, in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive was still in its planning stages. Flower Power was beginning to wilt in San Francisco and college campuses soon would resemble police states. Although Richard Nixon was anything but a shoo-in to become the Republican standard-bearer, he recognized the schism dividing anti-war liberals from traditional Democratic voting blocs, including organized labor and the no-longer-Solid South. The pilot show performed well enough, however, to convince the network to give the green light to co-creators George Schlatter and Ed Friendly for a mid-season launch on January 22, 1968. Almost immediately, “Laugh-In” somehow managed, if only for an hour each week, to bridge the many gaps separating Americans of all political persuasions, colors and religion. Hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin appeared first each night, in tuxedos, exchanging the kinds of gags that made them popular in nightclubs, lounges and in variety-show appearances. It was after they invited viewers to join them at the “mod” party going on behind the curtain — it incorporated elements of “Playboy’s Penthouse,” Olsen and Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin’” and “The Ernie Kovacs Show” — that the method behind the madness began to reveal itself.  Go-go dancers Goldie Hawn and Judy Carne set the zany tone with their brightly colored bikinis and graffiti tattoos. Behind them, cast members and guests delivered one- and two-line gags with the rapidity of Gatling gun. If one didn’t work, another was only a couple seconds away. The sketches that followed may have been longer, but they rarely lasted long enough to wear out their welcome. Among the cast members whose names were announced each week by popular L.A. radio personality Gary Owens were such under-the-radar talents as Arte Johnson (Wolfgang the German soldier), Ruth Buzzi (Gladys Ormphby), Jo Anne Worley (“Is that a chicken joke?”), Henry Gibson (Nashville), the sexually ambiguous Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin (Ernestine/ Edith Ann/ Suzie Sorority of the Silent Majority), Teresa Graves (“Get Christie Love!”), Larry Hovis (“Hogan’s Heroes”), Jeremy Lloyd (Murder on the Orient Express), Dave Madden (“The Partridge Family”), Pigmeat Markham (“Here come da judge”), Pamela Rodgers (The Maltese Bippy), Richard Dawson (“Family Feud”), Moosie Drier (Oh, God!), Johnny Brown (“Good Times”), Hawn (Shampoo) and Carne (“Love on a Rooftop). In addition to Carnes’ “Sock it to me” bits, the cast members popularized such enduring catch phrases as “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!,” used to poke fun at NBC censors; “You bet your sweet bippy!”; “Beautiful downtown Burbank”; “One ringy-dingy … two ringy-dingies …”; “Blow in my ear and I’ll follow you anywhere”; “Want a Walnetto?”; and “Verrry interesting.”

The stock cast of characters skewered stereotypes ranging from dirty hippies and swishy gays, to macho-man jocks and conservative blowhards. The show’s greatest coup occurred in the first episode of Season Two, when then-presidential candidate Nixon looked into the camera and asked, rhetorically, “Sock it to me?” Unlike Carne, he wasn’t doused with water or assaulted by an off-camera boxer. The appearance did, however, serve to humanize a politician known to many voters simply as Tricky Dick.  An invitation was extended to Nixon’s opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but he declined. According to Schlatter, “(He) later said that not doing it may have cost him the election,” while “[Nixon] said the rest of his life that appearing on Laugh-In is what got him elected.” Among the many celebrities who popped up from time to time, as well, were Jack Benny, Cher, Don Adams, Rita Hayworth, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Smothers, Barbara Feldon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Peter Lawford, Tiny Tim, Flip Wilson, Henny Youngman, Debbie Reynolds, Liberace, Raquel Welch, Tim Conway and, yes, Wayne and Buckley. The first season featured some of the first music videos seen on network TV, with cast members appearing in films set to the music of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Bee Gees, the Temptations, the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the First Edition.

For the first time on disc, Time Warner is offering “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series,” a boxed set covering all 140 episodes, from January 22, 1968, to March 12, 1973. The landmark 50th anniversary package is comprised of 38 discs, covering all 140 episodes and 150-plus total hours of entertainment. (Eighty-nine of the episodes have yet to be released on any format.) Also included in the collection is the rarely seen pilot episode; a collectible 32-page memory book, with archival photos, show images, classic jokes and one-liners; Schlatter’s “liner notes”; the complete “25th Anniversary Cast Reunion”; interviews with Tomlin, Schlatter, Martin, Buzzi, Owens, Johnson and Sues; “Still Laugh-In: A Tribute to George Schlatter; bloopers; and “How We Won the Emmys.” Currently, the set is only available through Time Life, by calling 1-800-950-7887 or at timelife.com/products/laughin.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny and Friends
Johnny Carson shared with “Laugh-In” the catchphrase, “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” and countless references to Funk & Wagnall’s dictionaries, as well as making several cameo appearances on the show. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin not only were frequently guests on “The Tonight Show,” but they also served as substitute hosts. Time Life has been offering a la carte packages from its “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” collection for a while, now. Lately, the DVDs have begun to feature entire shows – complete with vintage commercials – dedicated, in part, to famous comedians who were part of that night’s lineup. This week, T/L released eight hours’ worth of vintage shows from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, in which the featured guests were Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. Being invited to join Johnny on the couch, after knocking the audience dead, was considered the highest honor an up-and-coming comic could earn. The seal of approval practically ensured a boost to the young performers’ careers and return visits weren’t taken for granted or treated as excuses to rest on their laurels. The highlight for me was watching Williams and his hero, Jonathan Winters, riff off of each other’s ad-libs for more than a half-hour.  Time Life has plenty more of these moments in its inventory.

Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series
As long as we’re on the subject of Christmas in July gifting options, let me suggest “Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series,” from Shout!Factory. Simply put, the Baltimore-set cops-and-criminal drama was one of best and most influential series on television, leading directly to HBO’s “The Wire” – also inspired by the reporting of David Simon – and the genesis of police detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), one of the medium’s most memorable characters. Munch is one of only a small handful of characters to appear on shows as disparate as “Law & Order” (three editions), “Arrested Development,” “The X-Files,” “The Beat,” “The Wire,” “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He has been mentioned by name in the terrific British crime series, “Luther”; depicted in the 2016 comic book, “Spider-Man/Deadpool #6,” and as a Muppet, in the “Sesame Street” sketch, “Law & Order: Special Letters Unit”; and on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” both in character, and as Belzer. Fans of the noted conspiracy theorist, especially, will have a field day binging on the “Homicide” collection. The series, which ran from January 31, 1993 to May 21, 1999, was “created” by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show), executive-produced by Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Tom Fontana (“Oz”), but based on real crooks, cops and scenarios introduced in Simon’s book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” It featured an outstanding ensemble cast, including Belzer, Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Melissa Leo, Ned Beatty, Clark Johnson, Daniel Baldwin, Kyle Secor, Jon Polito and Reed Diamond, and such guest stars as Robin Williams, Paul Giamatti, Rosanna Arquette, James Earl Jones, Joan Chen, Bruce Campbell and Jerry Orbach, as “L&O” detective Lenny Briscoe. Although it wound up being the most honored shows of its time, “Homicide” was anything but an instant hit. TV Guide dubbed it, “The Best Show You’re Not Watching,” while critics routinely listed it among the best shows on the air.

Initially, viewers appeared to have been confused by the show’s no-nonsense, police-procedural glimpse into the lives of a squad of inner-city detectives. Bad guys didn’t always pay for their crimes and the rigors of “the job” frequently caused the characters to question why they had decided to go into law-enforcement, in the first place. “Homicide” developed a trademark feel and look that distinguished itself from its contemporaries. It was filmed with hand-held 16mm cameras, almost entirely on location in Baltimore, using musical montages, jump-cut editing and repeated images shot during crucial moments in the story. It was also noted for interweaving as many as three or four storylines in a single episode, a practice that wasn’t applauded by cautious NBC executives. The “shaky camera” approach was modulated a bit after Season One, but innovation never fell out of favor with the creative team. “Homicide” arrives in its entirety in this comprehensive 35-disc collection. Among the featurettes are “Homicide: Life at the Start,” with Levinson and Fontana; “Homicide: Life in Season 3″ and “Homicide: Life in Season 4,” with Levinson, Fontana, Simon and producers Henry Bromell and James Yoshimura; “Inside Homicide,” with Simon and Yoshimura; “Anatomy of a Homicide,” a hour-long documentary about the making of “The Subway”; a panel discussion with Fontana, Levinson, Yoshimura and Simon; “Law & Order” crossover episodes; and “Homicide: The Movie (2000).

Bob Hope: Salutes the Troops
With our country now having passed its 241st birthday, and wars threatening to break out around the world, it’s not a bad time to recall when Bob Hope’s annual tours not only warmed the hearts of our servicemen and women stationed overseas, but also viewers and listeners back home. If the coverage of such USO-sponsored events has changed in the last quarter-century, it isn’t because celebrities and popular entertainers have failed to pick up the baton handed them by Hope, upon his retirement from touring in 1992. It’s only that the nature of war has changed since the liberation of Kuwait and network subsidies for such missions appear to have dried up. Instead of mass gatherings of troops in central locations, entertainers are helicoptered to distant outposts, where many fewer soldiers are there to greet them, with no less enthusiasm. Time Life/WEA’s latest compilation, “Bob Hope: Salutes the Troops,” is, at three discs, a bit longer than usual, as it encompasses his 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991. The DVD includes appearances by Ann-Margret, Ann Jillian, the Golddiggers, Miss World Penny Plummer, Marie Osmond, the Pointer Sisters, Frances Langford, Patty Thomas, Bing Crosby, Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, former NFL star Rosey Grier and such novelty acts as trampoline specialist Dick Albers; “Bob Hope: Memories of World War II,” in which Hope, his wife Dolores, Frances Langford and others reminisce about the era and the beginnings of Bob’s long service with the USO.

The Pink Panther Collection: Blu-ray
And, while we’re in the mood for binging, why not check out one of the top comedy franchises of the last 50 years? Shout!Factory’s “The Pink Panther Collection” is comprised of six installments representing the original collaboration between writer/director Blake Edwards, actor Peter Sellers and executive producer (uncredited) Walter Mirisch. As such, it does not include “The Pink Panther” cartoon series, in which Inspector Clouseau was voiced by Pat Harrington Jr., or Inspector Clouseau (1968), a Mirisch Company spinoff made while Edwards, Sellers and composer Henry Mancini were otherwise occupied with the uproarious comedy, The Party (1968). It was directed by Bud Yorkin, starred Alan Arkin and is collected in MGM’s “The Ultimate Pink Panther Collection,” released on DVD in 2008, prior to 2009’s The Pink Panther 2. “Ultimate” also includes Volumes 1-8 of the cartoon series; Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), the second of two spinoffs filmed after Sellers’ death, in 1980; Son of the Pink Panther (1993), with Roberto Benigni; and The Pink Panther, the first of two hit sequels starring Steve Martin. It does not, however, include the box-office favorite, The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), for which the team reunited. Apart from the Blu-ray upgrade, “The Pink Panther Collection” includes The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), in which Sellers appeared via clips and outtakes from previous episodes.

Before Sellers was cast as Clouseau, he had never worked as a physical comic. His ideas, timing and leadership in the genre took shape for the first time under Edwards’ direction, in The Pink Panther.  Lest we forget, David Niven was assigned the role of master thief, Sir Charles Lytton, who was in dogged pursuit of the famous Pink Panther diamond. By the time filming was complete, it had become abundantly clear that Clouseau had been allowed to steal the show from Niven. Today, Sellers’ interpretation of the incurably clumsy detective tops all other portrayals. This isn’t to say, however, that all the films were created equally. The decline in quality could be tracked in the roller-coaster box-office returns. Most of the bonus material included here — some of which reveals dissent within the production team — appeared in the 2003 and 2008 collections. Among the new featurettes are “An Italian Indian: The Pink Panther Princess,” an interview with actress Claudia Cardinale; “Back to the Start: The Origin of the Pink Panther,” an interview with Mirisch; commentaries by Jason Simos, of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society; “A Bit of Passion and Lots of Laugh,” an interview with actress Catherine Schell; an interview with production designer Peter Mullins; “Panther Musings,” an interview with actress Lesley-Anne Down; “A Cut Above: Editing the Pink Panther Films,” with editor Alan Jones; and commentaries by author and film historian William Patrick Maynard.

Money From Home: Blu-ray
Shag: Blu-ray
Savage Innocents: Blu-ray
Chicago-based Olive Films has started offering DVD editions of vintage films that, while they might not qualify as classics, are delightfully eclectic and of interest to completists. The company describes its June releases as “an under-appreciated oddity from one of our favorite auteurs, the ultimate girls’-night-in flick, a classic comedy, a Cannon Group film and a Slasher Video guilty pleasure.”

Money From Home is the 11th of 17 movies in which Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin appeared as a team. It was the first to be shot in color and their only film made in 3D, one of two shot in three-strip Technicolor. In 1953, Martin and Lewis comprised one of the most popular comedy acts in post-war America. Lewis wouldn’t begin to direct until “The Bellboy,” four years after their partnership dissolved. Based on a story by Damon Runyon (“Guys and Dolls”), Money From Home takes place in a universe in which the protagonists sing and dance their way through difficult situations, underworld thugs have cute nicknames and their molls are glamorous. Martin plays Herman “Honey Talk” Nelson, a gambler who owes money to all the wrong people. Lewis portrays Herman’s cousin, apprentice veterinarian Virgil Yokum, who, he hopes, will help him fix a horse race for the mob. Along the way, Virgil meets a female vet (Patricia Crowley) and Herman falls for the owner of the horse (Marjie Millar). Among the highlights is a “Cyrano de Bergerac” homage, in which Lewis tries to woo Martin’s love by proxy. As usual, mistaken identities grease the skids for madcap humor. To promote the 3D novelty, Money From Home debuted in special preview screenings at 322 theaters across the country, on New Year’s Eve, 1953. Unfortunately, a screw-up at the lab forced distributors to show it in 2D. Trivialists might notice the credit, “Special Material in Song Numbers Staged by Jerry Lewis” … another first for the team.

Zelda Barron’s surprisingly effective coming-of-age comedy Shag, released in 1989, is equal parts Where the Boys Are, Bachelorette, Dirty Dancing, American Graffiti and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. In it, four teenage girls from Spartanburg, S.C., sneak away from their respectable homes for a weekend at Myrtle Beach, a magnet for Carolina teens approaching such adult challenges as college, the pre-Vietnam military, marriage and a lifetime of stultifying labor in jobs they’ll hate. An early summer festival promises the girls a dance contest, beer blasts and lots of cute boys … some from the other side of the socio-economic divide. If it doesn’t sound terribly original, Shag does benefit mightily from an atypical location, dead-on period feel, a dandy rock-and-soul soundtrack and bright, young cast that includes show-biz royalty: Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates, Annabeth Gish, Page Hannah, Tyrone Power Jr. and Carrie Hamilton. Cates plays Carson, the prim debutante who’s engaged to a stuffy young tobacco heir (Power), but not so committed that she refuses the advances of a silver-tongued local, Buzz (Robert Rusler), a charming Lothario with bohemian pretensions. As Melaina, Fonda is a budding femme fatale, intent on hitching her bleached-blond star to the wagon of teen heartthrob, Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher), in town for the annual Miss Sun Queen contest. Gish is appealing as the dreamy-eyed Pudge, who befriends a shy naval cadet, Chip (Scott Coffey), who cuts a mean rug in the shag contest. Hannah plays Luanne, the bespectacled daughter of a congressman whose carefully tended summer home is trampled and TP’d by uninvited partiers. Although the climax is reasonably predictable, Barron holds on to her story long enough to prevent clichés from ruining it. My only gripe is that the only African-Americans on view are the musicians and congressman’s maid. Even in the Jim Crow South of 1963, you’d think a dance contest without blacks was like “American Bandstand” without Italians.

Any movie made in the early 1960s that attempted to present an honest portrayal of Aboriginal life, here or abroad, is bound to be interesting, if only as a curiosity. Nominated for the Palme d’Or Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents tells the story of a strangely jolly Inuit hunter, Inuk (Anthony Quinn), whose life in a forbidding environment only gets complicated when he allows a white trader to cheat him in a transaction involving a cheap rifle and small fortune in pelts. Until then, the only weapons Inuk needed were a spear and knife, and his sustenance was provided by the wildlife found north of the Arctic Circle. A cultural misunderstanding results in the death of a white preacher, who turns down Inuk’s offer of his wife’s warm body in return for a kindness. Suddenly, the hunter becomes the hunted, but, this time, on his own frozen turf. Ray adapted his screenplay for The Savage Innocents from Hans Ruesch’s novel, “Top of the World,” which was inspired by W.S. van Dyke’s similarly plotted film, Eskimo (1933). Unlike Danish explorer Peter Freuchen, who wrote the book from which Eskimo was adapted, Ruesch had no direct knowledge of Inuit life and customs. It’s also likely that both writers and directors freely borrowed from Robert J. Flaherty’s great 1922 docudrama Nanook of the North (a.k.a., “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic”). Ray probably saw Inuk as an extension of the outsider characters he’d championed in previous films (Rebel Without a Cause). Shot partially in Greenland, the barren snowfields in The Savage Innocents look almost blindingly white in Blu-ray. The hunting scenes are brutally realistic, as well.

Where the movie stumbles, I think, is in its portrayal of the Noble Savage as a giggling naïf who comes to peril when confronted with the villainous whites and their loud toys. The depiction of such Eskimo customs as wife-gifting feels too stereotypical to be true, but who knows? As goofy as it sometimes looks, The Savage Innocents remains captivating throughout. In one of his first screen roles, Peter O’Toole plays a Mountie assigned to capturing Inuk. When he learned that his dialogue had been dubbed, O’Toole demanded that his name be taken off the film. He and Quinn would reunite two years later in “Lawrence of Arabia.” And, yes, after seeing Quinn as Inuk, Bob Dylan immortalized the character in the song, “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” made popular by the British group Manfred Mann.

The other two Olive releases are Déjà Vu (1985), an obscure reincarnation-thriller, starring Jaclyn Smith and Nigel Terry; and Victims! (1981), a slasher/stalker/rape/revenge flick about four girls terrorized on a camping trip.

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What are we doing wrong?
“Well, first of all, by “we” I assume you mean the public, the public approach or the public discourse, which means the discourse that takes place in the media. And for the purposes of this discussion, let us imagine that the media is white and thus approaches the topic of race as if they (the white people) were the answer and them (the black people) were the question. And so, in the interest of fairness, they take their turn (having first, of course, given it to themselves) and then invite comment by some different white people and some similar black people. They give what purports to be simply their point of view and then everyone else gives their beside-the-point of view.

“The customary way for white people to think about the topic of race—and it is only a topic to white people—is to ask, How would it be if I were black? But you can’t separate the “I” from being white. The “I” is so informed by the experience of being white that it is its very creation—it is this “I” in this context that is, in fact, the white man’s burden. People who think of themselves as well intentioned—which is, let’s face it, how people think of themselves—believe that the best, most compassionate, most American way to understand another person is to walk a mile in their shoes. And I think that’s conventionally the way this thing is approached. And that’s why the conversation never gets anywhere and that’s why the answers always come back wrong and the situation stays static—and worse than static.”
~ Fran Lebowitz, 1997

“If one could examine his DNA, it would read ACTOR. He embraced every role with fire and fierce dedication. Playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood was his loving tribute to all actors and garnered him a well-deserved Academy Award. His work was his joy and his legacy.”
~ Barbara Bain On Martin Landau