THE DVD SHELF: Another "Muppet Show" Season, Plus Four Screwball Comedies

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: Another "Muppet Show" Season, Plus Four Screwball Comedies This month's column discusses the third season of "The Muppet Show," featuring some theatrical guest stars, plus comedies from Sturges, Wilder and Mae West.
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Buena Vista has brought us their annual release of another season's worth of Kermit, Miss Piggy and Co. Here comes The Muppet Show: The Complete Third Season. Twenty-four episodes from 1978-79, featuring the usual host of favorites (along with that frog, who indeed was the host of favorites). The Muppets were filmed here on the West Side, which resulted in perhaps more of a theatre sensibility than they might have had on the West Coast. Into the studio came a wide range of guests, some of whom don't fit easily in the same sentence (and, needless to say, were not on the same episode). Roy Rogers, Pearl Bailey and Jimmy Coco? Danny Kaye, Alice Cooper, and Liberace? Enough of this; suffice it so say, Kermit made them all feel perfectly at home in company with all those furry Henson creatures.

Also on hand are the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Roy Clark, Gilda Radner, Helen Reddy, Harry Belafonte, Lesley Ann Warren, Leslie Uggams, Elke Sommers, Roger Miller, Cheryl Ladd, Spike Milligan, and Lynn Redgrave. Which makes quite a group. Bonus features include "Muppets on Puppets," a 1969 hour-long educational-TV program hosted by Jim Henson and Rowlf. What's more, they give us four Purina Dog Chow commercials from as early as 1962, featuring Rowlf the dog and his sidekick Baskerville (who sounds suspiciously like Kermit).

Sylvester Stallone, Raquel Welch, and Jean Stapleton, anyone?

* Viewers who have been inspired by the rollicking hilarity of Broadway's sparkling revival of Boeing-Boeing might want a funny movie to watch just now, and Hollywood has obliged with four DVD's they call "Universal Cinema Classics: Screwball Comedies." This time, the label is properly descriptive. While these might not all be classics in the proper sense of the word — like Plato or "War and Peace" — they ought to be. Two or three of them, at least. And as for screwball comedy? Well, they are mighty, mighty funny.

It is not too hard to come up with the pick of the crop. I have always been partial to Easy Living. Don't know it, do you? Well, here's one you ought to run for. This is what the great Preston Sturges was doing back in the days before they would let him direct his own films, 1937 to be exact. Mitchell Leisen did it for him, and the results are right up there with "My Man Godfrey" and "It Happened One Night." In hilarity, at least. Jean Arthur is a poor, working girl; riding down Fifth Avenue in an open-air bus, a $58,000 sable coat lands on her head and immediately changes her life. The coat has been thrown from the window of a mansion by millionaire Edward Arnold ("the Bull of Broad Street"), and Arthur is soon tied up with Arnold and his son Ray Milland. It is all too Sturgian to recount here, but the pleasures are myriad; these include an hysterical scene at the Automat, and the entire sequence in the "Imperial Suit" with Mr. Louis Louis, of the Hotel Louis. (This is Louis pronounced "Louie," played by the delectable Luis Alberni.) The film is full of familiar faces from the Paramount lot; what would a Sturges movie be without William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn? All told, a breezy delight.

A close second is Midnight, which Leisen made two years later. Back in the days before they would let screenwriter Billy Wilder direct his own movies. Don Ameche is taxi-cab driver Tibor Czerny; Claudette Colbert is a penniless showgirl on the make, parading as a baroness (she picks "the Baroness Czerny" as her name, which only adds to the complications). John Barrymore, Mary Astor and Francis Lederer represent the triangle that Colbert thrusts herself into. Paris, the city, co-stars. Leisen did a fine job in both cases, but these two films — with scripts by Sturges and Wilder — are just about as good as he got. He started in the business designing dresses for Gloria Swanson, and was a busy art director before moving into the director's chair (which to some extent explains the stylish look of these movies). Wilder disparagingly called him a "window dresser," and not without reason. Still, both of these Leisen jobs are spectacularly funny.

Sturges proved a remarkable comedy director when he finally got the chance, with "The Great McGinty" in 1940. This helped Wilder convince the Paramount heads to give him a chance as well, which they did in 1942 with the third of the screwball releases, The Major and the Minor. The plot hinges on Ginger Rogers, long past her series of Fred Astaire movies, masquerading as a 12-year-old to qualify for a reduced-price train ticket. That's all Wilder needs. She runs into (or, rather, escapes behind) Ray Milland, who by now was a star in his own right. He is a Major, working at a small-town military academy. This being a Billy Wilder film, young "Su-Su" goes to school, where she is needless to say a magnet for all the boys and most of the dirty old men, too; and where, needless to say, she rescues Milland from one of those Hollywood fiancées whom you hate the moment you see her.

Fourth of the DVDs is the decidedly different She Done Him Wrong. No Wilder or Sturges here; what we get is Mae West's 1928 stage hit Diamond Lil transferred to the screen. West plays the owner of a Bowery saloon — the Gay 'Nineties, indeed — who falls for a missionary type, in the person of the up-and-coming Cary Grant. The whole thing was a major hit when the film was released in 1933, helping keep Paramount afloat and earning a Best Picture nomination. It remains pretty funny, especially if you like Mae West. And yes, this is where she proffers that in famous invitation. ("Come up sometime and see me," are the actual words.) In reviewing the stage version, Charles Brackett of The New Yorker said "pure trash, or rather impure trash, though it is, I wouldn't miss Diamond Lil if I were you." This being the same Charles Brackett who soon gave up his seat on the aisle to go Hollywood and join with Wilder to write "Midnight," "The Major and the Minor," "Ninotchka," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Lost Weekend" and more.

All four DVDs – which are being released individually, not in a box set – contain what they call an "exclusive introduction" by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, who knows his stuff and is always interesting. Three of the films contain trailers, and the Mae West title includes "She Done Him Right," a 1933 cartoon by Walter Lantz spoofing Ms. Mae.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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