THE DVD SHELF: Elaine Stritch in "Two's Company," Plus a New Widescreen "Graduate" DVD

THE DVD SHELF: Elaine Stritch in "Two's Company," Plus a New Widescreen "Graduate" DVD This month's column discusses Elaine Stritch's British sitcom "Two's Company," which ran from 1975-79, and the new widescreen edition of the groundbreaking Mike Nichols-Dustin Hoffman-Anne Bancroft comedy "The Graduate."
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Elaine Stritch, that self-described "existential problem in tights," went to London in 1972 with Company, her second West End stint; she had made a similar visit in 1962, recreating her starring role in the transfer of the Noël Coward musical, Sail Away. Stritch remained in town, with her strong showing in both musicals apparently helping her land the sitcom, Two's Company [Acorn Media]. (This is not to be confused with the Jerome Robbins-Bette Davis revue of the same title, nor Sondheim's Company either.) The four-season run of the series began in 1975, and seems to have provided Stritch with the calmest port of her up-and-down, stormy career. Up until Elaine Stritch at Liberty, that is, three decades later.

"Two's Company" has now been released stateside, all four seasons (consisting of 29 half-hour episodes) in a single box. Stritch plays an American authoress — a very American authoress, by British standards — living in Chelsea; Donald Sinden is her oh-so-British butler. That's it in a nutshell, the situation and the entire cast (with various guests breezing through). What we get is a variation on "My Man Godfrey" mixed with "Ruggles of Red Gap," which — in the hands of Stritch and Sinden — makes a pretty nifty combination.

Stritch needs no introduction to readers of this column. She is very much in her element here, the zany musical comedy leading lady transformed into something of a mature Lucille Ball, with outlandish situations, outlandish lines and outlandish costumes. Not costumes, exactly; I suppose you might just as well call them getups. (Stritch, who turned 50 as the series began, had an early brush with the TV in 1951; she created the role of Trixie Norton in "The Honeymooners," but was replaced after the first week.) Our Elaine even gets to chirp a show-tune like title song, a catchy ditty from Denis King and Sammy Cahn. (My eight-year-old is currently walking around singing it, which makes a nice break from "High School Musical.")

What makes "Two's Company" a lark of a sitcom is not simply Stritch, but her juxtaposition with Sinden. Sir Donald is little-known stateside, although Broadway theatregoers with long enough memories will remember his sterling back-to-back performances in the mid-'70s. (These were in the 1974 RSC production of Dion Boucicault's London Assurance, as adapted by Ronald Eyre, and Alan Bennett's 1975 comedy Habeas Corpus. The first season of Two's Company was filmed between these two New York appearances, the latter of which earned Sinden a Tony nomination.) Sinden, who was knighted in 1997, is very much deviled ham; he can do as much with a raised eyebrow as — well, as Elaine Stritch. Great theatre — or, rather, great television — "Two's Company" is not, one is forced to admit. But one can easily classify it as great fun. Stritch, who was saddled with poor material for much of her career, is at what might be her comedic peak here, which makes "Two's Company" a must for her fans.

MGM has released a "Fortieth Anniversary Edition" of The Graduate, giving that uproarious and unlikely blockbuster the treatment (and widescreen upgrading) it deserves. Broadway director Mike Nichols was already known to be a comic genius at the time, although his only prior film was that rollicking romp "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Anne Bancroft was not especially known for comedy; after six years or so in (mostly) bad movies, she came to Broadway with stunning performances in Two for the Seesaw (1957) and The Miracle Worker (1959). The latter won her a Tony and, for the 1962 film version, an Oscar. (Absent from the ceremonies, Bancroft's statuette was accepted by — Joan Crawford.) In a career-full of highlights, though, Bancroft is probably best remembered for her Mrs. Robinson.

And then there's Dustin Hoffman. A quirky and admittedly unusual actor, he had weathered a decade of failure; his only steady Broadway job before Nichols picked him to play Benjamin Braddock had been as an assistant stage manager (and understudy to Martin Sheen) on The Subject Was Roses. Needless to say, Hoffman — who was already 30 years old — turned star overnight with "The Graduate." He quickly returned to Broadway, with name over title, in 1968 in the Murray Schisgal play Jimmy Shine. The following year came "Midnight Cowboy," by which time Hoffman was in a position to pick and chose his projects. Broadway audiences were lucky to get two chances to see him in the 1980s, as Willy Loman and Shylock; who knows, the fancy may strike him to return once more.

"The Graduate," needless to say, is a wonderful film that holds up to repeated viewings. (Among its facets are performances by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson, as the hero's parents.) With a markedly improved transfer; a handful of extras, including commentaries by Nichols, Hoffman, Katharine Ross and others; and an accompanying bonus CD with Simon & Garfunkel's "Here's To You, Mrs. Robinson," "The Sounds of Silence" and "Scarborough Fair," this 40th anniversary DVD of "The Graduate" is most welcome.

(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.)