THE DVD SHELF: Remembering George Axelrod, Plus "Casino Royal" and an Alice Faye Box Set

News   THE DVD SHELF: Remembering George Axelrod, Plus "Casino Royal" and an Alice Faye Box Set We screen George Axelrod's "Confessions of a Nervous Man," a "comedy documentary" related to his The Seven Year Itch; David Niven as James Bond in "Casino Royale"; and "The Alice Faye Collection Volume 2."
Embedded in the
Embedded in the "Studio One" collection is George Axelrod's theatre-related "Confessions of a Nervous Man."

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The pre-holiday onslaught of DVD releases has given way to a less active January, allowing time to look closer at some earlier releases. Hidden within the recently reviewed Studio One Anthology [Koch], which contains 17 one-hour live television presentations from 1948 through 1957, is an item called "Confessions of a Nervous Man." This self-proclaimed "comedy documentary" was written by George Axelrod (1922-2003), whose Broadway comedy The Seven Year Itch opened at the Fulton on Nov. 22, 1952. (The Fulton was just a few doors east of what is now called the Richard Rodgers; following The Seven Year Itch, the Fulton was redubbed the Helen Hayes until it was torn down.

In his personally delivered introduction to the teleplay, which aired a year after the Broadway opening, Axelrod tells us just how big a hit his baby has become: On its first anniversary it was playing in Chicago, London, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Lima, Peru. (A hit play nowadays — and yes, there are still one or two every decade — is lucky to last a year.) And the script had been sold to Hollywood for a then-staggering figure in excess of $250,000.

Axelrod's conceit is to present the hours-at-the-bar on opening night between curtain down and the reading of the reviews. Art Carney, moonlighting from "The Honeymooners," portrays the playwright and makes a pretty fine job of it. He sits in a non-descript watering hole (not unlike the second floor bar at Sardi's, without the caricatures on the wall), commiserating with the bartender. Various Broadway types go by; these include a cameo by a grand young actress who looks like a 25-year-old version of Marian Seldes and delivers her line with flair. Carney-as-Axelrod sits drinking, with emotions ranging from elation (as he envisions winning not only the Pulitzer but the Nobel Prize) to despair (as he envisions the failure of the play sending his wife and children into poverty). Most amusing are his mind's-eye views of Mr. Atkinson, Mr. Kerr and Mr. Chapman, cackling as they write scathing reviews in a limbo surrounded by the fiery flames of a presumed purgatory. Axelrod also favors us with clever excerpts from supposed productions of the play in London, Paris, and somewhere in the Orient. None of The Seven Year Itch seems to be present, nor are any of the show's personnel at the bar on the evening of the opening.

Mr. Axelrod's musings are good-natured and present us with a fine capsule view of the goings-on in that long ago black & white era. In retrospect, though, they reflect on the nature of fame — or at least on the ephemeral nature of topical comedy. The Seven Year Itch was indeed a major hit across the world and on Broadway, where it racked up 1,141 performances. This was followed by a 1955 film version from Billy Wilder, with Tom Ewell recreating his Tony Award-winning Broadway role opposite the very much non-theatrical Marilyn Monroe. Which is where and how and why she stepped out over that subway grate. Axelrod's future efforts ranged from the moderate 1955 hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (which managed to launch Jayne Mansfield on an unsuspecting Broadway) to the mediocre 1959 failure Goodbye Charlie (which did the same for Lauren Bacall, with more enduring results). The last time Axelrod was spotted around Broadway was when he wrote a draft of the book for the "Some Like It Hot," musical, Sugar, in 1971; this at the urging of composer Jule Styne, his pal and the producer of Rock Hunter. (As a teenaged Merrick gofer, I myself delivered the letter terminating Axelrod.)

How big a hit was The Seven Year Itch? It ran almost three years, apparently closing due to competition from the film version playing around the corner on Times Square with Ms. Monroe. Even so it was the longest running play of the 1950s. Axelrod's sex comedy outran not only A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, but every single play by Williams, Miller, Inge, Anderson (Max or Robert), Hellman, and more; doubling the run of many of them, in fact. It also outran such musical hits of the era as Finian's Rainbow, Kiss Me, Kate, The Pajama Game, West Side Story, and Gypsy.

Today, The Seven Year Itch is totally forgotten. In fact, it seems to have been forgotten by 1965, when Neil Simon followed Barefoot in the Park with The Odd Couple. Axelrod, despite what was clearly one of the major comedy hits of the 1950s, is now merely a footnote. Which makes the musings of the playwright in the Studio One production of "Confessions of a Nervous Man," in the voice of Art Carney, somewhat eerie. His play turned out to be as big a hit as any aspiring playwright could have dreamed. But Axelrod's fame, and his play, turned out to be oh-so-ephemeral.

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Casino Royale [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Fox Home], based on the first of the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, is not a James Bond film exactly. Due to a complicated rights situation, an outside producer owned the rights to this 1953 novel, and tried to cash in on the already ongoing goldmine of a series. (A long-forgotten U.S. television version of the novel was produced in 1954, with Barry Nelson playing 007.) When the owners of the Bond film franchise would not make a deal, producer Charles K. Feldman decided to do his own version as a spoof of the genre (in the manner of his 1965 film, "What's New Pussycat"). This was not Sean Connery as Bond; rather, David Niven. The whole 1967 affair is a wild and undisciplined satire of the big budget Bonds, as evidenced by a cast that ranged from Peter Sellers and Orson Welles to John Huston and Woody Allen. Want more? Deborah Kerr, Ursula Andress, Charles Boyer, Jacqueline Bisset, George Raft, Jean Paul Belmondo, William Holden. And other names, mixed into the mélange in cameo roles. Music came from Burt Bacharach — here's "The Look of Love" in its original incarnation — as played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Art it isn't, but you get a good look at quite a lot of interesting people. Peter O'Toole, too.

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I can't say that I'm much of a fan of Alice Faye. More than a few readers apparently are, though, so let me point out that Fox has followed "The Alice Faye Collection" with The Alice Faye Collection Volume 2. The five DVDs range from the interesting ("Rose of Washington Square," with Tyrone Power and Al Jolson; "Hello, Frisco, Hello," with John Paine and Jack Oakie) to the not-so ("Four Jills in a Jeep"?, in which Alice merely steps in for a cameo). Players of interest sprinkled through the films — besides Jolson — include Don Ameche, Phil Silvers, Bill Frawley, June Havoc, The Nicholas Brothers, and the great Buster Keaton returning to the screen after his exile, for a not especially gratifying appearance in "Hollywood Cavalcade." Special features abound.

(Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (Oxford) as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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