Reviews

American Masters: Groucho & Cavett

DVD REVIEW:

Street Date 1/3/23;
PBS Distribution;
Documentary;
$24.99 DVD;
Not rated.

Featuring Groucho Marx, Dick Cavett, George Burns, Woody Allen.

Dick Cavett was a shy comedy writer from Nebraska who, like many of us with well-honed funny bones, considered Groucho Marx to be the funniest man of his or any other generation. They met at S.J. Perlman’s funeral, a ceremony that, according to Cavett, was “attended by everyone who was ever caricatured by Al Hirschfeld.” Groucho was not one to take an instant liking to anything, but something about this adoring cub must have struck him. When Cavett confessed to being a big fan, Groucho shot back, “Good! I can use a big fan if it gets hot.” No sooner were the two taking a post-burial-service stroll than Groucho invited his protege to join him for dinner. Cavett wasn’t just some guy off the street looking to worship at the altar of his idol. At the time he had just scored his first big break writing for Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show.” To this day, fanboy Cavett expresses utter disbelief that his idol went to his grave not only knowing his name, but considering him a close friend. Such is the story of Groucho & Cavett.

It wasn’t just a friendship that was formed. On occasion the two had a go at a working relationship. Before guesting on numerous incarnations of “The Dick Cavett Show,” the future talk show host spent a week writing for Groucho. There was an interim period between the time Jack Parr left “The Tonight Show” and Johnny Carson took over when NBC floated substitute hosts. Groucho was one of them. When Groucho hosted “The Kraft Musical Hall,” he invited Cavett to be one of his guests. Cavett still pinches himself at the thought of going from writing monologue jokes for Groucho to being introduced by Groucho. Perhaps the biggest revelation the “American Masters” episode offers up is that it was Groucho, not Bob Hope, who was responsible for making “Seriously folks” every comedian’s go to segue.

Most documentaries about Groucho are concerned with his work in Hollywood and the subsequent rise of his quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” Groucho & Cavett offers a rare look into Captain Spaulding’s last hurrah. When Groucho first appeared as a guest on Cavett’s show, he did so sporting the same toupee he wore in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo! (Preminger had a distaste for humanity that agreed with Groucho.) In closeup, it appeared that a woodchuck had taken up permanent residence on the comedian’s head. In its place, Groucho took to sporting a ridiculously unbecoming, uncharacteristically adorable golf hat replete with three styrofoam snowmen. It was the only time in his life that Groucho became a subject worthy of ridicule. And speaking of subjects of ridicule, Groucho’s proposal of marriage to Truman Capote defies description.

There is one decidedly downbeat snag. Erin Fleming met Groucho in 1971 and lived with the comedian for the last years of his life. As his manager and constant companion, she was in the eyes of many the best thing to happen to the frail Groucho. She got him out of the house, arranged for personal appearances that allowed him to bask in the fame he so richly deserved. But it came with a price. There was talk of physical and mental abuse. After his death in 1977, she was taken to court, accused of embezzling money. The proceedings dragged on for almost a decade after his passing and ended with a judge ordering to return hundreds of thousands of dollars to Groucho’s three children. 

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A note about the transfer: For years, filmmakers and fans alike fought for letterboxing to become the standard. I defy you to find a pan-and-scan pressing of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. One doesn’t exist. Allen saw to it that every video copy, right down to the television print, retained the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Martin Scorsese was so afraid that some schmuck in a lab would arbitrarily lop the sides off one of his children that he refused to shoot in ‘Scope until Cape Fear. (He also shot Raging Bull in black-and-white to protest what he viewed as a crisis in inferior color stock that faded within months of its release.) Not everyone applauded the process. My late Uncle Freddy spoke for millions of Americans when he said, “I paid $700 for a 30-inch screen and I’ll be damned if I don’t get the whole picture.” The joke was on Freddy. Without the benefit of black bars cropping the 4×3 frame, a picture shot in ‘Scope lost two-thirds of its image when blown up to television’s square format. At the dawn of television, there was never a thought given to letterboxing. The circular home screens were so small the image resembled a Band-Aid covering a knothole.

Some television shows look fine when blown up to 16×9. There was a huge overseas market for American television and some series — “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Dragnet,” “M*A*S*H,” etc. — were filmed soft matte 1.85:1. (A hard matte cropped the film in the camera whereas a soft matte captured the entire full-frame process that was later matted by the projector’s aperture plate.) The newly-filmed interview segments were shot 16×9. The Cavett show was shot full-frame. When blown up to fit the screen, the cropping of foreheads and chins can become oppressive. This was a presentation of “American Masters.” One expects more from “educational TV.”

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