American Masters: Groucho & Cavett


Street Date 1/3/23;
PBS Distribution;
$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.”

Hugh Laurie Thriller ‘Masterpiece: Roadkill’ Heads Up December PBS DVD Releases

The Hugh Laurie thriller “Masterpiece: Roadkill,” season two of “Great Performances: Now Hear This” and a duo of “Nova” programs are among the titles coming to DVD from PBS Distribution in December.

The new political thriller “Roadkill” from Academy Award nominee David Hare (The Reader, The Hours) comes out on DVD Dec. 15. The series stars Laurie as Peter Laurence, a self-made forceful and charismatic politician. Peter’s public and private life seem to be falling apart — or rather are being picked apart by his enemies. As his personal revelations spiral, he is shamelessly untroubled by guilt or remorse, expertly walking a high wire between glory and catastrophe as he seeks to further his own agenda, while others plot to bring him down. However, events show just how hard it is, for both an individual and a country, to leave the past behind. Helen McCrory (The Queen, “Harry Potter”), Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Westworld, Inferno) and Millie Brady (“The Last Kingdom,” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) also star.

Season two of “Great Performances: Now Hear This” is due Dec. 1. Viewers join Scott Yoo, renowned violinist and conductor of the Mexico City Philharmonic, in a four-part documentary miniseries that merges music, storytelling, travel and culture, as Yoo chases the secret histories of some of the greatest music ever written.

Also coming Dec. 1 is Nova: Human Nature, a feature-length film exploring the science, history, and ethics of a revolutionary gene-editing technology and its applications.

American Masters: Keith Haring — Street Art Boy is a biographical documentary coming out Dec. 8. International art sensation Keith Haring blazed a trail through the legendary art scene of 1980s New York and revolutionized the worlds of pop culture and fine art. Haring’s message targeted the underlying threat of violence, sexual exploitation and political oppression. His art was shown in more than 100 group and solo exhibitions during his lifetime and he continues to be celebrated today.

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Also due Dec. 8 are Nova: Secret Mind of Slime and Secrets of Royal Travel. Nova: Secret Mind of Slime explores the questions and science behind the “intelligence” of slime molds. These creatures are not animals, nor plants, nor fungi, yet they appear to learn and to make decisions without brains, expanding the boundaries of intelligence beyond the animal kingdom. Secrets of Royal Travel tells the inside story of the monarchy on the move, taking viewers inside some of the most famous, yet exclusive, transport systems around the globe with select interviews of royal staff.

Coming Dec. 15 is The Queen and the Coup, a documentary about the happenings in February 1953, the first anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, during which she is about to be deployed in a U.S. plot to topple Iran’s last democratic leader in favor of an all-powerful Shah.

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Finally, Dec. 22 comes Nova: A to Z — The First Alphabet and How Writing Changed the World. The documentary explores the history of writing. Just as writing changed the course of human history, the evolution of paper and printing revolutionized the spread of information. While the invention of paper boosted Chinese and Islamic societies, the simple fact that the Latin alphabet could be printed using a small number of discrete, repetitive symbols helped popularize moveable type, handing Europe a crucial advantage at the beginning of the Renaissance. The printing press itself kicked off the scientific revolution that fast-tracked us to the current digital age.

‘In the Age of AI,’ ‘Fire in Paradise’ and ‘Nature’s Biggest Beasts’ Among PBS Docs on DVD and Digital in January

In the Age of AI, Frontline: Fire in Paradise, Nature: Nature’s Biggest Beasts, American Masters — Rothko: Pictures Must be Miraculous and Nova: Why Bridges Collapse are among the documentaries on DVD and digital from PBS Distribution this January.

A year after the devastating Camp Fire, who’s to blame and why was it so catastrophic? Fire in Paradise explores this question with accounts from survivors and first responders, telling the inside story of the most destructive fire in California history, its causes and the impact of climate change.

In the Age of AI, due Jan. 14, takes a journey into how this new technology will transform our world — and some of the ways it already has. It’s been called “The New Space Race.” This time it’s China taking on the United States, and the race is to seize control of a technology with the potential to change everything — the way we work; how we play; how our democracy functions; how the world could be realigned. “Frontline” explores some of the ways in which our world is being re-shaped and reimagined by the technology of artificial intelligence, whose development has been compared to the industrial revolution and the discovery of electricity as an epochal event in human history. The film traces the battle between the U.S. and China to harness its power, examining fears about what AI advances mean for the future of work and revealing how AI algorithms are ushering in an age of both great problem-solving potential and of new and troubling threats to privacy and democracy.

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Okavango: River of Dreams, explores the Okavango River in Southern Africa, an unlikely oasis and lush paradise in the middle of a hostile desert that supports and feeds an incredible abundance of wildlife. Unlike most rivers that flow toward the shores of a nearby ocean, it instead runs inland through Botswana, creating a huge river delta before finally disappearing into the Kalahari Desert. An all-star cast of charismatic African wildlife lives and dies in the timeless drama of survival revealed in the program.

Nature’s Biggest Beasts, due Jan. 14, covers the ingenious strategies that nature’s biggest beasts employ to conquer their environments, from the Komodo dragon with a deadly bite to the tallest giraffe to the bird-eating Armored ground cricket. Being massive can have its advantages, but it brings equally immense challenges to survive. Big bodies need more fuel, more space and can attract unwanted attention.

Bears, due Jan. 28, covers animals from the mighty grizzly bear to the endearing spectacled bear (the real-life “Paddington Bear”), from the bamboo-eating panda to the bizarre-looking sloth bear. Among the biggest land mammals on the planet, bears need a lot of resources to survive and must use all of their skills, brawn and brains to get what they need — whether they’re foraging for honeycombs or tasty plants, standing up to their rivals or raising cubs.

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Available now is Why Bridges Collapse, which experts compare what happened to the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, with other deadly bridge collapses, including Minnesota’s I-35W bridge over the Mississippi and the ill-fated Silver Bridge over the Ohio River. Thousands of bridges across the United States and Europe that are listed as structurally deficient. How can new technologies and engineering improvements make bridges across the world safer and more durable than ever before?

Look Who’s Driving, coming Jan. 14, explores autonomous vehicles, which are now being tested on public roads around the world. Dozens of startups have sprung up alongside established auto and tech giants — which are also testing the waters — to form what many hope will be a transformative new industry. But as innovators rush to cash in on what they see as the next high-tech pot of gold, some experts warn there are still daunting challenges to overcome — like how to train computers to make life-and-death decisions as well as humans can. “Nova” peers under the hood of the autonomous vehicle industry to investigate how driverless cars work, how they may change the way we live, and whether we will ever be able to entrust them with our lives.

Rise of the Mammals, due Jan. 21, explores how the course of life on Earth changed radically on a single day 66 million years ago. Blasting our planet, an asteroid caused the extinction of three of every four kinds of living things. The impact ended the Age of Dinosaurs and launched our age, the Age of Mammals. But our understanding of the asteroid’s aftermath has been spotty. Who survived? How quickly did mammals and their habitats spring back? How did our planet recover from this global cataclysm? Now a remarkable find — a trove of exceptionally preserved fossils from the critical first million years after the catastrophe — shines a revelatory light on what followed Earth’s darkest hour. With exclusive access, viewers see the discovery from the first moments of the initial find in 2016. Providing a rare record that combines plants, animals, and precise dates, the discovery paints a vivid portrait of the emergence of a brand-new world.

Dead Sea Scroll Detectives, coming Jan. 21, explores one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time — the Dead Sea Scrolls — was made by a Bedouin shepherd boy in 1947. Since the 2,000-year-old scrolls were first taken from a cave, they’ve intrigued scholars, religious leaders and profiteers alike. These fragile parchment relics include the oldest known versions of the Hebrew Bible and hold vital clues about the birth of Christianity. While some scrolls have survived intact, others have been ravaged by time — burnt, decayed, or torn to pieces — and remain an enigma. Now, scientists are using new technologies to read the unreadable, solve mysteries that have endured for millennia, and even discover million-dollar fakes.

Rothko: Pictures Must be Miraculous is a portrait of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Mark Rothko, whose luminous canvasses now set records at international auctions. Rothko’s signature style helped define Abstract Expressionism, the movement that shifted the center of the art world from Paris to New York. Interviews with Rothko’s children, Kate and Christopher, as well as leading curators, art historians and conservators present a comprehensive look at the artist’s life and career, complemented by scenes with Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko. Molina performs segments from Rothko’s writings, and the documentary features clips from the six-time Tony-winning play Red.

American Masters: Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me


Street Date 2/19/19;
$24.99 DVD;
Not rated.
Featuring Kim Novak, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis.

Finding a bigger Rat Pack fan than I during that assemblage’s roughly 1960-64 heyday was no easy assignment, so Sammy Davis Jr., always got a pass from me despite my general lack of enthusiasm for performers who feel they had to wear jewelry stores to the car wash or the proctologist. Of course, prodigious talent helped, and Davis kept surprising me — per, just as one example, my fairly late discovery of his astonishing early tap dancing mastery in the 1933 short subject Rufus Jones for President, which featured him at age 7. How in the world does anyone manage to steal a piece of film from Rufus co-star Ethel Waters when even Julie Harris couldn’t quite do it herself?

On the other hand — and this is way before Davis’s embrace (both figuratively and literally) of Richard Nixon — Davis was also the epitome of that forced “professional show business” ethos that the early cast members of “Saturday Night Live” would later have so much fun putting down. Jerry Lewis and Bobby Darin were culprits as well on this count, but Davis was the worst, telling audiences that he would sing his next tune to them “with their kind permission.” So as early as early junior high, my waggish buds and I would always riff on this, telling each other that we were about to hit the men’s room “with your kind permission” or that we fantasized about placing a palm up some classmate’s cheerleader outfit “with her kind permission.”

This is all coming off harsher than intended, especially since we now have a standout entry in PBS’s reliably socko “American Masters” series to make the case that its subject earned the right to indulge in the kind of stylistic excesses that defined him, including enough jewelry to provide Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly with breakfasts forever. A black man through and through whose racial bullying and much worse in the army proved the point just by itself, Davis was an undeniable civil rights symbol who gained co-equal stature to share the Vegas stage — and also several larkish movies — with Frank, Dino, Joey and (for a while, Peter Lawford). Only later did it sink in that Davis was not always but too often the butt of the joke in ways the others were never quite.

Neatly dividing its subject’s life into chapters that reflected the dimensions of his career (singer, dancer, social progressive, social regressive, etc.), Sam Pollard’s documentary hits the expected bases we remember from past print biographies, press coverage and, in some cases, scandal sheets of the day including Confidential. These would include his show biz apprenticeship under “Uncle” Will Mastin (who was actually his godfather); the army experiences; the loss of his left eye in a 1954 auto accident; and his secret romance with Columbia Pictures’ top printer of money (Kim Novak), which sparked Columbia chief Harry Cohn to put a contract out on Davis if he didn’t marry a black woman — make that any black woman — within two days, which happened. I remember being so shocked at age 10 by the last when my grandmother told me that I didn’t believe it for years. Later, white co-star Paula Wayne talks about what she herself had to endure from kissing Davis in the 1964 stage production of Golden Boy.

Davis idolized Sinatra, and some say wanted to be Sinatra, and when Davis lost the eye, his idol spent one-on-one time with him trying to teach him how to pour water from a pot or decanter into a glass. Sinatra honored Davis by allowing him into the Rat Pack (though it’s tough even imagining that bunch without him) — yet at this height of his career Davis still had to reside off the Vegas Strip and in a boarding house on the dusty side of town, as all black performers did. Not covered here is the episode in which Davis said something in an interview that riled Frank, who then jettisoned him from playing what ultimately became the Steve McQueen role (big break there) in 1959’s Never So Few. Very much mentioned is the how Davis’s post-election late 1960 marriage to white actress May Britt resulted in his being bounced from performing at the JFK Inaugural gala that Sinatra produced. These were the times, and Republicans (already ready to make trouble over the election outcome) would have made hay, especially given that interracial marriage was still illegal in several states.

A key point of the doc is how Davis was color blind in how he treated people, which tended to make him tone deaf when it came to all the societal upheavals in the ’60s. Nixon seemed to be genuinely intrigued by Davis as a person but also cynically thought the performer could be used to attract a voting demographic that mostly loathed him. So, here we have footage of Davis entertaining the troops in South Vietnam and performing “The Candy Man” at a White House invitational before a bunch of ancient Republicans, the way Bob Hope used to do. Superfly this was not, and though there’s ample footage here to prove that Davis could totally charm audiences of all political persuasions prepared not to like him, Nixon fairly well dropped Davis when he realized the star was going out of fashion. The key shot at the White House show is an overhead one of tuxed-up white guys with their sea of bald domes photographed from the back and listening to “The Candy Man.”

Still, give me that voice, which has more power than I’ve ever heard coming out of someone that physically diminutive (a lot of people must have been envious at how completely Davis always kept the weight off). He was also, from the beginning, such a dancer that on a TV clip from very near the end of his life, Gregory Hines is able to pull him out of his audience seat for a duet when just a perfunctory tap or two would serve the situation and make us grateful he didn’t die on stage. Instead, we get something pretty close to the Full Sammy with no apologies needed as time momentarily stands still.

To this point, Davis was on TV a lot in the final couple decades of his career, so a lot of good and representative footage exists both of him and his time-capsule wardrobes. This really gives the doc a boost, though the interviews are good, too — and especially the ones with singer/actress Wayne, who got on the record for director Sam Pollard before his death just last November. Gotta writer Laurence Maison has a background in show biz docs, while Pollard has a heavy resumé in socially conscious race docs, including a couple for Spike Lee — a simpatico mix in theory. Pollard also directed the very fine “American Masters” on John Wayne and John Ford from 2006, so you can’t say he isn’t working from a diversified portfolio.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Sammy Davis, Jr. — I’ve Gotta Be Me’ and ‘Beat the Devil’

‘American Masters’ Documentary ‘Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me’ Due on Digital and DVD Feb. 19 From PBS

The “American Masters” program Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is coming out on DVD and digital Feb. 19 from PBS Distribution.

This is the first major film documentary to examine the performer’s vast career and his journey for identity through the shifting tides of civil rights and racial progress during 20th century America, according to PBS. Davis strove to achieve the American Dream in a time of racial prejudice and shifting political territory. He was a veteran of increasingly outdated show business traditions and worked tirelessly to stay relevant, even as he frequently found himself bracketed by the bigotry of white America and the distaste of black America. Davis was a public black figure who embraces Judaism, thereby yoking his identity to that of another persecuted minority. In Duke Ellington’s words, he was “beyond category.”

The documentary features interviews with Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg and Kim Novak, with never-before-seen photographs from Davis’ vast personal collection and footage of his performances.

PBS ‘American Masters’ Documentary on Baseball’s Ted Williams to Bow July 24 on DVD and Digital

PBS Distribution will release American Masters — Ted Williams: “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” on DVD and Digital HD July 24.

The program premieres July 23 on PBS.

Co-produced by Albert M. Tapper Productions, in association with Major League Baseball, David Ortiz’ Big Papi Productions and Nick Davis Productions, the program explores not only the Baseball Hall of Famer’s on-field accomplishments but also his complicated relationships with family, teammates, press, fans and himself. The release honors Williams’ centennial and marks the first baseball subject in the series’ 32-year history.

Narrated by Jon Hamm, the documentary features never-before-seen archival footage and in-depth interviews with those who knew and studied Williams, including his daughter Claudia Williams, author/journalist Ben Bradlee Jr., veteran baseball writer Roger Angela, and broadcasters Bob Costas and the late Dick Enberg.

Williams is the last player to hit over .400, finishing the 1941 season batting .406. Former players — including Baseball Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Wade Boggs, three-time All-Star Jim Kaat, and current Cincinnati Reds first baseman and former National League MVP Joey Votto — share how Williams influenced them in the program.