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.”

Woody Allen’s ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Due on Digital and Disc Nov. 10

Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York will come out on VOD, digital, DVD and Blu-ray Nov. 10 from MPI Media Group and Signature Entertainment.

The film stars Timothee Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Jude Law, Diego Luna and Liev Schreiber.

The film tells the story of college sweethearts, Gatsby (Chalamet) and Ashleigh (Fanning), whose plans for a romantic weekend together in New York City are dashed as quickly as the sunlight turns into showers. The two are soon parted, and each has a series of chance meetings and comical adventures while on their own. Over the course of a day in New York, Ashleigh discovers she might not be who she thought she was and Gatsby learns that while you only live once, once is enough if you find the right person.

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Kino Lorber Sets Home Release Dates for April Classic Movie Slate

Kino Lorber has set home release dates for its April 2020 slate of classic movies. The 19-movie slate begins rolling out April 7 with the following releases, available on Blu-ray Disc only:

Angel — a 1937 comedy from the legendary director of The Love Parade and The Merry Widow, Ernst Lubitsch. The film features the wife of a British diplomat who goes to Paris and has a short-lived affair with an American, who turns out to be old war buddies with her husband. Included with the film is a new audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of How Did Lubitsch Do it?

Murder, He Says — a 1945 comedy about a public opinion surveyor who is sent to the town of Plainville after the previous one went missing. As he works with one of the local families, he begins to suspect that the lady and her two sons murdered the previous surveyor. Bonus features include a new audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel.

The Lives of A Bengal Lancer — a 1935 feature depicting the tale of the heroic men who guarded the British Empire’s perilous Khyber Pass in India. Deadly threats escalate when the men join a mission to overthrow an evil chieftain, Mohammed Khan. Bonus features include a new audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.

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The General Died at Dawn — a 1936 feature directed by Lewis Milestone about a soldier of fortune who winds up falling into conflict between two warlords, when General Yang and General Wu each attempt to purchase arms to control the Chinese provinces. The General Died at Dawn was nominated for three Oscars: Actor in a Supporting Role (Akim Tamiroff), Cinematography (Victor Milner) and Score (Boris Morros, Werner Janssen). Bonus features include a new audio commentary by author and film historian Lee Gambin and Actress and film historian Rutanya Alda.

Beau Geste — a 1939 action film from William A. Wellman, featuring three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion, where they fall under the rule of a tyrannical sergeant. The brothers fight for their lives as they plot a mutiny against tyranny and defend a desert fortress against a brutal enemy. Included with the film is new audio commentary by William Wellman Jr. and historian Frank Thompson.

Subsequent releases will be issued on Blu-ray Disc as well as standard DVD.

Coming April 14 are The Limit, a 1957 feature about a major in the U.S. Army who is accused of aiding his captors while held in a North Korean prison during the war and brought up on charges of treason; Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a 1981 Western from Lamont Johnson; Jenny, a 1970 drama about a woman who winds up pregnant and moves to New York City, where she marries a local filmmaker who wants to avoid getting drafted into Vietnam and offers to support her if he can claim the baby as his own; and Song of Norway, a 1970 musical biography based on the life of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

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Due April 21 are Secret Ceremony, a 1968 drama from Joseph Losey about a mysterious young woman, who, when riding a bus in London, mistakes a middle-aged prostitute for her recently deceased mother and invites her to move into her home and act as her mother; Woman Times Seven, a 1967 anthology film of seven episodes starring Shirley MaClaine, mostly  based on aspects of love and adultery; Connecting Rooms, a 1971 drama about two older people whose lives are linked when they become lodgers in the same seedy boarding house in London; Love Among Ruins, a 1975 drama and winner of six Emmy Awards from director George Cukor that stars Katharine Hepburn as a recent divorcee and Laurence Olivier as her lawyer and, as it turns out, an old suiter of hers from decades before.

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Rounding out Kino’s April 2020 slate are five more releases arriving in stores on April 28: Outcast of the Islands, a 1952 film about a man who is dismissed from his management position at a Dutch East Indies port after being accused of stealing; The Sound Barrier, a 1952 feature about a wealthy oilman with a passion for aviation who, in his quest to break the sound barrier, has already lost his son and chooses his daughter’s husband and World War II pilot to be one of the test pilots; Billy Liar, a 1963 comedy from director John Schlesinger about a working-class man who has dreams of escaping his dead-end job that finally meets a woman who just might inspire him to move out of his parents’ house; The Caper of the Golden Bulls, a 1967 comedy from writer and director Russell Rouse about a retired bank robber that is blackmailed by a former companion in to stealing some precious jewels at a bank in Spain; and Don’t Drink the Water, a 1969 comedy based on a play by actor, writer, and director Woody Allen.


Woody Allen Sues Amazon Studios for $68 Million

Director Woody Allen has filed a $68 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against Amazon Studios, alleging the company backed out of distributing his current movie, A Rainy Day in New York– part of a four-picture production and distribution deal.

Original movie and TV series directed by Allen for Amazon include Wonder Wheel (2017), starring Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Jim Belushi, and comedy series, “Crisis in Six Scenes,” which aired on Sept. 30, 2016.

The suit, filed Feb. 7 in U.S. District Court of New York, alleges Amazon last summer refused to distribute the movie after allegations resurfaced about Allen sexually molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992.

Allen, who has repeatedly denied the allegations, claims his relationship with Amazon Studios began to unravel after former studio boss Roy Price departed following his own inappropriate workplace behavior complaints, according to the suit.

“Amazon has tried to excuse its action by referencing a 25-year-old baseless allegation against Mr. Allen, but that allegation was already well-known to Amazon (and the public) before Amazon entered into four separate deals with Mr. Allen – and in any event, it does not provide a basis for Amazon to terminate the contract,” read the suit.

Amazon, according to the complaint, cited Allen’s “own controversial comments” about the pedophilia charges, the increasing “refusal of top talent to work with him or be associated with him in any way” for terminating the agreement.

An Amazon representative wasn’t immediately available for comment.