The last time on From the Archives that we checked in on Jack Benny, it was towards the end of his career, in 1973. While he was getting on in years, his oft-complimented timing was still just as sharp as it always was, and he still put on a good show. However, judging any comedian’s performance at the age of 79 seems a little unfair, unless they’re George Burns, so today we’re going to examine Jack Benny at his peak, with the help of the new Shout Factory DVD The Jack Benny Show: The Lost Episodes.
I’ve spoken many times in this column about the various studios in the early days of TV not seeing the long term prospects of the their shows and either not preserving them, or wiping the tapes to make space to record new ones. The main way that these shows were recorded was through the kinescope process, which was the highly technical method of pointing a camera at a TV monitor and pressing record. This was seen as a short-term thing, used to show sponsors how their live commercials went, or in some cases, to broadcast a show later if an affiliate wanted to shuffle time slots. The episodes of The Jack Benny Show presented on these discs are restored from original kinescopes that have never been aired since they were originally broadcast more than sixty years ago. So how do they hold up? How does Jack Benny, the biggest radio star of the thirties and forties make the transition to television? Let’s take a closer look at a few of these episodes.
The most interesting episode on the set, from a historical perspective, is also the most atypical. It originally aired on October 18, 1959. Here are the three main factors that make it different from other episodes of The Jack Benny Show: 1. It’s basically an infomercial, 2. Major sections of it were pre-taped on location, rather than a TV set, and 3. It features a former president in the cast. To celebrate the opening of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, Jack is invited to visit and is given a guided tour by the president. The episode is more of a thirty minute guided tour than a comedy show, and while there are the occasional jokes, such as Jack’s refusal to let go of a solid gold paperweight due to his love of money, it is lacking any kind of plot beyond “Jack remembers the time he went to the Truman Library.” I like Jack Benny and history and I only made it through the episode out of a sense of duty, knowing that I was going to write about it. (My wife, who was shown this episode with the thought that having a long dead president as a co-star would make for an interesting introduction to Jack Benny, did not make it through.)
But one should definitely not judge the set by that one (horrible) episode. There is some really great stuff in this set. For my money, the best episode is one of the latest ones, chronologically, airing on January 29, 1963 and featuring guest star and “new comedian” Dick Van Dyke. Guest stars were a frequent occurrence on Jack Benny, but I can think of no other guest who was put to work so thoroughly as Van Dyke. Benny brings him out in the opening monologue to introduce him to the audience and he performs the song “Wherever I Lay My Hat (Is Home).” Thinking his time on the show is over, Dick remarks to Jack that he doesn’t know what Jack’s previous guest stars are talking about who complain that Jack works guests to death. Jack then breaks the news to Dick that he’s appearing in the next sketch, set in London, entitled “The Murder of Clayton Worthington.” In it, Jack plays a detective investigating a murder, and the humor comes from Jack asking to interview person after person, each played by Van Dyke in a different wig, or dress, or what have you. The bit proceeds with Jack asking for more and more difficult roles with greater frequency, eventually asking for the butler to come out just so he can ask him to get the maid, and while Dick is no doubt acting exhausted at the end, I imagine it wasn’t much of a stretch. It’s a great showcase of his skills as a character actor and is very enjoyable to watch the young man at his peak.
In addition to the regular cast of characters, such as Rochester (Eddie Anderson), Benny’s valet and chauffeur, Mary Livingstone, occasional love interest and real life wife, announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, and “whatever role he’s needed for” Mel Blanc, there’s a bevy of famous guest stars. A young George Burns plays the devil in the Benny version of Damn Yankees in which Jack trades his soul to become a violin virtuoso, and ends up performing beautifully in a wacky orchestra conducted by Spike Jones. Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle plays himself and insists that Jack perform broader comedy with wacky costumes, constant punchlines, and pies in faces. There was a lot of humor to be mined from forcing Jack into a much different comedic persona than the one he had cultivated over so many years, and seeing this difference caused me to wonder if Milton Berle was the Dane Cook of the 1950s with his over the top performing style, loud delivery, “rumors” of joke theft. (Rumors in quotes because Uncle Milty made no bones about the fact that he stole from other comedians.)
There’s also a nice assortment of entertaining bonus material, across the discs as well. These include some clips from some of Benny’s 1970s television specials, featuring a sketch in which we see The Jack Benny Show of the future that were performed previously on the TV show, as well as the radio show in the 1940s. There’s a collection of Hearst newsreels featuring material dating all the way back to the 1930s when Jack was just starting out as a national comedian. These are especially fascinating because the footage is unedited and is often features multiple takes, so you can see Benny slip in and out of character and attempt different angles on his material. The final piece of bonus material is a conversation between director Norman Abbott, Benny’s secretary Dorothy Ohman and Harry Shearer (yes, The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer) who was a child actor on the show. They discuss their experiences with Jack on and off the set and provide a rare document as to just what it was like to make this show every week.
This set is an interesting one in that it is comprised of lost episodes that haven’t been seen outside of the UCLA Film Archives for years, so while they are a wonderful treat for fans of Jack Benny, it also serves as a fine introduction to the show if you’ve never seen it before. All of Jack’s running jokes and many of his classic radio bits are represented here, and some episodes, such as the previously mentioned Van Dyke episode, are fantastic episodes of television as a whole. Shout! Factory has done a wonderful job presenting these episodes with care and respect. If you regularly enjoy the old comedy I profile in this column, I can safely bet that you’ll enjoy this DVD set as well.