It’s hard to fathom just how controversial The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was in its day. Their brand of political satire, pointed barbs on topical events and political figures with a gentle delivery, was consistently censored by the network, which yanked the show (a ratings hit consistently in the top twenty) for its refusal to buckle under pressure. This four-disc set, which collects 11 stand-out episodes of its third and final season supplemented with new introductions by Tom and Dick Smothers and interviews with writers and performers, goes some way to reminding us of its audacity, especially as they call out the network and its censors in sketches and stage repartee.
The video quality is surprisingly good for this show, which (from what I can see) was shot on video rather than film and thus more prone to degradation with age, but video and audio quality aside, this is an amazing piece of social history. They open the third season with the song “We’re Still Here” that border on a taunt of CBS censors and are rewarded with part of that very episode – a Harry Belafonte performance set to footage of the Democratic Convention riots and campus protests – cut from the broadcast. The sequence has been restored for the DVD. Throughout the shows they make reference to censorship and takes jabs at political figures and discomforting issues, and were rewarded with more censorship (one entire episode was yanked – it’s in the set) and finally cancellation. “We weren’t canceled,” Dick Smothers corrects in one of the new interviews. “We were fired.” And so they were, taken off the air with the show in the top twenty. Apart from the great political satire, the shows feature great musical performances (The Ike and Tina Turner Revue spot is worth the set by itself, and Dion’s performance of “Abraham, Martin and John” is devastating) and comedy bits, including Pat Paulsen’s presidential campaign. The one-hour tongue-in-cheek 1968 TV special Pat Paulsen for President, narrated by Henry Fonda, is one of many supplements.
In his audio introduction to this collection, Tommy Smothers worries that the shows are too slow, the comedy too dated, the politics no longer relevant. He needn’t worry. 40 year later, the political satire of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” is still sharp and the humor as cheeky as ever, while their folk-song spots and trademark byplay underplays the edge of the material.
Also new this week is Criterion’s release of Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon:
Yasujiro Ozu is so often described as the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors that it’s often overlooked that he’s also the most consistently contemporary of directors. His final film features a classic Ozu story – a middle-aged widower (Ozu’s favorite actor, Chisu Ryu) realizes that he must marry his grown daughter off, at the risk of his own loneliness – told with the gentle elegance of the mature master filmmaker. But it’s also a snapshot of old values in the modern world and Ozu’s simple, subtly beautiful images of serenity are still lives of the contemporary landscape: a look through an open window, with smokestacks outside and smoke drifting by gently, like a lazy stream floating in the air.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
Jean Dujardin is picture perfect as the Bond-like, French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias OSS 117, a culturally illiterate colonial agent sent to Egypt as it prepares to nationalize the Suez Canal, in this clever spy spoof from France…. The tongue-in-cheek spy spoof is crammed with wry comic schtick (love the homo-erotic flashbacks) while offering barbed commentary on western arrogance and blundering imperialism in the Arab world.
TV: Sports Night: The Complete Series – Tenth Anniversary Edition, Beauty And The Beast: The Complete Series and This American Life:
Ira Glass adapts his award winning public radio series, a idiosyncratic mix of documentary and memoir, into an Emmy Award-winning TV show (Best Nonfiction Series, shared with “American Masters”) for Showtime. Fans of the original audio incarnation will recognize the first episodes, which essentially rework some of the most oddly and intriguingly human stories for TV, but the show really creates its own, distinctively visual sensibility in “The Cameraman”…
Abel Gance began shooting his harrowing anti-war drama while World War I was raging, when such sentiments were certainly not encouraged by a government straining to support the war effort, but the time was ripe when it finally came months after it ended. France was devastated and the film is appropriately devastating. What begins as a love triangle melodrama of star-crossed lovers ripped apart by war turns into a veritable love story between two men, comrades in arms brought together by battle and the mutual love of the same woman. By the third act, which includes footage shot on the front lines and quotes from letters written by soldier in the trenches, all fantasy of the glory of battle is buried in the mud and blood of the new industrial warfare and no one, soldier or civilian, escapes unscathed.
The Blu-ray release of this seventies grunge classic poses a legitimate question: what should a high definition transfer of a grainy 16mm indie film from the seventies look like? MPI gives a satisfactory answer with this release. While there are some scratches and a few film jumps and jerks that could (and surely should) have been digitally corrected, MPI’s master preserves the original look of the film: the grain, the drab seventies colors, the gloomy darkness of the house as I remember it from the 35mm blow-up prints that played in theaters.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.