Wednesday, January 05, 2011

"WILL YOU WATCH THE BOOM SHADOWS ON MR. ALTMAN, PLEASE?!"




All I meant to do was log on my computer, check over some material and then shut down for the day. Well, as anyone who has logged on to a computer in the past 15 years is likely to know, when you do so you might well see an item on the sidebar which grabs your interest, and to click on it might well mean falling down a virtual rabbit hole, the beginning of a chain of clicks leading from one tangential subject to another until you’re so far removed from your original intent and focus that you might not even remember what that original intent and focus was. (Proponents of Chaos Theory must just love the Internets.) My home page is the MUBI Twitter feed, which is, for a film fan/critic/geek/whatever, just asking for trouble. And so as I do every day I peruse the offerings provided by David Hudson and company with anticipation, of course, but also a modicum of fear that I will get sent tumbling down the MUBI hole into a great tangled nest of connections and posts and articles and feeds from which I might likely never emerge to do any actual work. Today was ALMOST like that, but it turned out a little bit better, or more constructively, than usual.

I innocently clicked on a link which was titled “Mel Brooks’ Short-Lived Bromance with Cary Grant.” Sorry, but I’m unable to resist clicking on a link with a title like that. So I did, and it led me to a site called Old Hollywood, a beautiful Tumblr site full of beautiful, stark, impressionistic, you-name-it imagery from the classic early days of the American film industry. And on this site was posted, via YouTube, the following clip featuring Mel Brooks on the Tonight Show telling the story of his lunchtime dates with The Man Who Once Was Archie Leach:



From the looks of Brooks and Carson, I’d wager that the clip dates somewhere around 1978-1980. When I clicked on the embedded video to watch the clip again on YouTube, I stumbled on yet another Brooks clip, this one, I’m guessing, from the late ‘60s and the heyday of The Dick Cavett Show. Brooks is discussing his career and segues into a hilarious bit in which he does serviceable Bogart and Cagney impersonations— not Humphrey and Jimmy, but Bogart’s sister Susan and Cagney’s aunt. This bit leads to a pitch perfect bit on Sinatra singing “America the Beautiful” which, if you didn’t get the joke already, will lend a wonderful dimension to Brooks’ show-stopping “High Anxiety” number from the film of the same name:



Both of these clips are great treasures-- forgive my nostalgia-- from an era of TV talk shows where folks were just as likely to land on a panel for their qualities as fascinating people and raconteurs as for their need/desire to promote something. (In the Cavett clip brooks sits next to the perpetually smirking Rex Reed, who I can quite clearly recall being a fixture on Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore and other talk shows of my youth.) And these clips, oh, but they whetted my appetite for more Brooks on the cheaply carpeted chat show dais.



The lure of the virtual rabbit hole now droning in my ears, I glanced over to the sidebar on YouTube and spied something with the tantalizing descriptor “Brooks Bitches about Harry Cohn.” Good enough. I’ll bite. But what struck me, before Brooks even started on his banter, was that the clip opened with a brief shot of a very young (40-ish) Robert Altman sitting on the same panel. Of course I’d stumbled onto another clip from The Dick Cavett Show, this one more easily datable from around 1971, and as Brooks recalled a couple of amusing stories about the infamous Columbia Pictures martinet, the camera would occasionally cut to the reactions of the others on the panel. It was slowly revealed that the others on the panel were, in addition to Robert Altman, Frank Capra (whose book The Name Above the Title had just been published) and an almost unrecognizably youthful Peter Bogdanovich. Another glance at the sidebar revealed that someone on YouTube had made available, in six-to-eight minute segments, the entirety of an episode of The Dick Cavett Show where these four directors gathered at Cavett’s pad just to shoot the shit. It struck me immediately, of course, how much about TV talk shows really had changed. Bogdanovich and Brooks casually smoked on the set and traded observations about the film industry; Bogdanovich casually showed off his smarts about Hollywood History and critics (John Simon gets some well deserved bruising); Altman was kicked back and just freshly steaming off of MGM’s brusque treatment of Brewster McCloud (At one point Brooks almost made me choke with laughter over his hilarious ad lib interruption of Altman, which is quoted above); and Capra was not someone at whose feet the others sat but instead a colleague in art, with his own war stories to tell. Just try to imagine even suggesting such a summit meeting to the producers of shows hosted by Jay Leno, or Ellen DeGeneres, or Jimmy Kimmel, or David Letterman, or (shudder) Oprah Winfrey. We as a culture don’t have the investment in films as anything more than disposal entertainment that could possibly justify any of these shows constructing an hour around, say, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Judd Apatow and an old-schooler like, well, Bogdanovich. The producers would cry that no one would be interested, and they’d probably be right. But then again, none of these shows is loose enough in format to even possibly entertain the notion of an actual panel discussion about anything in the way that Cavett’s show was geared, or Carson’s, or Mike Douglas’s.


So it was with some excitement that I realized that most of this particular episode of The Dick Cavett Show was probably all right here, which is when my afternoon became dedicated to piecing the puzzle together and providing some context. How much more relaxed and enjoyable this kind of program seems to me now, in an age where promotion and synergy and bombast has all but replaced the space where guests on shows like these used to pause to take breaths, to think about their next comment, and where the hosts actually seemed interested in what their guests had to say.

Forgive me if I have bungled the order of the segments, but as far as I can tell this should work. (If it doesn’t, go ahead and click out of my order—see if I care!) The first segment on Altman has had its embedding capability disabled at the source, but you can click the link and access it just fine. Then come on back here and enjoy the rest of this brilliantly, casually entertaining show.

Part One, in which Dick Cavett introduces his first guest, Robert Altman

Part Two: Old pal Mel Brooks joins in the fun…



Part Three: Brash, young and scholarly, Peter Bogdanovich spins stories of the glorious days of black and white…



Part Four: Bogdanovich ain’t done. Hear now tales of Leo McCarey and others…



Part Five: But that’s not all, folks! A discussion of critics leads Bogdanovich to level down on John Simon…



Part Six: In which poor, meek, demure Mr. Brooks gets a word in edgewise (!) about Harry Cohn…



Part Seven: Legendary director Frank Capra, inspired by Altman’s tales of studio interference and market research screenings, talks about his own woes with Lost Horizon



Part Eight: More from Capra on Lost Horizon and Dirigible



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If anyone knows of any missing pieces to this audio/visual puzzle with which I could update this post, your input would be most appreciated. My thanks to David Hudson and MUBI for so innocently making sure that today’s tumble down the virtual rabbit hole would be so rewarding and enjoyable in a manner that entirely balances out its devastation to my daily timetable!

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8 comments:

Flickhead said...

You can rent it from Netflix:

http://movies.netflix.com/Movie/The-Dick-Cavett-Show-Hollywood-Greats/70053767?trkid=147042

Jake said...

I adore Dick Cavett. It was way before my time, but I stumbled across his show via the Orson Welles interview that got posted on YouTube (I do wish they'd put in some ordering for these vids) and was hooked. For all its stale qualities, I love the late-night format for the spontaneity that can come from the rigid formula. Ferguson, Conan and of course Johnny excelled at this, as did Letterman (at least during his Late Night and early Late Show days), but Cavett did something entirely different. No one ever went on just to plug something; celebrities went there to have a proper interview and it loosened them up.

Have you by any chance seen Kevin Pollak's Chat Show? His videos are up on YouTube and he has his own site where he livestreams new episodes and archives older ones. For about 2.5 hours, he just gets into his guests. Like Cavett, Pollak doesn't have to have someone on to please a sponsor or spend five minutes hawking some crap because NBC Universal is also funding the film. He just did an interview with Billy Bob Thorton that was incredible. After about 45 minutes, Thorton realizes that he really is just there because Pollak finds him interesting and he opens up in a fascinating way. There's a joy in watching all the guests slowly realize that no one is waiting off-camera to cut to commercial and that Pollak doesn't just have six pat questions on a card. The show is modeled aesthetically after Charlie Rose, but I think it taps into the more laid-back and conversational Cavett show than Rose's more journalistic setup (i.e. ask questions then step back where Cavett and Pollak interact without interrupting).

Peter Nellhaus said...

Hey, I was on the Dick Cavett show! Really. OK, I was in the audience, but I was there. If you watch the episode with Federico Fellini and Tony Curtis, you'll see me in the balcony, if you blow the image up about a thousand fold and adjust the lighting. I'm sitting near Mardik Martin so you'll know how to find me easier.

Robert Fiore said...

Nothing to do with the current post, but I notice that currently playing on one screen at the Mission Tiki Drive-In is a double bill of Yogi Bear and True Grit, a program that might be subtitled "The Agony and the Ecstasy." How often do you find on the same program the year's movies you were looking forward to seeing the most and the least? Truly an incongruous double feature for the ages. A bonus: If you told yourself you wouldn't see Yogi Bear until Hell freezes over, it will be awfully cold at the drive-in.

aaron said...

The Brooks "Tonight Show" is actually one of the last from Carson's run -- I think the 3rd last episode? (Jack Lemmon follows, then-promoting GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.)

The full "Dick Cavett" roundtable is available on DVD in a great set entitled "Hollywood Legends". (I've never loved Robert Mitchum more than the 70-odd minutes spent in his company on another episode located on one of the discs. I think he was promoting RYAN'S DAUGHTER.)

My personal "Tonight Show" catnip is another Brooks: Albert! There are several available on youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnbmkfDt3-A

mike schlesinger said...

Dennis, the entire program is part of the DICK CAVETT: HOLLYWOOD GREATS DVD set from Shout! Factory. A must-have, as is the companion set COMIC LEGENDS.

Brian Doan said...

I just picked up Cavett's recent book, TALK SHOW, which collects his NY TIMES columns, many of which talk about his experiences hosting the show. It's a very fun read. I can't remember if he mentions this episode, but I now want to run to the index to see! Thanks for posting the great clips!

Marty McKee said...

I'm the PIMannix who posted the Brooks/Grant clip on YouTube, and, yes, it's from the end of Johnny's run when he was making his "farewell" tour and bringing the big names for one last time on the couch.