When Judge Maurice Cobbs has someone over for Christmas, he expects them to stay for a while.
"I…I guess you're right. The customer is always right. And this jerk is a customer!"—Mel Blanc, sobbing hysterically
What a cruel thing to do.
Christmas With Jack Benny, the colorful cover of this DVD proudly boasts. And who could object to that? Who wouldn't want to spend Christmas with one of the funniest men in showbiz history? Jack Benny has always been one of my favorite comedians; Jack kept me in stitches with seemingly innocuous phrases like "Now cut that out!" or the by-now legendary "Well…!" When I was a kid, I listened to a cassette tape with excerpts of his old radio shows until it fell apart (what can I say? I was a weird kid). Although his radio persona was a vain, self-absorbed, talentless miser, the real man was completely the opposite, and oddly enough, it came through; the jokes were usually at Jack's expense, he proved himself a master of comic timing on a weekly basis, and he even gave the bulk of the best lines to his brilliant supporting cast.
Luckily, when Jack made the jump to television, he brought the cast of the radio show with him, along with his show's unique comic style—a style that would eventually evolve into what we know as the sitcom. Giddy with anticipation, I popped a big bowl of popcorn, fired up the trusty old DVD player, and settled my bones for a long winter's night of Jack Benny hilarity with Jack and Mel Blanc and Dennis Day and Mary Livingstone (Jack's real-life wife) and Barbara Pepper and Rochester, of course. You're looking at pure comedy platinum, here.
I just didn't expect to be looking at so little of it.
Are the shows funny? You'd better believe it, brother. It's a sign of the quality of the cast and material when you realize that the radio show made the jump to television with almost nothing changed; the pregnant pauses that were so much a part of Jack's delivery on the radio worked equally well as a visual gag. And the show was as big a hit on TV as it was on the radio; audiences couldn't get enough of Jack's misadventures. I know that I couldn't, and that's the big problem I have with this release.
Not that the presented shows don't deliver the goods. Mel Blanc's scenes in the Christmas episode, as a salesman having a day that anyone who works retail can relate to, nearly suffocated me with laughter; I might sue, because I almost choked on my popcorn. Not even Jack himself can keep a straight face during some of Mel's scenes—oh, the perils of live television! The rest of the cast holds their own as well, and there are even a few cameos to keep the audience rolling. This was one of a series of annual episodes from The Jack Benny Program detailing Jack's disastrous attempts at holiday shopping, and it's certainly one of the funniest.
The New Year's Eve episode is more bittersweet than funny—Jack finds himself alone on New Year's Eve after getting stood up at the last minute. But faithful friend Rochester sacrifices his own plans to see the New Year in with Jack. I can tell you with all honesty that nobody—and I mean nobody—can get so many laughs out of a blank expression as Jack Benny can, and his deadpan delivery and on-the-spot comic timing are something to see.
As much as I enjoyed these episodes, I couldn't help but think to myself, "That's it?" Considering the number of annual Christmas and New Year's Eve programs that the Jack Benny Program (and later, The Jack Benny Show) presented, this strikes me as an awfully skimpy disc. I also suspect (although I haven't any hard evidence) that the episodes are trimmed a little here and there. To add insult to injury, Koch Vision hasn't even given us very good transfers—pretty standard-looking, actually, for public-domain releases. Which is to say, pretty shoddy. Still, I suppose that the episodes aren't as bad as they could be…but the lack of picture and sound quality coupled with the skimpy offering of episodes adds up to a pretty underwhelming disc. If Koch had taken the time to plan a release of Jack Benny Christmas shows, why wouldn't they take the time to see to it that the viewer gets his money's worth? This smacks of a quickly tossed-together offering that was geared toward making a quick buck, rather than bringing joy to the masses (so to speak).
Heaven knows we could use some more Jack Benny on DVD—but Scrooge-like offerings like this one only whet the appetite. More, please!
Case dismissed—for lack of evidence.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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