When Jack Benny died in December 1974 at the age of 80, it marked the end of a 62-year career in show business. You name it — vaudeville, radio, television, movies — Jack Benny excelled at it. Born in Waukegan, Illinois, Benny got his start on an entertainment career in 1912 in Chicago as a violin player. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy after the United States entered the First World War in 1917, and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station in his native Waukegan. It was during his time there that Benny’s future was really set after performing some successful comedy material for the “Great Lakes Revue” in a benefit for the Navy.
Throughout the 1920s, Benny was very active in vaudeville, gradually developing a solo comedy act that eventually made him a headliner. By late in the decade, he was also emceeing variety shows that contained his own act. Then, in 1929, Benny was signed to a five-year contract by MGM, where he appeared in Chasing Rainbows and emceed Hollywood Revue of 1929. The latter contained an impressive lineup of MGM talent, including Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Joan Crawford, and also debuted the song “Singin’ in the Rain.” MGM seemed to lose interest thereafter, and Jack appeared in a few independent productions including Tiffany’s The Medicine Man (1930) before MGM released him from his contract.
Early in the 1930s, Jack found a comfortable niche in radio, going on the air for the first time in March 1932. For the next 23 years, Benny would be a constant on radio with a show that quickly became among the most popular being broadcast. The shows were broadcast from New York until May 1936, and then moved permanently to Los Angeles. By the end of the 1930s, Jack’s regular cast members were in place, including his real-life wife as radio girlfriend Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson as Rochester, singer Dennis Day, and announcer Don Wilson. The show continued with NBC until the end of 1948, switching to CBS thereafter.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Benny was also busy in films, appearing in the likes of: Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1934), Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), It’s in the Air (1935), The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), College Holiday (1936), Artists and Models (1937), Artists and Models Abroad (1938), and Man About Town (1939). The beginning of the 1940s saw Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), Love Thy Neighbor (1940), Charley’s Aunt (1941), and one of his most memorable roles in To Be or Not to Be (1942). Later there would be George Washington Slept Here (1942), The Meanest Man in the World (1943), and The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945, Benny’s last starring performance).
The new medium of television beckoned and after a test program for CBS in 1949, the first official television appearance occurred in October 1950. Most of Jack’s regular players from radio moved over to television without missing a beat. New intermittent regulars included Mel Blanc (the great WB animation voice in various roles) and Frank Nelson (“Yeeesssss?”). The half-hour shows were broadcast occasionally to start and then became more regular (one every three weeks) for the 1953/1954 season. The following year, they were aired on a biweekly basis and finally in 1960, they became a weekly fixture. During the late 1950s, several hour-long specials were also broadcast. The half-hour programs continued on CBS until the end of the 1963/1964 season and then switched over to NBC for one final season, with the last show being aired in April 1965. For the rest of his career, Jack would appear irregularly on television in various specials.
The various television programs generally followed one of two formats. They would either begin with a monologue by Benny followed by some interaction with that week’s guest star(s) and finally a skit, or they would be entirely situation comedies featuring Jack and his regular players (sometimes with guest stars included). There were many continuing themes (such as Jack’s cheapness, his perennial 39-year-old age, or his excruciating violin playing) that were frequently worked into the skits or situations.
Anyone familiar with the Benny programs is well aware of how funny much of the material was and continues to be. A representative collection of it would be most welcome on DVD and Passport Video has attempted to provide us with such a collection. Called The Jack Benny Collection, it contains five discs, each running about an hour, that contain the 1930 feature film The Medicine Man, six episodes of Jack’s television program from the period 1954 to 1961, and one of the hour-long television specials from 1959. The television programs that Passport has selected comprise mostly first-rate Benny material. The feature film selected is Benny’s worst big screen effort.
Let’s get the worst out of the way first. In 1930’s The Medicine Man, Benny plays a smooth-talking, traveling medicine salesman who tries to come to the aid of a couple of youngsters suffering under an abusive father. There are a few mildly amusing moments, but this is not a film that features any of the standard Benny comedy. The film is static, lacking any spark of inventiveness, and even at 66 minutes, it drags badly. Yes, it’s of value to see Benny in a very early role, but that’s not enough to sustain interest beyond about a quarter of an hour. The film co-stars Betty Bronson, with appearances from familiar faces George E. Stone and Tommy Dugan. The film appears alone on Disc One of the collection.
In its selection of Benny’s television material, Passport is on safer ground. Disc Two contains the January 1954 show featuring Liberace, and a March 1954 show with Bing Crosby, George Burns, and Bob Hope. Disc Three has the February 1958 show called “Jack at the Races” and an April 1959 show featuring Ed Sullivan and Genevieve. Disc Four contains the December 1957 “Christmas Shopping Show” with Mel Blanc and Frank Nelson, and the December 1961 “New Year’s Eve Show.” Disc Five has one of the hour-long Jack Benny Hour specials originally aired in November 1959. Featured are Danny Thomas, Raymond Burr, and the McGuire Sisters. With the exception of “Jack at the Races,” and to a lesser extent the “New Year’s Eve Show,” these are all classic programs. The material is very funny and it’s a delight to see some familiar performers in less-than-familiar situations (such as Ed Sullivan and Raymond Burr). Danny Thomas, Bing Crosby, George Burns, and Liberace are all more conventionally cast in the skits that feature them, but the writing is sharp and the stars seem delighted to have their normal personas mocked. Benny and his guests don’t worry excessively if they can’t keep from laughing themselves at the material while they perform it, but that’s no problem as it only adds to the general hilarity. Jack’s regulars, especially Rochester and Don Wilson, are in good form in the various sequences involving them.
Unfortunately, the DVD presentation lets down all the material badly. Passport is a company that specializes in public domain material, so it is no surprise that the quality here is not high. The choice of The Medicine Man as the representative feature is not surprising since it’s probably the only Benny title that isn’t still under copyright. But the film is so poor, and the source material used here is so ragged-looking (speckles, scratches, soft and poor contrast image, edge effects, extremely noisy sound), that it’s virtually unwatchable. The television shows fare a little better, but they still suffer from poor contrast, edge effects, and ragged source material. The sound is inconsistent. Overall, they’re at least watchable enough to appreciate the Benny comedy mastery. Everything is presented full frame as originally broadcast. There are no supplementary features.
The material included seems to be complete, with one exception. Most of the McGuire Sisters portion of the hour-long special is missing, so that the program clocks in at only three-quarters of an hour.
Despite Passport’s efforts, we’re unfortunately still waiting for a decent DVD tribute to the genius of Jack Benny. Passport’s release is better than nothing, I suppose, but that’s not enough to be able to give The Jack Benny Collection any sort of recommendation. For starters, Passport would have been better advised to have dropped The Medicine Man from the set and included more television shows, even though the image quality isn’t great. It wouldn’t have hurt to include some supplementary material either, such as a good sampling of the Benny radio show material that exists.
Given the quality of what Passport has come up with, you’d be as far ahead seeking out broadcasts of the Benny shows on a few of the cable channels that specialize in old television shows and copying them yourself.