It has been nearly 40 years since Jack Benny died in 1974, even longer since his TV series ended a 15-year prime-time run. But he still ranks among the great comedians, and you can get a taste of why in a new DVD collection.
The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes presents 18 selected telecasts from 1953 to 1964 and bonus material such as sketches from Benny's television specials, Benny bits from newsreels and a discussion among two Benny associates and writer-actor Harry Shearer, who as a child actor worked on Benny's TV and radio shows.
The black-and-white programs were digitally remastered from Benny's personal kinescopes (an early TV-recording process) and, even with some signs of age and technical limitations, are more than watchable. None has been seen since its original telecast, and they are episodes apart from the ones appearing in public-domain collections over the years. (A fine essay included in the DVD set covers technical and other issues that kept many Benny episodes out of circulation.) The cable network called Antenna TV also airs old episodes.
The show itself is more of a variety show, including monologues, sketches and musical numbers, all anchored by Benny's screen personality — famously cheap, more than a little vain but able to destroy an audience with a carefully timed pause. It's a carryover from his radio show, which Benny preferred to TV, because he could play more with the audience's imagination on radio. Also carried over, and sometimes the best part of the show, are commercials integrated into the program, including in comedy sketches that managed to simultaneously tout products and make fun of the promotional process.
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The guest list in the DVD set is impressive, including former President Harry S. Truman, Jack Paar, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Natalie Wood and Benny's close friend George Burns. But it's the great Benny who makes it all work.
The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes retails for $29.93 on DVD.
These DVDs were also released this week:
Films: Ginger and Rosa; Trance; Starbuck; Pieta; The Silence (2010); Twixt (2011, gothic horror tale directed by Francis Ford Coppola); Welcome to the Punch; Love and Honor; The Wedding Chapel; Babette's Feast (1987, The Criterion Collection); A Viking Saga: The Darkest Day; Vanishing Waves; House Party: Tonight's the Night; New World; Robotech: 2-Movie Collection (1985, 2013); The King of the Streets; Kiss of the Damned; The Gangster; Dora and Blue's Clues Double Feature: Dora's Musical School Days and Blue's Big Musical Movie.
TV series: Superjail! Season 3; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 3 (1989-90).
THE WASHINGTON POST