Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews, Television

Review: Ten from Your Show of Shows

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Ten from Your Show of Shows is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It is a film reproduction of kinescopic records made of live television performances from some 20 years ago. Comedy writer-director Max Liebman and his technicians have done a fine job of suiting the kinescope prints to the giant screen; and, though the end result never looks like a movie, it is eminently watchable.

In rendering unto us the things that were Caesar’s, Liebman’s compilation offers an important reminder that the cinema need not always be an exclusively creative medium. The earliest filmmakers used the motion picture camera merely to record reality; story films consisted of stage plays acted out before stationary cameras. But Georges Méliès discovered that, far from just recording his magic shows, he could use his camera to make new magic; associative editing appeared; cameras began to move; and, except for the newsreels, cinema ceased to be an objective record of a live event. The Sixties saw signs of a reemergence of this forgotten function of film, with the “Electronovision” record of Sir John Gielgud’s Broadway production of Richard Burton’s Hamlet in 1964, and a film series of stage comedy sketches entitled A Session with the Committee (1968). Liebman’s release of ten comedy skits from Sid Caesar’s program Your Show of Shows offers the most impressive proof yet that cinema can serve as an objective preserver of live entertainment that normally would go unrecorded. The movies have long since come to TV; but to bring television entertainment to the movie audience is quite a different matter.

It is not just a coincidence that most of the reviews of Ten from Your Show of Shows have been in the first person. For those who can remember when television was new and programs were broadcast live, seeing these old beloved shows offers a special nostalgic thrill and an unavoidable opportunity to reminisce: “That’s my youth up there on the screen.” One formed a personal relationship with one’s TV set in those days, and made an almost spiritual commitment to one’s favorite shows. Television was more intimate then, not only because for the first time visual entertainment came into one’s livingroom (TV sets were always in the livingroom), but because—unlike the movies—television was watched alone or with a small circle of family and friends, and, because the shows were live, each flick of the dial meant a one-time-only experience. That special devotion obtains even today, long after television’s Golden Age has passed, and those who watched Your Show of Shows then see Liebman’s film now with the private, incommunicable emotion of one who has rediscovered a cherished but long-lost personal possession.

Those younger viewers, who never saw Caesar’s show, and who have grown up in the film-tape-and-rerun generation, regarding the TV set as just another babbling member of the family, to be observed or ignored, will discover in Liebman’s film a sense of the absorbing immediacy live television was able to capture. More important, they will sec for the first time a great and forgotten comic genius at his very best. As any good comedian should be, and as very few these days are, Sid Caesar is a consummate artist, with a depth and range that never cease to inspire awe, even while provoking gut-aching laughter. Sid Caesar was made for television. His comedy is often purely visual, never purely verbal, and always arrestingly intimate. We see aspects of ourselves in Caesar’s pathetics and in his grotesques: the painful self-criticism of a husband adjusting to the fact that his wife has wrecked the car (“Breaking the News”), the fated-to-offend shmoe whose every move at a music recital is predestined to create a deafening racket, the hard-driving board chairman who is far more interested in his undelivered lunch than in the windy agenda of a corporate conference (“Big Business”), the self-important German obsessed with the mystique of his uniform (in a routine obviously inspired by The Last Laugh), and the desperately reluctant guest of honor on a television reunion show (“This Is Your Story”).

In a movie-spoof (“From Here to Obscurity”), when Sergeant Carl Reiner pins a medal quite literally to Caesar’s chest, Caesar’s reactions are so intimate that the pain agonizes the audience. Caesar’s great beatnik saxophonist Progress Hornsby is unaccountably absent from the film; but present is the screwy German physicist Professor Ludwig von Spacebrain, who never failed to make idiots out of roving reporters. Three of the film’s ten routines are almost entirely physical: “At the Movies” is pure slapstick, with obvious roots in the “standby” bits of vaudeville. “The Sewing Machine Girl” parodies the sentimentality of maudlin silent films, and features Caesar and cast in a remarkable mechanization of the human body. On the other end of the scale is one of the very greatest Caesar skits, “The Clock of Bauernhof”, a masterpiece of comic timing that depicts the humanization of a machine in the unpredictable doings of figures on an intricate Bavarian clock that’s starting to go bad. Joining Caesar in nearly all the routines are the three members of his repertory company: Imogene Coca, always excellent, and downright brilliant as Donna Reed in “From Here to Obscurity”; the very funny Carl Reiner, reduced to a virtual straight-man in Caesar’s presence; and mousy Howard Morris, who practically steals the stage from Caesar in “This Is Your Story.” These are magic moments. Thanks to Liebman, some of the Golden Age has come back to stay. Now if only someone would do the same for Ernie Kovacs, my world would be complete.

Direction: Max Liebman. Sketches written by Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin, Tony Webster, Max Liebman. Production: Liebman.
The Players: Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Louis Nye.

Copyright © 1974 Robert C. Cumbow