In the words of Leo Schnauser, over-excited philosopher and loudmouth extraordinaire of the Bronx’s 53rd precinct, “Why WOULD’NT I be thrilled at the Shanachie DVD release of CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON?!!! I’m supposed to love the first one, and not like the second? Same cast, same great writing, plus guest stars – and more footage devoted to me! Are you CRAZY? Don’t answer, I already know!”
Leo (aka Al “Grandpa” Lewis), of course, is right – and for all of those reasons. This terrific 4-disc set contains all of the second series – 30 episodes – re-mastered from the original 35MM negatives, plus a supplement which has to be experienced to be believed.
For those who’ve read my take on the first season (http://pingroof.com/review/ooooh-ooooh-dvd-takes-a-spin-with-car-54), it may be difficult to fathom how a subsequent year could have been possible – let alone maintained the high quality of writing, acting and directing. Yet, this it does in spades; in short, there isn’t a dud in the box – all the more remarkable for the ever-present negative human factor of the show (ironically one of its major attractions), the chronic masturbating, between-takes-hooker-schtupping, verbally abusive Joe E. Ross, better known to classic TV fans as Officer Gunther Toody.
His offensive inappropriate behavior nearly sank CAR 54 during its first season; virtually despised by both cast and crew, he additionally took his toll on the show’s brilliant creator, Nat Hiken. Series regular Hank Garrett is convinced that Ross severely contributed to Hiken’s failing health and way-too-early demise from heart failure in 1968. In the Season One Box Set extra, hosted by Robert Klein, Garrett and other surviving cast trouper Charlotte Rae visibly became nauseated at the mere mention of Ross’ name – and, this, fifty years after production ceased.
Threats to Ross apparently did calm him down a bit – but not enough. It’s evident throughout SEASON TWO that much of Ross’ footage is pared down, giving large amounts of screen time to the other veterans of the force (possibly, at least at one point, hoping to eventually squeeze Toody out altogether). There was also a concentration on numerous guest stars – a virtual Who’s-Who of nightclub/TV/burlesque funnymen (and women). Hiken’s hands-on participation was greatly diminished as well. While the writer-director still supervised the finished episodes, he was no longer the sole director, or even co-scripter. That said, he still worked closely with the great crew of comic geniuses, including director Stanley Prager and writers Billy Friedberg, Tony Webster, Terry Ryan, Art Baer, Ben Joelson, Robert Van Scoyk and Gary Belkin. It’s also relevant to note that Ross’ interaction with cast members are often done in two and three shots – where Toody’s reactions and dialogue were obviously done without the presence of the other players.
The guest stars, who range from Mitch Miller to a sidesplitting semi-regular Larry Storch (as the neighborhood drunk, who, by the mere mention of the local watering holes, becomes thoroughly inebriated). Another recurring part in the CAR 54 roster is Ossie Davis as disgruntled officer Omar Anderson. Ditto Molly Picon, reprising her role as Rachel Bronson in two entries, plus Jules Munshin, Charles Nelson Reilly, Mickey Deems, Arlene Golonka, Kenny Delmar, Godfrey Cambridge, Jean Stapleton and many other familiar and delightful folk. More footage is given to Leo and his perfect match spouse Sylvia (Rae); in fact, SEASON TWO allows Mrs. Schnauser to truly shine – exhibiting the identical drama queen audible attributes of her infuriating husband. There was indeed talk of a spin-off (with the astute moniker of The Schnausers), which, unfortunately, never got out of the TV pitch gate (check out the wonderful color Drew Friedman caricature of the couple on the back DVD jacket). FYI, SEASON TWO spilled over the continued running gag of Schnauser’s name being constantly misspelled (as Schnauzer) at the 53rd.
What little joy harbored by the creators and performers was aimed at Ross. His character was often compared to a moron – in one case the lesser of two oxen (A Man is Not an Ox), or, to be allegorically precise – an oxymoron; in another a horse (Schnauser’s Last Ride) – specifically a certain part of the equine anatomy. In a Manchurian Candidate-inspired discussion (Toody and Muldoon Meet the Russians), the concept of Gunther getting brainwashed is shrugged off as “…a light rinse.” And so it goes – the few inside perks of the new season.
Alas, by spring of 1963, in spite of still-strong Top Ten ratings, Hiken & Co. had enough. Even watered-down Joe E. Ross proved detrimental to the required survival rate. Bottom line – if you can’t have fun on a comedy show, time to pull the plug.
This brings us to the supplemental extra on the tail end of Disc 4 – a rare homegrown 16MM-shot example of post-CAR 54 Joe E. Ross. Looking like it was filmed in his apartment’s laundry room, Ross does his stand-up act for what appears to be a handful of friends, whose forced laughs suggest that they are either too stoned, too loyal or under the threat of death. Can’t really blame them, though – as Ross’ routine is possibly the worst comic performance I have ever seen. In fact, it’s probably the most heinous event ever to befall comedy since the birth of Hal Skelly (a baggy pants atrocity – and I thought I’d never say this – even more repugnant than El Brendel!). Ross solo is a triple threat: bad material, bad timing, bad presentation. It’s a totally disgusting affair that is guaranteed to leave a foul taste in one’s mouth.
I watched this grueling twenty-hour (twelve minutes in real time) gig on a beautiful crisp spring afternoon; yet, upon its conclusion, I swear I was covered with the stench of stale tobacco, staler liquor and trapped in a sweat-stained insomniac world where it was perennially three AM. Ross’ support group, who I envision as third-rate mobsters and their molls – the types of whom roomed at Sidney Fields’ boarding house on The Abbott & Costello Show – sporadically chortle at the plethora of unfunny jokes (whose set-ups and punchlines Ross often forgets: “I – no, no…I started off on the wrong joke…”) and terrible impressions. I give the following as examples: a painful anecdote about how Raymond Massey thought he actually was Lincoln and was shot by an actor who thought he was John Wilkes Booth. Funny? FUNNEEE?!!! Or howzbout “Dean Martin should be on Bourbon Street Beat.” And then there’s that nurse was so old that when she was young “…Howard Johnson only had one flavor.” Refusing to leave the dead horse in peace, he adds, “She was Sophie Tucker’s babysitter.” And these are the gems! Truthfully, if all deliveries were like his, the world would be eating free Domino’s Pizza.
The one high point, if such a thing is possible, is Ross’ impersonation of his idol – not surprisingly, Wallace Beery (whom he slightly resembles), another legendary friendless SOB, who, basically, made life miserable for anyone within smelling distance. The Shanachie notes herald this unearthed segment as “hilarious.” Hell-larious is more like it – a must only for car/train wreck fans. Yet, I suppose it does remain a tribute (albeit a backhanded one) to a man, who, amazingly, for a short period of time, was one of the most identifiable and beloved individuals in America.
But let’s not get away from the key point: CAR 54: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is an absolute necessity for classic TV/comedy fans. As mentioned earlier – every one of the 30 episodes has something to recommend it; here are a few of my personal favorites:
Hail to the Chief. The liberal bent of the series is personified by Fred Gwynne’s Francis Muldoon’s idolizing JFK. When the President and the First Lady are scheduled for a Manhattan visit, Toody and Muldoon are given the assignment of driving the Chief Executive. The only problem is that Muldoon is so in awe of Kennedy that the mere mention of his name causes the officer to pass out.
142 Tickets on the Aisle. The 53rd’s plan for a theater party goes south when every show on Broadway is sold out. Toody and Muldoon think they’ve solved the problem by scoring 142 available seats to the musical Little Miss Pioneer – the only dog on the Great White Way. When the cops are seen surrounding the box office, word gets out that it’s a raunchy Lolita-type production about to be shut down…and the ticket sales soar. I always admired George Stoetzel’s crisp early Sixties multi-borough location photography – and what a treat to see the actual marquees from those Camelot years: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Milk and Honey; A Thousand Clowns and The Sound of Music (starring Nancy Dussault…who knew?).
J’Adore Muldoon. A Fred Gwynne showcase. The 53rd’s attempts to cure Muldoon’s shyness with women by having the force’s bombshell make a play for the male wallflower backfire with a vengeance. Comparing him to a giant David Niven results in his donning a penciled-in moustache and a ring-a-ding-ding attitude; astonishingly, it works. Soon every female in the Bronx is throwing herself at his feet. In an aside that is sure to warm the cockles of every Herman Munster fan, Schnauser & Co. comment that “…we’ve created a Frankenstein.” Always a movie-friendly show, we additionally learn that Francis was named after Francis X. Bushman.
The White Elephant. Location, location, location. Echoing the Edward G. Robinson comedy Larceny, Inc., a gang of thieves take over a failed diner adjacent to a bank. The 53rd’s determination that they make a success of it has unusual consequences. The crook-to-cook chef is played by none other than Jake LaMotta, whose panache at pancakes sets him aglow (“Tomorrow I’m puttin’ blueberries in ‘em…or maybe huckleberries.”). De Niro couldn’t have done it better.
See You at the Bar-Mitzvah. Due to the fact that his father is Pokrass the landlord, the most-hated man in the tri-state area (spectacularly portrayed by B.S. Pully), Little Joel’s upcoming bar-mitzvah looks to be a bust! Thanks to Toody and Muldoon’s “unorthodox” thinking, the day is saved, and, when Joel becomes a man, pop becomes a mensch! Written by the great Max Wilk.
Joan Crawford Didn’t Say No. The persuasive tenant from hell, Rachel Bronson (Molly Picon) has started a matrimonial agency – promising elderly Bronx widows and widowers unions with glamorous Hollywood denizens. When 72-year deli owner Meyer Eisenberg is hauled into the 53rd by his daughter who demands the officers get back the money fronted for a future with the Mildred Pierce star, Captain Block is stunned. What makes you think you can marry Joan Crawford?, he asks – to which Eisenberg nonchalantly replies “Six months of the year we’ll live in Beverly Hills, the other six months in the back of my store.” Crawford’s polite written refusal is hysterically read aloud by Picon with the immortal P.S.: “…am returning your salami by separate cover.”
Lucille is 40. Lucille Toody, Gunther’s long-suffering spouse (and enacted by the equally long-suffering Joe E. Ross co-star Beatrice Pons) accepts the fact that, insults aside, Gunther will ignore the tumultuous beginning of her fifth decade on Earth. Toody’s plan to buy her a designer wig to make her look younger is foiled by Sylvia Schnauser (Charlotte Rae in a bravura performance) who convinces Lucille that Gunther is going to murder a la Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall.
The Loves of Sylvia Schnauser. To smash a fraudulent vanity press publishing house, Toody and Muldoon enlist would-be author Sylvia Schnauser to go undercover (she arrives for duty in Mata Hari garb). Her proposed manuscript The 51 Loves of Sylvia Schnauser is soon suspected of being the busybody’s Peyton Place-esque expose of the 53rd precinct (in a tip of the hat to the famed Twilight Zone episode, it’s really a cook book). I particularly love this installment, as I used to work as publicist at a vanity press (a legit one I should add!). It really wasn’t that bad – in actuality, it was the best job I ever had. Do with that what you will.
The Curse of the Snitkins. Thanks to Toody and Muldoon, the newest transfer to the 53rd is Luther Snitkin – a notorious jinx (Jack Gilford). Within nanoseconds, the department’s personnel end up in the local emergency ward. Can Gunther and Francis’ voodoo ceremony end the horror? Ironically (or perhaps intentionally), this “Jonah” episode proved to be the series finale. I vividly recall watching it on the original April 1963 airdate; I hadn’t seen it since I spun this DVD. That I so fondly and vividly recalled each sequence, every sight gag, and many of the one-liners is a testament to the show’s consistent high quality writing.
As Leo himself would indubitably tell you (whether you asked him or not), “So what d’ya want, an engraved invitation? You think these are gonna be around forever? Go out already and BUY it!”
CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON. Black and white; full frame [1.33:1]; mono sound; dual layer.
Shanachie Entertainment. CAT # Shanachie 418. SRP: $39.98.