My wife and I were watching the DVD box set of "The Best of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In 2" the other night, when, to our surprise, the guest star in the second episode turned out to be Danny Kaye.
It was a very pleasant surprise. Kaye has always been a favorite of ours, and he's hilarious on this show, circa 1970 — in an exploration of the word "Oh" during a park-bench routine with Lily Tomlin, lots of quick-cut spoofs with various other "Laugh-In" regulars, and a series of recurring gags that have Kaye playing an elderly European clockmaker.
But we laughed hardest at a hysterical foreign-language gibberish routine, with Arte Johnson as a Swedish storyteller who doesn't speak English and Kaye as a thick-accented Scotsman who acts as his interpreter. It's a riot, and young Johnson is clearly having a ball with the veteran Kaye.
Fans will definitely want to check it out.
And it may cause them to wonder why so few of Kaye's movies are on DVD.
Only four Kaye films are in general circulation on both DVD and VHS at the moment:
"The Inspector General" (1949), a period farce that casts Kaye as an illiterate Gypsy masquerading as the title character. (The film is in the public domain and has been released on several video labels in varying degrees of quality.)
"Hans Christian Andersen" (1952), a fictionalized musical biography of the beloved master of children's stories (MGM Home Entertainment).
"White Christmas" (1954), the popular holiday musical with Kaye, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen (Paramount Home Video).
"The Court Jester" (1956), a medieval period piece spoofing knights-of-the-round-table films and considered in most corners to be Kaye's best film (Paramount).
Kaye's earliest movies from the 1940s — "Up in Arms," Wonder Man," "The Kid From Brooklyn," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "A Song Is Born" — have all been released on VHS.
But only two of these — "Wonder Man" and "Walter Mitty" — have been on DVD, and both have long been out of print and are scarce commodities these days. (A used copy of "Wonder Man" on DVD is for sale on eBay's Half.com site for $270, and another, at Amazon.com, is listed for $2,475!)
Two of Kaye's more dramatic movies from the late 1950s — "The Five Pennies" and "Me and the Colonel" — have also been on VHS but have not found their way to DVD.
That leaves five of Kaye's comedies that have never been on home video in any form:
"On the Riviera" (1951), a hilarious musical-farce with Gene Tierney, in which Kaye has two roles, as an American song-and-dance man and a French military hero, who, of course, trade places. (Kaye's famous "Ballin' the Jack" song is in this film.)
"Knock on Wood" (1954), a very funny film, with Kaye as a ventriloquist on the loose in England, mixed up with spies.
"Merry Andrew" (1958), which is funny but also more warm and poignant than most, has Kaye playing an English schoolmaster who yearns to be a circus clown.
"On the Double" (1961) is a riotous reworking of the "On the Riviera" plot, as Kaye plays a hypochondriac Army private who's a dead ringer for a British colonel during World War II. Dana Wynter and Diana Dors add some spice.
"The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) was his final big-screen star vehicle, a black-and-white slapstick film more suited to Jerry Lewis, as Kaye tries to retrieve a credit card inadvertently issued to a gangster (Telly Savalas).
All of the studios that released these films are getting their older movies on DVD at a fairly rapid rate these days, so let's hope some of these titles are on their lists.