Entertainers often seem so intent on telling us how much we love them that we may forget there are indeed those for whom we do feel a deep affection. To past generations, such people were distant revered figures on a stage or movie screen, but to the beneficiaries of the television boom they are not only celebrities, they are house guests. They are friends.
A videotapes of Jimmy Durante singing Gordon Jenkins' "This Is All I Ask" on "The Kraft 75th Anniversary Special" tonight warms one into a renewed appreciation of this amazing surrogate familiarity - television's gift. The performance was calculated in its day to stir certain emotional responses and now, seeing it in a new context, even the calculation is moving. The striving for poignance becomes poignant in itself.
There's a subliminal sentimentality at work through nearly all 90 minutes of the special, put together to commemorate Kraft-sponsored pasteurized process entertainment on radio and TV, and airing at 9:30 on Channel 9. Coproducers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, the best packagers of musical variety in television, have too much class to get really weepy, but they also know dynamite material when they get their hands on it, and the program has moments that are nostaligically exhilarating.
It isn't strictly a clip show - a procession of film and tape excerpts from past programs - but the clips tend to be either so touching or so oddball that you can't help wishing there were more of them and less of such new material as Bob Hope singing about the history of the cheese company "a dream and a wagon and a horse . . .").
It's considerably more delightful to watch Milton Berle chatting with Carl Sandburg (and wondering whose idea that was), Bobby Darin looking surprisingly comfortable in tails, Groucho Marx mercilessly needling Ed Sullivan at a Friars' Club Roast (this was before Dean Martin and producer Greg Garrison ruined the "roast" joke) and Woody Allen's teamed with Liza Minnelli for Allen's still-funny 1967 parody of "Bonnie and Clyde."
Most of this material is in the second half of the show, and the finale is sublime: Bing Crosby and Perry Como trying to out-relax each other on Como's fondly remembered weekly series. Why was America perfectly content with such elegantly underbearing diversion then, and why does it seem to take a house-rattling laugh track or a tire-squealing car chase to entice the attention of TV viewers now? There's almost no way a program filled with highlights from TV's past can make TV's present look good.
Still, the new musical segments directed by Hemion (who also directed some of the programs featured in excerpts) have an impressive, handsome gloss, with Leslie Uggams especially attractive in a Jolson medley and dancer-singer Donna McKechnie contributing what is for her the usual sleek pizzazz. Berle and Hope don drag for a new segment and though Hope refuses to exert himself, Berle is again the epitome of eloquent vulgarity.
Artifice in close-up has a chance of becoming art. Watching, Berle, one feels sympathy for all the vaudevillians who either didn't or couldn't make it to television; yet Berle remains to represent them all. He is magnificent.
Others dropping by include Hal Peary ("The Great Gildersleeve"). Bob Crosby, and Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, around whose trunk no moss yet grows. Others glimpsed in clips include Everett Sloane, James Dean and Warren Beatty - all from a series called "The Kraft Television Theater," which for 11 years offered live drama every week. Yes; live drama, every week. But then a fabulous infant grew up to be a naughty child. Perhaps a second infancy is in order.