Unless it's hell-bent on staking out an entire wing for itself in the annals of disastrousness, the Motion Picture Association of America ought to get out of the TV production business pronto. "Hollywood, the Gift of Laughter," an ABC special tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 7, is a "presentation" of the MPAA that in three arduous hours manages to take much of the fun out of great screen comedies of the past and present.
Since it's obliged, in the interest of public relations, to pretend the present is as glorious as the past, the special begins, gallingly enough, with a lengthy tribute to Mel Brooks, hailed by cohost Burt Reynolds as a "major comedy force"--but, alas, one whose choicest inspirations have been in realms other than the motion picture.
Included in the Brooks clips is one of his cruder gags, a bit from "High Anxiety" in which he's being strangled in a phone booth while on the line to Madeline Kahn, who mistakes his gasps for the pants of an obscene caller and finds them arousing. The sequence ends when Brooks stabs and kills his assailant with a large piece of broken glass which we see sticking out from the man's back; his dying moans drive Kahn to orgasmic frenzy.
And this is offered up as a high point in American screen comedy.
From there, it's a cursory survey of comedy performers and styles, with on-screen guides (poorly photographed and badly recorded) including Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The program ends with a badly assembled pastiche of Woody Allen films which relies too heavily on "Play It Again, Sam" and gives the impression he is incapable of light or antic comedy on the screen.
By this point, one is not so much laughed out as aghasted out. The excerpts have generally been chosen carelessly, arranged clumsily and most of the humor mysteriously drained from them. The writer, producer and director, Jack Haley Jr., who made the infinitely more successful MGM compilation "That's Entertainment!" (and produces the breezy syndicated series "That's Hollywood!"), either got bad advice or relied on faltering instincts of his own.
Just about every significant figure in the history of comedy films does show up, if only for a second or two, but the proportions are all out of whack--do Lemmon and Matthau really merit the kind of tribute afforded Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton? Is Jimmy Durante best remembered by a terrible routine he did with Phil Silvers in "You're in the Army Now"? Is there any justification to include scenes from such comedy bombs as "The World's Greatest Lover" with Gene Wilder or "How Sweet It Is" with Debbie Reynolds?
The more you know about the history of the movies, the angrier you are likely to get as this funereal romp plods on.
Still, there are highlights, perhaps none higher than the opening credit sequence, which was winningly edited by William T. Cartwright and concludes with Bonzo the chimp splattering a future president of the United States with ice cream and the future president shouting, "Bonzo!" And a few segments seem adroitly chosen and extremely durable, like the "vessel with the pestle" routine from "The Court Jester" with Danny Kaye, Abbott and Costello's indestructible "Who's on First?" and Laurel and Hardy's valiant and hopeless attempts to defeat a world in which, at any moment, everything could go wrong.
One peculiar surprise is that, at least in the press-screening copy of the program, many of the clips seemed to be from dog-eared, bleached-out prints of the films in question. You'd think the MPAA ought to be able to get its hands on good prints, if anybody can. Perhaps they're too busy with Jack Valenti's mad campaign against home video recording to have paid much attention; but their name is on the show, and they're the ones who deserve the big fat pie in the kisser.