Perhaps it was the first talk show, except that the guests were also the audience. A decade of snooty and witty repartee is recalled tonight in "The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table," on the PBS "American Masters" series at 9 on Channel 26.
Produced and directed by Aviva Slesin, whose notable profile "Directed by William Wyler" livened up the series earlier in the year, the one-hour film evokes the famous round table and its denizens very successfully, especially considering there is no film or audio record of an actual round table session.
As explained by host Heywood Hale Broun, whose father Heywood was a founder, the daily gathering was originally organized to be a ritual debunking of the fat and pompous drama critic Alexander Woollcott, who unfortunately for the debunkers adored the attention and soon was presiding as the round table's roundest member.
Playwright Marc Connelly, the table's last surviving talker until his death in 1980, was interviewed for the film and remembers "a goodly fellowship of well-known people." Yet there also appears to have been plenty of malicious snobbery and smug self-congratulation.
It might have behooved Slesin and Connelly to leave on the cutting-room floor Connelly's remark that though some suspected Woollcott of being "a homo," in truth he was really very "male," as if these were opposites. Connelly, for the record, was probably the least productive of all round table members.
Two other Algonquinites interviewed for "Ten-Year Lunch" have since died, adding to the historical importance of the film: Ruth Gordon, of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Harold and Maude" fame; and Margalo Gilmore, whose best-known role was probably the mother in the TV and Broadway "Peter Pan" with Mary Martin. Gilmore vividly remembers Dorothy Parker as a "weeping spaniel" who "had a tendency to commit suicide, which never caught on, fortunately."
She looks back on the epoch fondly and sighs, "It was my laughing years."
Mary Astor, who died only last week, does not appear, but is prominently mentioned as having been one of George S. Kaufman's lovers. Harpo Marx frequented the round table, but Groucho refused to make an appearance. Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead were known to drop by. Averell Harriman, a spectator rather than a participant, remembers inviting the entire gang up to his vast estate for a weekend.
At that point the round tablers became a rich man's pets. Later they went to Hollywood and committed comedy.
Slesin portrays not only the round table but the era that bustled around it, with newsreel footage, period jazz, semianimated Hirschfeld caricatures, and voice-over quotations read by actors. Fred Gwynne handles the words of Kaufman, Robert Benchley descendant Nat Benchley does the Benchleyisms, Roberta Maxwell limns Dorothy Parker and, unhappiest of the choices Slesin made, Marshall Efron cutes it up grievously as Woollcott.
We do get a nice sense of how it must have been -- the gambling and the gamboling, the parrying and the partying, the ripostes and the repasts. These were sinful, ginful days of liberation, self-exploration, optimistic hedonism and feminist awakenings. The New Yorker was founded -- partly as the outcome of a poker game -- and Broadway glistened.
It all came down with the crash, the film says, but began to sour even earlier, with the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Oddly, Slesin makes mention of Kaufman's collaboration on "The Man Who Came to Dinner" without noting that the character of Sheridan Whiteside was based on Woollcott; maybe everybody knows that. The Marx Brothers filmed "Cocoanuts," another Kaufman comedy, but no clips are included.
Nevertheless, the hour is rich with amusement and spirited memorabilia. "The trouble with us is we stayed young too long," Parker said. If that was a crime, the punishment was pretty exquisite. "The Ten-Year Lunch" brings the laughing years back lovingly.
'Assault and Matrimony' "This is state-of-the-art stupid" says a woman selling guns during the NBC movie "Assault and Matrimony." She is talking about a rifle but is really reviewing the film. It is terrible, tasteless and boring in ways that only NBC movies really can be.
Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, who play lover-lawyers on NBC's "L.A. Law" and are actually wife and husband, star as mutually murderous spouses in the film (at 9 on Channel 4), which aspires to be a black comedy but manages only to be a slack one.
Sylvia and Edgar Chalmers, the story goes, are irritated with one another and eventually hatch plots to do each other in. Edgar tries to drop a chimney on Sylvia and Sylvia, in a cheap red wig and skin-tight leotards, haunts seedy dives in search of a hit man.
None of it is the least bit funny. Or, put another way, all of it is the least bit funny.
Adding a hint of accomplished class is John Hillerman, of "Magnum, P.I.," as the Chalmers' neighbor Cyril. He wants to sell his house to a tribe of purple-robed cultists who arrange themselves in the shape of a dollar sign on the Chalmers' front lawn.
While the idea of two people trying to bump each other off may strike certain chords of risibility (typically pandering NBC promotion has proudly hyped the movie as a "Ruthless People" rip-off), the notion of poisoning a dog with contaminated sweet potatoes does not. This plot point is but one of many wrong turns made by a truly rotten little script.
Eikenberry has no discernible comic impulses and is out of her element -- perhaps a compliment in this context. Tucker tries -- that is, mugs -- harder. Only Hillerman can walk away from this disaster with a shard of self-respect.
When it comes to state-of-the-art stupid, NBC Entertainment continues to leave its competition in the dust.
'Everything's Relative' CBS originally scheduled "Everything's Relative," a new sitcom, to air Monday nights, but "Frank's Place" is working out well there, so although "Relative" will premiere tonight (at 8:30 on Channel 9), it henceforth will be seen on Saturdays.
However, the only reason for knowing when it airs is so that it can be avoided at all costs -- like a tie-up on the Beltway or Halloween night in Georgetown. Or "Geraldo Live!"
There is barely a premise for the program. According to a CBS press release, it's a comedy about "two bachelor brothers who share a New York City loft apartment under the watchful eye of their outspoken mother." Anne Jackson plays the outspoken mother. "You look like hell," she tells a son -- how outspoken can you get?
Jason Alexander and John Bolger play the two bachelor brothers. One got a divorce after finding his wife in bed "with a famous talk show host." The other is a ladies'-man construction worker to whom women lend their Porsches.
To Julian, the dimmer and duller of the pair (and this is a neck-and-neck race), Kim Morgan Greene as his sex-starved ex-wife says, "I could have sworn I felt the old magnetism," and he replies, "You did. But I'm not going to let my life be run by my magnets."
Hahahahahaha. Please stop. You're killing me with those witty barbs (as Chris Elliott as Marlon Brando might say -- indeed, has said).
Marshall Karp created the show, out of those old-show remnants Hollywood writers are always stitching together, and also wrote the premiere, which Ellen Falcon directed. One of the last gags has one brother threatening to spit a mouthful of "liquid liver" on the other. Thus are we reminded that the spirit of the Algonquin round table lives on