April 20, 2004

High contempt on the Jack Paar Show. I watched the first of the full-length episodes of the Tonight Show on The Jack Paar Collection. It is a night in 1962, before the classic desk-chair combination became The Tonight Show set and before the show adopted the classic order of guest appearance (biggest star first, music performance last). But the show does begin with an announcer, followed by a monologue, and the monologue has the familiar attribute of an easy joke about a celebrity who the audience can be depended on to know has one distinctive characteristic (in this case, Jackie Gleason is fat).

The show gets off to a crashingly slow start as Giselle McKenzie sings two songs, one right after another, one of which is "As Long as He Needs Me," that song from Oliver! that romanticizes domestic violence. Then Giselle comes over to sit next to Jack, where she makes one lame remark, before Jack introduces Jonathan Winters. In the introduction, Jack asserts that all comedians except Winters have influences. Winters is a true original. The truly originally thing to do turns out to be to play the character of a stereotypical "sissy" (who hilariously is a sailor on the Pequod who has brought his mother aboard, which displeases Ahab).

Finally, the big guest of the night comes out. It's Bette Davis! The highlight of her appearance for many will be the part at the end when Bette, Jack, Jonathan, and Giselle all light up cigarettes and start puffing heartily. Bette coughs and causes Jack to make a crack about cancer. And then Bette teaches the others how to smoke like Bette Davis, which mainly involves twirling your hand around and saying, "Peter," even though, as she asserts, she's never said "Peter" in a movie.

But the highlight for me comes later, when Bette talks about "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," which has just come out and proven a big success. Bette recounts how the Hollywood people refused to back the film. The look of contempt on Davis's face as she says "Those two old dames! I won't give you a dime!" is priceless: