Release Date: July 23, 2013 (Shout! Factory)
Packaging: Viva Case
Number of Discs: 3
Number of Episodes: 18
Running Time: 540 minutes
Running Time of Features: approx. 85 minutes
Audio: English mono
Subtitles and Captioning: None
Special Features: New Interview; Comedy Bits from The Jack Benny Television Specials; Hearst Newsreels
Jack Benny kept Americans laughing for over 30 years on both radio and television, but despite that, a lot of his work has not really been seen in recent times. Although his TV series, The Jack Benny Program, does sometimes air on TV in a syndication package (from Universal) as well as public domain episodes, what we see is only a small portion of his overall legacy. A lot of this has to do with the finicky nature of the early days of television, where not everything was preserved (as it is today). As a result of all of this, there are many lost episodes of the TV comedy series out there that haven't been seen since they originally aired. While we will almost certainly never see all of those, Shout! Factory has remedied this somewhat with their release of The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes, a collection of 18 long lost episodes of the series.
The episodes that are included on this set are not a "season" or a "best of," but rather just a collection of 18 episodes that were available to (and cleaned up) by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. They begin with the October 7, 1956 episode, in which Jack is about to make his debut at Carnegie Hall, and gets a little comfort from a friend (George Burns, who appears as the devil). In the October 21, 1956 episode, Jack competes against George Gobel to become president of the Beverly Hills Beavers (a scouting-type of organization). Jack gets invited to a fancy dinner party in the November 4, 1956 episode. In the September 21, 1958 episode, Gary Cooper guest stars as Jack tries to get into his next picture. Jack contemplates how his show will be in 30 years (that would be 1989!) in the October 4, 1959 episode "Jack Switches Sponsors." The series takes a trip to the Truman library (and the former president even guest stars) in the October 18, 1959 episode.
Jack meets up with another Jack (Paar) in the November 29, 1959 episode. Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood guest star in the March 6, 1960 episode, where Jack tells CBS that he wants to try drama by directing a Playhouse 90 episode. In the April 17, 1960 "Easter Show," Jack and his girlfriend walk in an Easter parade. Jack talks about his trip to the Far East in the May 1, 1960 episode. George Burns returns once again in the October 16, 1960 episode, where everybody wonders if Jack is going to take his show weekly... and he even dreams of being interviewed by Mike Wallace! Milton Berle coaches Jack on what it takes to do a weekly show in the October 13, 1959 episode.
John Wayne guest stars in the November 20, 1960 episode. In the December 24, 1961 "Christmas Show," CBS is throwing a Christmas party, and Jack and Rochester are giving gifts to all of the cast members. Jack debates the psychology of sex appeal with Rock Hudson in the February 18, 1962 episode. Dick Van Dyke guest stars in "The Murder of Clayton Worthington," the January 29, 1963 episode where Dick Van Dyke says that he has been warned that Jack works his guests "to death." The Reverend Billy Graham stops by in the September 24, 1963 episode. The set ends with the December 25, 1963 episode, where Jack lets the members of the cast have the night off and spends a night with the audience.
These episodes are all direct from kinescopes as originally aired on CBS, including original sponsor plugs and all. As such, they're unedited... or so it would seem. The October 30, 1960 episode does run about five minutes shorter than the rest. There is no real explanation behind this, but my guess is that something was damaged in the already fragile condition that they were in the first place. Runtimes for all episodes are as follows:
October 7, 1956 (25:46)
October 21, 1956 (25:14)
November 4, 1956 (25:51)
September 21, 1958 (28:32)
October 4, 1959 (26:45)
October 18, 1959 (25:52)
November 29, 1959 (26:34)
March 6, 1960 (25:48)
April 17, 1960 (26:33)
May 1, 1960 (26:30)
October 16, 1960 (26:57)
October 30, 1960 (21:19)
November 20, 1960 (26:20)
December 24, 1961 (26:18)
February 18, 1962 (26:41)
January 29, 1963 (23:29)
September 24, 1963 (26:52)
December 25, 1964 (26:43)
The set comes in a very simple (yet elegant) yellow case (with an outer cardboard sleeve bearing the same artwork) that has an outline of Benny (much like the opening credits) and the series title, with Jack Benny's name in blue letters. On the back of the sleeve, there is a very brief description of the series, as well as a few black and white photos and a listing of guest stars. Inside the case, there are three discs, which all have artwork similar to the cover art. There is a very nice 20 page booklet included with the set that gives a rather lengthy history of Jack Benny's career along with brief descriptions of the 18 episodes that appear on this set.
Menu Design and Navigation:
The menus on the set are pretty straightforward, with the main menu featuring a silhouette of Benny with options of Play All, Episodes, and Bonus. Some music from the series plays in the background. Once you select Episodes, you get a list of the episodes on the set, listed by date and guest star (most do not have titles, although a few do). The Bonus menu is very similar to the Episodes menu. The music continues to play on both of these menus. There are plenty (maybe even too many) chapters placed within the episodes.
Video and Audio Quality:
Let's be clear: the video and audio quality is simply bad. Very bad. However, these are "lost" episodes, and as a result, poor quality is to be expected. With that being said, the UCLA Film and Television Archive did clean these episodes up a little bit, so they don't look as bad as they could look. Most of the dust and debris was removed from the episodes, but not necessarily all. And the audio levels can be problematic from one episode to the next. There are no closed-captions or subtitles on the episodes.
There are quite a few special features on this set, beginning on Disc 1 with "A Conversation with Harry Shearer, Norman Abbott, and Dorothy Ohman" (42:22), where we get to hear from one of the directors (Abbott) and Jack's personal secretary (Ohman)... so where does Shearer (best known for his voices on The Simpsons) fit in on there? He was a child actor who appeared in some of Jack's earlier programs! Unfortunately, those were all 1951-1955, and the episodes on this set begin with 1956.
On Disc 2, we have "Jack Benny's New Look" (3:37), where we see a new look of Jack Benny from 1969... and we also get to see George Burns heckle Benny. "Jack Benny's 20th Anniversary Special" (9:03) is a brief clip where Dinah Shore joins Benny for his 20th anniversary, and tries to imagine his show 20 years in the future. "Everything You Wanted to Know About Jack Benny But Were Afraid to Ask" (3:25) is a brief clip from 1971 where Jack woos a new Goldwyn Girl... played by Lucille Ball! In "Jack Benny's Second Farewell Special" (9:38), we get to see Jack and Dinah Shore reminisce again, but they are interrupted by two things: gun fire and Don Rickles.
Finally, on Disc 3, there are Hearst Newsreels (7:18) featuring Jack Benny, on topics like Daylight Savings Time, Jack's 10th anniversary in radio, war bonds, and why people can't stand Jack Benny. The irony is that these really are the best looking thing as far as video and audio quality on the entire set, despite being from the 30s and 40s.
The reality of this series is that it could have only worked in the infancy of television... but oddly enough, it holds up today even. It seems that a lot of the novelty behind this series was that you could actually put these people ON television every week (or in this case, every OTHER week) and let them do whatever they want to do. The closest thing that we have to this now are the late-night talkers, but even they have to have some focus. Benny just did whatever he felt like on each show.
It is a shame that for dedicated fans of the series, the best that will ever be available are these collections of somewhat random episodes. Still, as long as we're getting "new" content on these releases (and the price is as reasonable as it is for this one), there isn't a whole lot to complain about regarding this only option. It would be nice to at least see somebody (Shout! Factory, perhaps) to release at least the episodes that regularly air in the syndication package from Universal. Until that time, though, there is this set for fans to enjoy.