If you distinctly remember having seen the words "In Stereo ‒ Where Applicable" flash over the opening credits of a television series, then there's an equally good chance you've seen a variety show before as well. Alternatively hosted by both well-paid or out-of-work celebrities alike, these unique methods of reaching out to nearly every demographic there was ‒ while simultaneously filling up as much airtime as possible ‒ would feature a number of comedy skits, dance routines, musical numbers, and more during their (usually drawn-out) runtimes. Extending from the days and stages of the Victorian Era to regular gigs on prime time TV during the final half of the previous century, variety shows also enjoyed a modest amount of time as motion picture quickies.
And it is here, in the Warner Archive Collection's release of RKO Varieties Triple Feature, that you can see how the variety show fared on-screen. Were I given the opportunity to sum this triple-bill up in one word, I would probably choose an adjective such as "awful." But I cannot, so instead, I shall make this excursion into painfully bad jokes and recycled footage as brief as possible. The single-disc release brings us three theatrically released titles from the late '40s and early '50s ‒ Variety Time (1948), Make Mine Laughs (1949), and Footlight Varieties (1951) ‒ all of which run around (or just over) the one-hour mark. And, in the case of each and every title, anything over ten minutes is entirely too long to endure.
Assembled together from forgotten silent film clips, mediocre shorts, and God knows what else, two of these titles ‒ one just as indistinguishable from the other ‒ are hosted by the legendary groundbreaking television talk show man himself, the one and only Jack Paar, who served as host on The Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962 before Johnny Carson stepped in and took over shortly thereafter. It was Jack Paar who essentially turned the talk show formula into what it is best remembered for by our elders today (contemporary talk shows don't even enter into the equation). In fact, when Time Magazine published Paar's obituary in 2004 it was said his fans divided talk shows into two categories thanks to him: "Before Paar and Below Paar."
And that old "Below Paar" gag is a most accurate method of describing his two hosting gigs here, Variety Time and Footlight Varieties. While it's great to see a still green-around-the-gills Jack honing in on his schtick, the material he is given is what I perceive to be the visual equivalent of passing a kidney stone while you're suffering from both a urinary tract infection and chlamydia. Paar even pops up in new footage during some of the titles' recycled materials, presumably to remind viewers the slightly entertaining shorts they're watching are actually just a fraction of a much longer, horrible experience. But at least we get a chance to see bits and pieces of shorts and features from yesteryear which we will probably never see intact.
Among the artists included in the rehashed materials are Edgar Kennedy (cinema's master of the slow burn, who would frequently be pitted against Laurel & Hardy in their Hal Roach shorts), Leon Errol, Dorothy Granger, Pat Rooney, Minerva Urecal (in what was probably her most "A" picture ever), Byron Foulger, Anne Shirley, Ray Bolger, Dennis Day, Joan Davis, Frances Langford, and Jack Haley. Some of the few artists who were actually hired (and hopefully paid) to appear in the newer footage with host Jack Parr or Make Mine Laughs' goofy emcee Gil Lamb include Hans Conried, Frankie Carle, The Sportsman Quartet, Red Buttons, a surefire straight-shooter calling himself Liberace, and a busty young beauty later known as Mamie Van Doren.
Between the present age of these three oddballs and the fact they sometimes feature recycled footage from as far back as the 1910s, the overall quality for WAC's RKO Varieties Triple Feature varies a lot. That said, there aren't any moments where the quality of the DVD-R is subpar (or "Below Paar" if I may be permitted to keep making the same jokes over and over; I mean, if the feature films themselves could get away with it, I see no reason as to why I cannot!), and the MOD release does not include any bonus items (what, three titles on one disc isn't good enough for you?). And, despite all of the angst I have thrown in the direction of this ‒ without a doubt the worst threesome I have ever seen ‒ they are magnificent examples of a culture long gone.
Best recommended for variety show lovers and their immediate surviving kin only. Or cinemasochists who are in dire need of punishment. But don't let these innocent looking obscurities from the Warner Archive Collection fool you: the jokes are so bad, they could cause blindness, hemorrhaging, or ‒ if you're lucky ‒ death.