The Sunshine Boys (1975) DVD Review: Walter Matthau and George Burns Are Forever Young

One of those rare Neil Simon dramedies that still makes you laugh in all the right places for all the right reasons.
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The mid '70s was essentially the zenith of a now-occasionally-questioned-by-film-scholars craze wherein virtually every melodramatic Broadway hit penned by playwright Neil Simon's simply had to be turned into a movie. And, while several of the umpteen kajillion Simon plays transformed into cinema fare - like, say, Chapter Two - wouldn't even be worth the price of admission into a free upscale theater with an open snack bar and the guarantee of a personal Q&A with God himself to take place immediately thereafter, there are those other filmic works of the famous writer that would be worth viewing even if you had to sit next to Adolf Hitler in the world's worst most run-down, overpriced theater just to see it.

One such film would be The Sunshine Boys, which presents us with a look at two aged Jewish comedians. Granted, Hitler probably wouldn't be too terribly keen on watching this one - so I can only imagine it'd be a win-win either way around. It certainly was when it was first released in 1975, wherein co-star George Burns - who hadn't appeared in a motion picture since before the US even decided to get up off their ass and help the world against Hitler - made a miraculous comeback to the silver screen, which, in-turn, not only awarded the elderly comic an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor because of his role in The Sunshine Boys, but also a chance to later play God himself in the Oh, God! series that later followed.

But enough of my bad comparisons. At its core, The Sunshine Boys stars the much-younger-than-Burns Walter Matthau, who, under a great deal of old fart makeup, takes the lead (and the cake) as Willy Clark, member of the legendary vaudeville duo Lewis and Clark, who, sadly, called it quits years ago and haven't spoken to each other since. Ornery, hard of hearing, and possessing a memory like a steel sieve, Willy now resides in a small apartment in a neighborhood on the decline, relying on assistance and the occasional part from his faithful agent/nephew, Ben - played here with great care by the equally great Richard Benjamin, whom writer Simon and director Herbert Ross (Pennies from Heaven) delicately poised at the very epicenter of the film's two spectacular leads.

When NBC expresses an interest in reuniting Lewis and Clark for a television special about the history of comedy, Ben is ecstatic. Willy, not so much, as he no longer wants anything to do with Lewis, who decided to retire at the height of their popularity, only to leave Willy with no career whatsoever. Ben's joy soon turns into heart-palpitating madness when he discovers, much to his horror, that Al Lewis (Burns, who literally let his hair down for the film, and is seen in one of the few scenes shot of him without his famously styled hairpiece) is just as forgetful and hard of hearing as his dear old uncle. Lewis is not as ornery, however, though his desire to reunite with his former comedy partner is just as low, due to entirely different (but altogether similar) reasons.

But nothing will compare Ben or the average audience member for the moment when Lewis and Clark finally do get back together, igniting a keg of fossil-fueled dynamite as the two prepare for and subsequently start rehearsing their classic doctor sketch - a triumphant reunion that can only end in disaster. A prominently billed Lee Meredith is featured as the busty nurse for the sketch is what quite possibly represents Simon at his comedy/drama best, finding enough witty lines for all three of the film's stars while managing to squeeze a few tears out of you at the same time.

Interestingly, the casting of the movie went through a number of changes, with studio heads at one point trying to reunite Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (which Simon disagreed with, as the two were too Gentile) with the then-popular Woody Allen asked to direct (Allen instead wanted to play the part of Lewis, and declined when it became obvious that wasn't going to happen) and eventually settling on Red Skelton and Jack Benny. Alas, Skelton wanted too much money, and Benny was forced to back out when he was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that took his life ten months later, but not before recommending they cast his pal George Burns.

But what's just as fascinating to witness as the feature film itself here in this Warner Archive reissue of the out of print 2004 DVD are its extras, which are highlighted with a good ten-minutes of color screen test footage with Matthau (in alternate old man makeup) and Jack Benny at play. (If seeing a now-gone Matthau kiss a soon-to-be-gone Benny on the forehead doesn't do anything for you, you're probably dead inside.) Sadly, however, the film was shot without sound. In a slight case of irony, another glimpse of test footage - this time with Phil Silvers apparently touting the Willy Clark role - was filmed with sound, though no dialogue is ever spoken. Le sigh.

Additional special features for this re-release include an audio commentary by Richard Benjamin, which, though it could have benefitted from a second party to keep things lively, is a heartwarming track to listen to just the same. Another delight to behold here is a vintage promotional piece The Lion Roars Again, wherein MGM executives tried to sell the notion their studio was still alive and well (it wasn't doing so hot at the time), and a meaty chunk towards the middle of the 17-minute featurette highlights a session with the cast of The Sunshine Boys (wherein Matthau kisses Benjamin this time 'round).

On a sidenote, if you look closely at the promotional piece's segment on the upcoming Logan's Run you can spot a young, still-unknown David Hasselhoff modelling the attire Michael York pulled off much more effectively in the film. It's more frightening, to say the least, but nowhere near as Neil Simon's own 1977 made-for-TV followup film (with Red Buttons and Lionel Stander) or the lackluster 1996 TV remake with Peter Falk, Woody Allen (who finally got his wish, twenty years later), and Sarah Jessica Parker in the Richard Benjamin part (oh, the humanity!).

And while it would have been interesting to see those two bastard Boys included with the real deal as extra, the fact that this re-pressed disc concludes with a standard theatrical trailer (which doubles as a promotional piece of its own) is more than adequate. The video and audio aspects of this MOD release are identical to the 2004 DVD, and include a rather mediocre, unrestored 1.85:1 presentation of the once-huge, now-underrated movie accompanied by English and French mono soundtracks. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also on-hand for this title, which is available from the Warner Archive website.

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