Make Room for Cassavetes 

A comparison among boxed DVD sets—one devoted to the godfather of independent cinema, two of bygone TV shows—yields unexpected insights

A comparison among boxed DVD sets—one devoted to the godfather of independent cinema, two of bygone TV shows—yields unexpected insights

I have a friend who feels uncomfortable buying DVDs, even of his favorite movies, because he thinks being in an "ownership" relationship with art can cheapen the art itself, by turning it into a commodity no more important than soap. Me, I'm a consumer. I've got the Airport Terminal Pack on my DVD shelf—all four Airport movies, all the way up to Concorde—which I picked up because Wal-Mart had it cheap, and someday I might want to see what Dulles looked like in 1977. And yeah, I run the risk of flattening out the cultural curve when I file Tron next to Trouble In Paradise, but more often than not I find that haphazard piles of junk make surprising patterns.

Case in point: For reasons too complicated to explain, I spent much of last week bouncing back and forth between Criterion's new John Cassavetes: Five Films box set and Questar's sets of The Joey Bishop Show: The Complete Second Season and Make Room For Daddy: The Complete Fifth Season. They've all got more in common than you might think.

I'm not saying that the Cassavetes set—a real monster—is as trifling as some Danny Thomas sitcom. But art can often be defined by its opposite. As a director, Cassavetes prized accidents and spontaneous behavior. His films were a reaction to the button-down suburbia of prime-time television and Hollywood melodramas. So without Make Room For Daddy, could there have been A Woman Under The Influence? More to the point, are the desperate middle-class couples of Faces and the showbiz believers of Opening Night and The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie really so different from the would-be entertainers who pester Joey Bishop?

Criterion's set includes the loose, jazzy 1959 race-relations drama Shadows, the brutal 1968 long-night-of-the-soul Faces, the 1974 dissection of the innate mania of marriage in A Woman Under The Influence, the 1976 edge-of-noir The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and the 1978 backstage soul-barer Opening Night. Each disc includes interviews and alternate takes, and the box set also includes Charles Kiselyak's exhaustive documentary A Constant Forge, in which the above films are cited not by their release date, but by the years in which they were made. That's consistent with Cassavetes artistic philosophy, in which the act of creation is almost more important than the end product.

A Constant Forge is a good place to start for the Cassavetes novice, or for those who've never been able to make it through one of his films. Kiselyak includes long clips (including footage from the not-in-the-box Husbands, Minnie & Moskowitz and Love Streams) alongside interviews from Cassavetes regulars who explain the thought that went into every intense, drawn-out shouting match. Cassavetes' films can be hard to take on first viewing, because the director avoids conventional realism in favor of a kind of hyperrealism, where people are at their most open-veined every waking second. On the other hand, the off-kilter rhythms of something like Opening Night—which shifts from performers on-stage to their traumas in the wings with nary a cue that the audience's perspective has shifted—make the film it highly rewatchable, because the performances by the likes of Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara always look wholly original.

For me though, the value of Cassavetes' work stems from his near-complete disinterest in art direction. He was documenting a general collapse of civilization, not middle-class America at the dawn of the '70s, specifically; but his camera still got the backgrounds, freezing places that can only really be seen (and moments that can only really be understood) in retrospect.

Oddly enough, the same is true of Make Room For Daddy and The Joey Bishop Show. Those shows had set designers and costume designers sweating every detail—Abby Dalton's skirted pantsuits on The Joey Bishop Show were especially stunning—but reality still snuck in through the side door, from what Danny Thomas has for lunch in any given episode to the forced collegiality of the relationship with his black maid. In one of the most fascinating episodes of The Joey Bishop Show's second season, the star walks his best friend through what he's learned at "the expectant father's school," and from the cloth diapers to the state-of-the-art bathtub, it's like a mini-lesson in child care circa 1963.

Questar's sets of Make Room For Daddy's fifth and Joey Bishop's second season—chosen because those were the years when the show's got new premises and new vigor—don't have much in the way of extras aside from bonus episodes, and the picture and sound is far from showcase-quality. But the very existence of the shows on DVD is cause for celebration, since neither is well-remembered by anyone not a show business cultist. Thomas plays a version of himself in Make Room For Daddy—a stand-up comic who struggles to spend enough time with his family—while Bishop plays a television variety show host dealing with life as a newlywed. Both dwell in the mainstream of Eisenhower/Kennedy-era entertainment, and both deal directly with the anxieties of professional performers.

Make Room For Daddy and The Joey Bishop Show are still funny because they give Thomas and Bishop a chance to lean on their stage personae: Thomas as a gruff-but-big-hearted observer of life, and Bishop as a fastidious, self-deprecating wise-cracker. And both shows remain fascinating for the way they skirt network-censor-riling subjects, like the obvious sexual passion that Thomas and Bishop and their TV wives have for each other. In a Cassavetes film, these guys would be more open about their lust, but though Cassavetes's way is more honest and revealing, there's something to be said for the circumspection of television, which asked the audience to fill in the blanks with what they know about their own lives.

Watching Make Room For Daddy and The Joey Bishop Show now, some 40 years after they first aired, we have to fill in those blanks twice, imagining how the audiences of the early '60s took the innuendo, and how it might differ—or be exactly like—or own thoughts. The exercise is as revealing about the commonality of human desire as anything Cassavetes improvised.

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