BOOTLEG FILES 592: “Something Special: Eartha Kitt” (1967 TV special starring Eartha Kitt with Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66).
LAST SEEN: It is on HistoricFilms.com.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Several problems with rights clearances.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It can be done if someone was willing to take the effort.
During the mid-1960s, a syndicated television series called “Something Special” turned up on independent stations across the United States. The program consisted of a one-hour showcase featuring a major headliner and, in some episodes, a supporting guest act. Among the stars who turned up on “Something Special” were Peggy Lee, Julie London paired with then-husband Bobby Troup, the New Christie Minstrels paired with the Righteous Brothers, Barbara McNair paired with Duke Ellington, and Buddy Greco paired with Frankie Avalon and Sammy Davis Jr. Sadly, most of these shows are not easily accessible for viewing today due to rights clearance issues.
One of the “Something Special” offerings that can be found (albeit without proper permission) is a 1967 production with Eartha Kitt as the spotlighted star. During the mid-1960s, Kitt was enjoying something of a career peak: she starred in a successful national tour of the stage comedy “The Owl and the Pussycat” and was a ubiquitous presence on television, gaining an Emmy Award nomination for a guest role on “I Spy” and turning up in such diverse series as “Ben Casey,” “Burke’s Law,” “Mission: Impossible” and game shows including “The Celebrity Game” and “Hollywood Squares.” And, of course, she broke racial barriers as the first black TV villain when she took over the role of Catwoman for the third season of “Batman.” Having Kitt as the star of a “Something Special” production was the ultimate no-brainer.
Kitt’s “Something Special” was a wonderful presentation of her cabaret act, and it also offered American audiences a considerable glimpse into the distinctive talents of Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, who were just making inroads within the U.S. entertainment scene.
Kitt opens the show with a performance of “I’m a Different Kind of Cat,” which she performs in her trademark facetious sexiness – she gives the impression of being slightly bored with her glamourous life, but is unapologetic about the carnal and material splendor it provides. She follows that opening with up-tempo and slightly campy renditions of “Sell Me!” and “Mad About the Boy” before offering a highly flattering introduction of Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, whom she praises for offering “a new look, a new sound, a new approach” to entertainment.
From there, the Brazilian guests offer three songs – the hit tune “Mas Que Nada,” “O Pato” and “Chove Chuta” – in their Portuguese-language lyrics. And while Mendes briefly speaks English between the songs, the idea that nearly eight minutes of prime-time U.S. programming was devoted to Portuguese-language music seems fairly astonishing.
Kitt then returns with a line-up of tunes that established her as a recording star in the 1950s, when she adapted the persona of a happy gold-digger. Her rendition of “Just an Old-Fashioned Girl” involves a clever sight gag with Kitt pulling out a fur sable that seems to run for miles. (Of course, that joke would never work in today’s PETA-fueled environment.) Her cover of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” adds a thick dosage of sex appeal to the mildly naughty Cole Porter classic, and then she launches into three multi-lingual classics: a riff on “Come On-a My House” where she ping-pongs between Japanese and English lyrics, her sensual spin on the Turkish folk tune “Uska Dara,” and a straightforward and unexpectedly dramatic take on the Hebrew-language “Torah Dance/Ki M’tzion” (with Hebrew-lettered pillars behind her).
Kitt goes further into her canon with three more of her hit tunes: “I Want to Be Evil,” “Santa Baby” and “C’est Si Bon” – the latter is punctuated with a lengthy French monologue that she caps with a Noo Yawkese query of “Ya get what I’m sayin’, don’t ya?” From there, Kitt teams with Mendes and his group for a pair of tunes – “One Note Samba” and a Brazilian-style cover of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” – where she dances and sings with a seductive force of erotic energy, much to the delight of the Brasil 66 team.
Oddly, the show closes with Kitt dressed in an antebellum gown while performing a somber and reflective version of “When the World Was Young.” Considering the insouciant fun that came before it, this number is a strange and somewhat depressing way to end a vibrant and upbeat show.
Kitt’s “Something Special” went into syndication in November 1967. Robert Goldsborough, the TV critic for the Chicago Tribune, devoted a column bemoaning that Kitt’s show was scheduled opposite an NBC political news report forecasting the 1968 presidential campaign – back in the pre-VCR days, you could only watch one show at a time. Ironically, presidential politics would result in the derailing of Kitt’s career: her brutally frank comments at a White House function in January 1968 against the Vietnam War resulted in a backlash that saw her American producers shy away from her. Kitt retreated to Europe for several years until the political climate enabled her to resume her American career.
The Kitt version of “Something Special” was never released in any commercial home video format. An enterprising bootlegger sold a DVD copy online for years, but has since withdrawn it from circulation. Clips of Kitt’s “Uska Dara” and the Sergio Mendes numbers have popped up on YouTube, and the full version can be found on the HistoricFilms.com website in a watermark-stamped version.
If anything, this production was a fun endeavor and it presented Kitt and her Brazilian guests at their ebullient best. It would be a joy if this episode – as well as the full “Something Special” series – could be restored and offered in a proper home entertainment release. But until that occurs, let’s be grateful that the bootleg version is online for our viewing pleasure.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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