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The Bootleg Files: Woody Allen Looks at 1967

BOOTLEG FILES 753: “Woody Allen Looks at 1967” (1967 television special).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never released in a home entertainment format.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.

It’s safe to say that no one will ever look back on 2020 with any great fondness, except perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Biden, but that now-closed 12-month span was hardly the first year-from-hell experience. Anyone who was around in 1967 will glumly recall the challenges and tragedies that marked the year’s political and social environments.

In December 1967, NBC’s variety show “Kraft Music Hall” sought to wrap up 1967 with an episode mixing cutting-edge political humor and old-fashioned entertainment. Woody Allen, whose cred was rising that year thanks to his work in the all-star 007 spoof “Casino Royale” and his playfully inventive comic dubbing of the Japanese spy thriller “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”, was recruited to host the program and was given an intriguing mix of guests whose names would never normally turn up in the same sentence: Liza Minnelli, Aretha Franklin and William F. Buckley Jr.

The episode was titled “Woody Allen Looks at 1967” and opened with a funky pop art animation that used Allen’s trademark eyeglasses to display a montage of the famous and infamous faces who made the headlines that year. Allen started the program with a monologue that touched on the hot button issues of the day – he recalled how his attempt to enlist to serve in Vietnam resulted in military officials burning his draft card for him, and then offered a convoluted story of how his attempts to protect a “Negro kid” from being beaten up ended with the victim joining his attackers in assaulting him. But rather than dwell on topical humor, Allen offered his distinctive blend of intellectual silliness, most notably his rapture in watching a topless cellist play her instrument. (“It’s not dirty. The andante, the slow part isn’t dirty, but the allegro drove me up the walls.”)

From that starting point, Allen was inserted into a sketch where he played a repressed conservative husband who tries to forbid his wife (Liza Minnelli) from wearing a mini-skirt. Allen’s argument was that her legs are his property. “When we got married, I paid two dollars for those legs,” he proclaimed, adding his mother wouldn’t wear such a revealing item – to which Minnelli reminded him that the stores don’t sell orthopedic mini-skirts. The blackout joke involves the arrival of a neighbor’s wife wearing a mini-skirt, which Allen heartily approves.

Allen then introduced Aretha Franklin, who performed her hit songs “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” while standing atop a platform within a swirl of oversized round lights. The first song had a squad of dancers gyrating to the music while the second song had Franklin working solo. In both numbers, Franklin is vibrant and sexy, giving the production a shot of energy that wasn’t coming from the comedy. Sadly, Franklin was absent from the rest of the proceedings – it is a shame that no one thought of including her in the comedy sketches.

But perhaps Franklin was lucky to avoid the sketches, particularly the following segment with Allen playing Baby Bobby Dimple, a 1930s child star who looks like a male version of Shirley Temple. Allen played both the young Dimple in flashback and an older, grey-haired version running for Senate but still throwing the bratty temper tantrums of his childhood. This grueling segment is among the least amusing turns in Allen’s career.

Minnelli is up next, doing her spin on a pair of chart-topping pop tunes, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and “Up, Up and Away (My Beautiful Balloon).” However, Minnelli missed the souffle-light qualities of these songs and invested her playing-to-the-last-row personality into the numbers, effectively steamrolling the compositions with a power they could not support.

And then, William F. Buckley Jr. shows up – and he winds up stealing the program. Allen and Buckley are seated before a studio audience and take questions related to the ongoing political and social scene. Allen’s barely-contained nervousness coupled with Buckley’s odd tics and eccentric body language made them the unlikeliest of pairs, yet they found a chemistry. Working unscripted, the two men reeled off witty comments – Allen speculated that the Boston Strangler could beat President Lyndon B. Johnson in the upcoming election while Buckley predicted Robert F. Kennedy could be elected if he could induce all of the other Kennedys to vote for him. Buckley scored the biggest laugh when a pretty young blonde asked if he thought mini-skirts are in good taste – the conservative grinned wickedly and responded, “On you, I think they are.” But Buckley also hit a rueful note by admitting some notable figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, refused to appear on his show because they were uncomfortable having their ideas and opinions challenged – a harbinger of today’s television where the rival political camps self-segregate on their own networks.

The big finale is an overlong spoof on “Bonnie and Clyde,” with Allen and Minnelli as the gangsters. This segment feels like an overinflated but underwritten sketch from Carol Burnett’s show, with the two stars never quite clicking in their parts.

The main problem with “Woody Allen Looks at 1967” is that there are two different shows trying and failing to co-exist. Allen, working with collaborators Mickey Rose and Marshall Brickman (whose name is misspelled “Brinkman” in the closing credits), had his own material, while the sketches were created by a committee that made no attempt to merge Allen’s style into their substance. Comic John Byner appeared in the sketches, but he was given little to do except drop the straight lines for Allen’s wisecracks. It is no surprise that Allen would later insist on retaining complete creative control of his work rather than be shoehorned into material that didn’t fit him.

NBC broadcast the episode on December 27, 1967. The show was mostly forgotten until April 6, 2016, when the cable channel getTV rebroadcast the program. To date, there has been no home entertainment release of the production and it is unlikely that one is coming, but an unauthorized video posting can be seen on YouTube.

Well, here we are in 2021, a new year with endless possibilities. Thank God 2020 is behind us, and let’s look ahead with optimism that the best is yet to come. Happy New Year!

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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