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Wise men of comedy

March 28, 2004|Susan King

The 1970s may be remembered as the era of dynamic young method actors such as Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, but it was also when such veteran comedians as George Burns and Art Carney found movie stardom. On Tuesday, Warner Home Video is releasing on DVD four comedy hits from the decade, starring Burns and Carney as well the equally beloved Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

"The Sunshine Boys"

Stars: Walter Matthau, George Burns (Warner Home Video, $20)

The career is reborn: Neil Simon scored a big hit in the early 1970s on Broadway with his nostalgic comedy "The Sunshine Boys" about the TV reunion of a bickering vaudeville comedy team played by Jack Albertson and Sam Levene. When the film version was set to go into production, Matthau and Jack Benny were cast as the feuding performers. But shortly before the cameras rolled Benny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he died by year's end. Benny's friend Burns, who hadn't made a feature since 1939, was hired to play his part. Not only did "Sunshine Boys" revive Burns' film career -- he had been concentrating on TV and radio -- he also won the best supporting actor Oscar.

The great moment: Burns and Matthau rehearse the doctor sketch.

The extras: Recently discovered in the vaults were costume and makeup tests with Matthau and Benny. Though these clips have no sound, it's obvious that Matthau and Benny had the potential for great on-screen chemistry. Before Matthau was hired, Phil Silvers screen-tested for the role. The DVD features two clips of Silvers doing a scene from the movie.

Richard Benjamin, who won a Golden Globe for his performance as Matthau's long-suffering nephew and agent, supplies commentary. He speaks with great affection of working with Matthau and Burns, who became his good friends. Benjamin discusses his nearly 40-year collaboration with Simon. Rounding out the disc is a kitschy 1975 featurette about MGM.

The star in the making: Future best actor Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as a mechanic.

"The Late Show"

Stars: Art Carney, Lily Tomlin

(Warner Home Video, $20)

The art of Carney: The actor had come to fame in TV in the 1950s on "The Honeymooners" as clueless sewer worker Ed Norton. Over the years, Carney battled alcoholism and his career hit peaks and valleys. Then in 1974, director Paul Mazursky cast Carney in the bittersweet road comedy "Harry and Tonto" as a senior citizen who travels across the country with his cat. Carney ended up winning the best actor Oscar.

The plot: Robert Benton wrote and directed this offbeat 1977 sendup of '40s detective films. Carney is a joy to watch as an aging L.A. shamus with a bum leg and a bad hearing aid who is hired by a flake (Tomlin) to find her kidnapped cat.

The extras: Tomlin's appearance on Dinah Shore's daytime talk show, "Dinah!"

"The Prisoner of Second Avenue"

Stars: Jack Lemmon, Anne Bancroft

(Warner Home Video, $20)

The layout: Based on another Simon hit play, this comedy from 1975 doesn't jell even with Lemmon and Bancroft playing Manhattanites whose lives are turned upside down when he loses his job.

The extras: Bancroft's appearance on "Dinah" and a "making of" featurette

The stars in the making: Sylvester Stallone as a young man Lemmon mugs.

"Going in Style"

Stars: Art Carney, George Burns, Lee Strasberg

(Warner Home Video, $20)

The Triplets of Queens: Carney, Burns and Strasberg shine in this sentimental 1979 comedy drama, written and directed by Martin Brest, as retirees who decide to spice up their boring lives by robbing a bank. Great score by Michael Small.

The extras: Carney and Burns on "Dinah!"

-- Susan King

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