Carolplus2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes (Once Upon a Mattress)
1963-1972, 277 min., Color and black-and-white
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (Once would be G, the others PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show aired from 1967-78, making it one of the last yet longest running of the old vaudeville-inspired variety shows that combined song and dance with sketch comedy. Burnett broke into TV as a regular on The Garry Moore Show and in 1966 was given her own TV special. The network wanted her to ask Lucille Ball to guest star, as well as the Tony Award-winning Zero Mostel, who was currently appearing on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both said yes, and the result is Carol + 2, a one-hour special that all but set the format for The Carol Burnett Show to follow.

Carol + 2 is a part of television history, and for general fans it will be the gem on this DVD, which (sorry, Mr. Mostel) is being marketed as Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy. But it’s not the big draw for families with children. The reason to buy this DVD, if you have children, is the colorful TV movie version of the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” starring Burnett as the princess.

Burnett got her big break in 1959 as a 26 year old when she was cast by the legendary George Abbott to star in the off-Broadway production of a new show based on that fairy tale, and Once Upon a Mattress quickly moved on Broadway for a total run of 244 performances. Burnett earned a Tony nomination for her role as Princess Winifred the Woebegone, and as a TV personality she would star in three special televised productions of Once Upon a Mattress: in 1966, 1972, and 2005, the latter in which she would play the queen rather than the unconventional princess. The version on this DVD is the 1972 special, which is indeed special because Jack Gilford and Jane White reprise their original off-Broadway roles as King Sextimus and Queen Aggravain.

Carolplus2screen1Once Upon a Mattress is aimed at families, which is made clear from the beginning as Burnett reads and shares an abbreviated picture-book version of the fairy tale, after which we’re told we’re about to see the “adult version” of what really happened. Don’t be alarmed. Even your four year old can watch and enjoy this production, which sports outrageous and colorful costumes and lines that are delivered slowly enough that the smallest children won’t need much in the way of narrative summary. Once Upon a Mattress is an engaging 90-minute romp that showcases Burnett’s talents as a physical comedienne and also features verbal comedy, singing, and dancing.

The plot is simple, yet, like so many fairy tales, timeless. Queen Aggravain is so domineering that her husband, the king, has been rendered unable to speak. Communicating only in pantomime, he’s like the fifth Marx Brother. Their son, Prince Dauntless (Ken Berry), is also dominated by the queen, yet this mama’s boy, despite being in his mid-thirties, yearns to marry. Trouble is, he can only marry a true princess, and Mama devises a different test each time so devious that none of the princesses who visit the castle are ever able to pass. When a rain-drenched Princess Winifred (who prefers to be called “Fred”) turns up on the doorstep, the vetting process begins anew. Children will especially get a kick out of a “dance off” in which Fred instantly masters the silliest local folk dance and outlasts everyone else in the kingdom. The Queen tells the princess that she needs to get her sleep because the big test will be tomorrow, when in fact the test is whether she can detect a tiny pea placed underneath a stack of 20 mattresses. The “adult version” is that this happily-ever-after tale didn’t come about because Fred was indeed able to detect that pea. She had a little help. Bernadette Peters stars as Lady Larkin, while Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner appears as Sir Studley, and Wally Cox (who gave voice to the TV cartoon Underdog) narrates as The Jester. Look closely and you’ll even see a cameo by Kermit the Frog. All in all, it’s a highly entertaining 90-minute TV musical special.

Carolplus2screen2Carol + 2 is geared more for adults than families, and while it’s great to see two of television’s First Ladies perform together and Zero Mostel is as wild-eyed and manic as ever, the sketches and performances are a mixed bag. The funniest might be the opening sketch featuring Burnett and Mostel as a married couple grown spiteful of each other who find out briefly that a mistake means they’re not married after all . . . and that changes the way they see each other. Close behind is “Goodbye Baby,” in which Ball plays an older sister who drops in for a visit on her way to her annual vacation. Burnett is the younger sister with a baby buggy in the park who insists that her sister not leave until she hears the little guy say “Goodbye.” Of course, as with all sketch comedy, things escalate, and while the ending might be a little far-fetched it’s the progression that’s fun to watch. Some of the other sketches are less successful, but Ball and Burnett sing a spirited song about “Chutzpah” as Hollywood charwomen, and this one-hour color special gives contemporary audiences a chance to see three legendary talents at work.

Thrown in as a bonus feature is the very first black-and-white Charwoman sketch that Burnett performed as part of her first special, An Evening with Carol Burnett. It was a character that, animated, would become part of her long-running TV show’s title credits. This 1963 sketch is more of a historical artifact than a family entertainment, though Burnett’s introduction to it, as with her introductions to the two TV specials included on this DVD, is nice to have.

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