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Fox Lorber presents
The Unknown Jonathan Winters: On the Loose (2000)

"It's been fun, and I thank you for this opportunity to remain - on the loose."
- Jonathan Winters

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: November 04, 2000

Stars: Jonathan Winters
Other Stars: Andy Williams, Robin Williams
Director: John Scheinfeld, David Leaf

Manufacturer: CMCA
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mildly risque humor)
Run Time: 01h:00m:19s
Release Date: September 05, 2000
UPC: 720917310824
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The Unknown Jonathan Winters: On the Loose is a biographical television documentary about the rotund, vocally versatile, influential comic who reached the height of his popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. The program covers Winters' life and career, with extensive new footage created with the cooperation of Winters and his family, and includes numerous vintage television clips.

While similar in style to the popular A&E and E! cable network biography programs, The Unknown Jonathan Winters is both helped and hindered by the presence of the man himself. His own reminiscences serve as the program's narration, linking still photos and film clips into a rough map of his life and career. His wife and children are on hand to share their memories, and the program gains a great deal of intimacy from their involvement. It's a warm look at a man whose talent shaped American comedy in many ways—he was particularly inspiring to a young Robin Williams, who also appears in this documentary to discuss Winters' influence and their work together, as does Andy Williams (no relation) whose TV talk show frequently featured Winters as a guest in the 1960s. Winters discusses his paintings—a recent artistic outlet—and we even see him going about his present-day life, doing his banking and improvising with the staff in an affable, pleasant, often hilarious manner.

Unfortunately, this up-close-and-personal approach sacrifices a degree of objectivity and clarity, qualities vital to a good documentary. Winters is very open and honest about his career choices and a breakdown he suffered in the 1950s, but his remarks leave a lot of ground uncovered. The program subtly raises but never speaks to a fundamental question regarding the undoubtedly talented Winters: why was he unable to leverage his success as a television performer into the movies? Winters made numerous films, including Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, but these roles (often essentially cameos) never registered with the public the way his TV personæ did. One gets the impression that his vocal and improvisational skills were more impressive in the small-screen, sketch-comedy, live-audience environment, but the program draws no conclusions in this area. There are also some factual gaps which might have been better bridged by neutral, scripted narration; for instance, Robin Williams speaks at length about Winters' pre-show improvisations and their lengthy, film-eating riffs, but the program never explicitly states the title of the show in question (Mork and Mindy) nor explains Winters' involvement (playing Mork's oversized son, Mearth, during the show's final 1981-1982 season.)

The Unknown Jonathan Winters is still entertaining and insightful enough to be worth viewing; Winters is fascinating to watch, and he can be hilarious when running at full tilt, his comic brain running too fast for any of us to keep up. But the program leaves a slightly unsatisfying aftertaste, smacking a bit of the "puff piece" despite its straightforward approach and Winters' commendable forthrightness. There's something lacking in the production's structure, which its charismatic subject can't quite overcome.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Unknown Jonathan Winters is presented in its original 1.33:1 made-for-television full-frame aspect ratio. Most of the clips are from television appearances, though a brief clip from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is letterboxed to preserve the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The show's broadcast-videotape origins are apparent—scan-line and digital editing artifacts (on still images) turn up frequently. Footage is drawn primarily from videotape and kinescopes of varying quality; the image is generally soft but clean, and the transfer seems solid enough given the source. It's a typical television documentary, visually unimpressive but perfectly watchable.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Fox Lorber's The Unknown Jonathan Winters is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic soundtrack, ProLogic-decoded to the center speaker. All of the archival clips as well as the newly-created interview segments are monophonic. The sound quality is quite good considering the condition of some of the vintage television source materials: clear and comprehensible if unspectacular.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
4 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Good Humor Outtakes
  2. Hefty Bag TV Commercials
  3. Chance of a Lifetime TV Clip
  4. The Jonathan Winters Show Sketches
  5. DVD-ROM Winstar DVD Newsletter Weblink
Extras Review: Fox Lorber breaks with the company's bare-bones tradition by including a number of supplements on this disc. The Unknown Jonathan Winters is supported by 8 picture-menu chapter stops, a DVD-ROM Weblink to Winstar's DVD Newsletter subscription site, Winters biography and filmography sections, program and DVD production credits, and some archival and outtake material featuring the inimitable Mr. Winters:

Good Humor Outtakes:

Billed on the DVD menu as "Good Humor Commercial", this is actually a series of improvisational outtakes by Winters on the set of a Good Humor TV spot in which he plays a grizzled prospector talking about Good Humor products—and his faithful mule. Winters' style is much in evidence here, as his riffs on the prospector theme evoke audible guffaws from the crew, though one wonders whether a usable commercial came out of this session!

Hefty Bag TV Spots:

Thirteen US TV spots for Hefty Bags and derivative Hefty products, featuring Winters in multiple roles as he demonstrates the quality of the manufacturer's trash bags. These are played relatively straight by Winters' standards, and the sheer quantity becomes slightly numbing after a while, but it's nice to have these vintage spots included.

TV—Chance of a Lifetime:

A very brief bit of leftover footage from Winters' debut TV appearance on Chance of a Lifetime, most of which is seen in the documentary proper; this extra bit of wrap-up adds little of value.

The Jonathan Winters Show Sketches:

Another disappointing extra, this features two short bits of footage from Winters' own TV show as he improvises around a dinner table theme. These clips are funny, but don't provide a good picture of the show in general.

Too Loose for TV—Outtakes:

These are essentially deleted scenes from the new footage shot for this documentary, featuring Winters impersonating a gas station attendant (to the bewilderment of an unsuspecting customer); joking during his makeup session; begging the audience to write and send five dollars, and talking to the producers about how much they'll probably end up cutting from the show. It's entertaining footage and a worthwhile inclusion.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

The Unknown Jonathan Winters: On the Loose is an intimate biographical documentary about the influential comedian's life and career. Fox Lorber's DVD is competently presented with substantial supplements and plenty of Winters performance footage (onstage and off). Not as comprehensive as it might be, but still worth a look.


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