Why have these films been marketed on DVD? They attempt to coast on the popularity of the 1990s Stephen Fry / Hugh Laurie series, Jeeves and Wooster, rather than the intrinsic quality of these relics, and anyone buying this DVD will be sorely disappointed by the comparison.
At the end of 1935, 20th Century-Fox bought the film rights to Jeeves, looking for potentially prolific--and profitable--properties, and any character who seemed to have the potential to lure filmgoers to film after film. The series seems to have been launched on what was perceived as a sure bet, casting Arthur Treacher, known for playing butler roles, as the most famous literary gentleman's gentleman.
However, the Jeeves films revealed no sense of the situations and character patterns that had made him successful in and books. There is none of Jeeves's trademark Machiavellian cleverness in the Treacher characterization, simply an annoyingly starched and stuffy, standard-issue English butler. He is irritable and petulant, appalled by any breach of etiquette or improper behavior, lacking the adaptability of the Wodehouse creation. Wodehouse himself said that Treacher "pulled faces all the time. Awful," adding "That supercilious manner of his is all wrong for Jeeves."
There was scarcely a mistake that was not made in the 56 minute opening movie, THANK YOU, JEEVES. In dispensing with the plot of the novel, and any other Jeeves story, the screenwriters substituted a bizarre combination of incidents interspersed in an incredibly unlikely account of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves becoming involved with espionage. The attempts at humor were either forced, or, in the case of a few lines that might have been amusing, were presented in such a way so as to conceal any comedic potential. Racial comedy with Willie Best, typical of the time, only makes viewers cringe today.
David Niven made an acceptable Bertie, effectively capturing his comic perplexity, but he was then under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, who typically loaned Niven out only for a single picture. Hence, the script of THANK YOU, JEEVES married Bertie at the close, eliminating half of the Wodehouse team in adapting the stories to the screen, judging Bertie to be dispensable.
THANK YOU, JEEVES, a 1936 release, was followed the next year by STEP LIVELY, JEEVES, which this time is not ostensibly based on any Wodehouse work, but admits to being an original creation. The first picture in the series had been so bad that ironically there was nowhere to go but up. Although STEP LIVELY, JEEVES is a screwball comedy far from the Wodehouse tone, it at least remains predominantly humorous, unlike the mix with spies that had marred THANK YOU, JEEVES.
There is no consistency in characterization between the two movies. The 69 minute STEP LIVELY, JEEVES reflects a new concept of the whole idea of a Jeeves series. Jeeves now has the Bertie Wooster brain, perpetually befuddled and confused. Yet the result is a pleasant, if thoroughly undistinguished movie that does contain a few mild, brief laughs--modest achievements, but significant improvements over THANK YOU, JEEVES. However, STEP LIVELY, JEEVES was still far from the necessary quality to sustain a series, and it was canceled at 20th Century-Fox over the summer of 1937. (Simultaneously, Wodehouse was scripting his own novel A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS at RKO, a vastly superior rendering of his comedy to the screen.)
American audiences were likely regarded as unlikely to accept a series positing a truly sagacious English butler, as in the Wodehouse stories, instead seeing such a figure purely as a source of comedy, meaning that the rights to Jeeves were bought for the name only, not the narratives. As it happened however, the Jeeves series became one of the worst executed ideas under Sol Wurtzel's Fox "B" unit, one which fully justified the aphorism about Fox "Bs", "from bad to Wurtzel." Probably the ultimate epitaph occurred when, in a 1937 radio broadcast, Hedda Hopper interviewed P.G. Wodehouse, and they spoke as if the Fox Jeeves movies had never been made.
Ironically, both Treacher and Niven starred separately in later television films of Wodehouse stories, Treacher in The Philco Television Playhouse: Uncle Dynamite (1950) and Niven in two versions of "Uncle Fred Flits By" for Hollywood Opening Night (1953) and Four Star Playhouse (1955). Of these three, at least the latter survives, and is one of the most successful transpositions of Wodehouse. Niven produced this half-hour show that fully captures the zaniness of the original while maintaining fidelity to the source. This example of one of the same actors in a worthwhile adaptation would have offered an interesting comparison to give real value to this DVD, proving the possibility of bringing Wodehouse successfully to the screen in a manner that put the Fox Jeeves films to shame.
The DVD bonuses, two documentaries about Wodehouse, are well-done but not sufficiently memorable for most viewers to justify the purchase. Some idea of the lack of thought given to the overall production of this package is that the documentaries, and the accompanying DVD brochure, give entirely divergent and contradictory accounts of the making of the movies.
The point of buying a video is to enable the purchaser to enjoy a work of quality again and again, like a favorite book. I doubt few who buy this DVD will ever look at it again, assuming, of course, they manage to watch it all the way through at all. Instead, the purchaser is better advised to spend on videos of WODEHOUSE PLAYHOUSE, JEEVES AND WOOSTER, or A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS.