Let us now praise two of the great ladies of show-biz. Their careers stretched on for decades, continually found new audiences and embraced a variety of media but with a certain affinity for television comedy.
Betty White and Rose Marie were born just over a year apart in the early 1920s and both worked into their 90s. White, who is 98, has more or less retired from public view, while Rose Marie suffered ill health in her later years and died in 2017 at 94. Though there are similarities in the career trajectories of these TV legends, two streaming documentaries underscore the abundant differences in their lives and careers. For instance, one attracted the love and devotion of notorious gangster Al Capone (Rose Marie), while the other earned the admiration of a hunky movie star many years her junior (White’s bewitching of Ryan Reynolds).
“Betty White: First Lady of Television,” an hourlong 2018 doc on Netflix, is simply a lovefest. Apparently there is no one on the planet who doesn’t adore White. That affection and admiration goes all the way back to her humble beginnings in live television as host of “Hollywood on Television,” which amazingly offered nearly six hours of live programming six days a week – talk about honing your improv skills! White had a mediocre ‘50s sitcom in “Life with Elizabeth,” but what’s notable about her career from this point on is that she had her own production company and took an active role in her projects both in front of and behind the camera.
White’s career didn’t really get hopping until the 1960s. In her 40s, she became queen of the game shows and even landed a husband in Alan Ludden, the host of “Password” (still one of the all-time greatest game shows). Then came “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (streaming on Hulu), and with the role of lusty Sue Anne Nivens, White hit a whole new level of hilarity and stardom. Astonishingly, her biggest hit was still to come in 1985 when, at age 63, she landed “Golden Girls” (also streaming on Hulu) and the role of dippy, darling Rose Nyland.
An animal rights activist and all-around good sport whose sweetness belies an occasionally naughty sense of humor, White is, simply, a national treasure, and this bright and breezy documentary clearly lays out exactly why.
Rose Marie, on the other hand, never got the third-act career bump she deserved. Though her biggest gig was as comedy writer Sally Rogers in the classic “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu) she never got her own sitcom or that juicy, career-defining character part that would have cemented her place in the pantheon of great TV comedians.
The documentary “Wait for Your Laugh,” released in 2018 shortly after Rose Marie’s death and now on Amazon Prime, is a powerful and entertaining reminder of what an extraordinary life she lived. Her career spanned nearly 90 years because she became a sensation at age 4 as Baby Rose Marie, the little girl with the grown-up voice (and the dance moves to match).
She survived childhood stardom and crisscrossed the country as a nightclub star back when nightclubs offered prime comedic and musical entertainment. She was a fixture on television practically since its inception, became a Vegas headliner before Vegas was really even a thing, starred in a big Broadway hit (“Top Banana” with Phil Silvers) and became one of those ever-reliable performers who could toss off an audience-pleasing song and a joke with seemingly effortless panache.
After five seasons on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” with her side hair bow already an iconic trademark, she continued to guest star on just about every TV show imaginable, and the closest she claim to reclaiming the spotlight was a live show called “Four Girls Four” that partnered her with crooners Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Helen O’Connell.
Unlike the Betty White documentary, this one has some edge and even a little snark, which makes for some dishy fun. But the overall impression of Rose Marie is someone who dedicated her life to her work, became a master of her craft and probably deserved a bigger, longer-lasting spotlight.