Credit Rose Marie Films, Vitagraph Films
Rose Marie has been famous for so long that “Wait for Your Laugh,” a charming documentary about her nine decades as a performer, doubles as a history of 20th-century show business, focusing on vaudeville, early radio comedy, the birth of Las Vegas and the evolution of the female sitcom star.
Now 94, Rose Marie, who proudly asserts that she went by her first name before any other celebrity, started singing for crowds at the age of 3, pairing an adorable child’s face with the brassy belt of a grizzled diva. That distinctive voice would later become a terrific vehicle for punch lines. After gaining fame onstage, where she sang a duet with Evelyn Nesbit (the chorus girl whose husband killed the architect Stanford White, setting off a media circus), she moved to radio, film and most notably television. There she co-starred as a wisecracking comedy writer on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and later for many years on “Hollywood Squares.” In between the successes of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, Rose Marie, this movie argues, was one of the most important female comic voices in America.
Carl Reiner and Mr. Van Dyke provide colorful personal testimony about working with her — and Dan Harmon, the creator of “Community,” displays an insightful critic’s eye — but the heart of this movie is Rose Marie talking you through her own life with the same attention to pleasing the audience as she shows onstage. Her steely good cheer is good company as she relates taut, action-packed stories about run-ins with Al Capone and Jimmy Durante with a minimum of introspection.
Jason Wise’s documentary, which relies on re-enactments and backstage footage with sparing use of performances, is a love letter to the performer but not the business, in which she managed to achieve a measure of fame for nine decades, while still being overlooked. Her single-minded focus on work is presented as admirable but also something of a curse. As in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” this is a movie about a star never at peace unless she’s performing, a contrast with “Gilbert,” another compelling, surprisingly moving documentary about an eccentric with an old-school work ethic.
The stand-up comic Gilbert Gottfried has built a highly respected career telling profane, even shocking jokes in a sandpaper voice. The director Neil Berkeley nicely sketches his career with an emphasis on controversial comedy. (“I have a flight to California,” he said at a roast weeks after Sept. 11. “I can’t get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”)
What distinguishes this documentary is the incongruity between the raucousness of the humor and the quiet, mundane rituals of his domestic life, whether puttering around his New York apartment or in more joyous scenes with his two children and wife, Dara Gottfried.
As an unlikely love story, this movie excels, presenting a relationship so affectionate and warm that it overwhelms the jokes. When he curses at his wife, she takes it as a sweet nothing. And when she cracks a joke, he’s quick with a booming laugh. “Gilbert” is that rarest of things, a portrait of a happy comic.