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Although the onscreen credits contain a 1972 copyright statement for Fred Baker Films Ltd., the picture was not registered for copyright. The end credits include acknowledgments for a number of people and television stations, including Steve Allen, Malcolm Muggeridge, Mort Sahl and CBS and NBC TV NYC, and conclude with the following quote from Dick Schaap: "A last four-letter word for Lenny DEAD AT 40 and that's obscene." The film contains footage of Bruce performing his routines, both in nightclubs and on television, and interviews with people such as Allen, Muggeridge and Sahl. Voice-overs of Bruce's performances are heard over contrasting footage from various theatrically released motion pictures, newsreels and television shows; for example, when he comments on religion, scenes of various Christian rites are shown. Stills of Bruce and other people are also shown throughout the film, as director-producer Fred Baker provides voice-over narration. Excerpts from Bruce's appearances on The Steve Allen Show are seen, as well as part of an unsold pilot Bruce made for his own television program.
According to an August 1974 Box Office review, filmmakers Fred and Barbara Baker compiled the documentary by taking "five years to research through hundreds of hours of taped performances [by Bruce] in nightclubs and on TV." In a September 27, 1967 Variety article, it was reported that the Bakers would be using "materials contracted for with Bruce's estate." The article also noted that the idea for the documentary came to Fred Baker when he was working as a producer for Channel 13, New York's "educational tv station," but the project was rejected as too controversial. After Baker left the station, he purchased the rights to the materials from the Bruce estate in exchange for fifty percent of his ownership in the documentary.
According to the November 1971 Variety review, Lenny Bruce Without Tears was screened at the First Annual New York Erotic Film Festival on November 18, 1971. According to a January 1972 Box Office article, the picture was "acquired for non-theatrical distribution by John Freide, president of National Talent Service" and would "be geared to the college market and video tape network." The Variety review noted that the picture was shot in 16mm, and apparently was exhibited in that format at the festival, although when it eventually received a theatrical release in August 1974, it was blown up to 35mm. The 1972 Filmfacts listed Video Tape Network as the film's distributor, although no other source listed that company. The picture did not open in Los Angeles until 2 August 1974.
As discussed in the documentary, Lenny Bruce (1925-1966), a controversial comedian who frequently used English and Yiddish swear words in his satiric examinations of societal values, was arrested at least eight times for obscenity-four of which entailed major prosecutions-as well as numerous times for narcotics possession. Bruce's arrests became the focus of free speech proponents, who argued that under the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark, 1957 obscenity ruling Roth v. United States, Bruce's routines, taken as a whole, were not obscene and contained artistic integrity and social value, and therefore should be protected under the First Amendment. Bruce's first obscenity arrest occurred in San Francisco on October 4, 1961 and resulted in an acquittal, while his second arrest, in Los Angeles on October 24, 1962, resulted in a hung jury and the decision by the district attorney not to reprosecute. On December 5, 1962, Bruce and club owner Alan Ribback were arrested in Chicago, and although he was found guilty of obscenity there, in November 1964, his conviction was overturned on appeal in a ruling held by modern law scholars to be a significant moment in First Amendment law. [The charges against Ribback were dismissed.] In addition to his obscenity trials, Bruce was banned from performing in numerous American cities and in London and Australia, and was deported from England on 13 April 1963.
Bruce's final major arrest for obscenity, at New York's Caf Au Go Go on April 3, 1964, also resulted in the arrest of the club's owners, Howard and Ella Solomon. Although Bruce, by then acting as his own attorney in the matter, failed to follow through with his appeal on the New York conviction, Howard Solomon, who also had been found guilty (Ella Solomon had been found not guilty), won his appeal in 1968, after Bruce's death. Although some modern sources incorrectly state that Bruce's conviction was overturned, law scholars agree that Solomon's victory would have been significant for Bruce if his appeal had been presented to the courts, and that he likely would have been vindicated. The film incorrectly states that lawyer Martin Garbus, who did work on Bruce's New York obscenity trial, was Bruce's "final attorney," when actually, Garbus' participation in the trial was limited and Ephraim London was Bruce's lead counsel in the matter before Bruce fired him in order to represent himself.
In October 1965, Bruce was declared bankrupt after his long string of legal battles and inability to find work. Although Bruce filed various civil suits attempting to prevent further arrests, as well as to seek redress against judges and prosecutors, none of them succeeded. On August 3, 1966, Bruce died of a morphine overdose. Many modern comedians, such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Izzard and Margaret Cho, have acknowledged that it is due to Bruce's fights over obscenity that they have been able to perform freely in public without fear of arrest. On December 23, 2003, inspired by a petition sponsored by two prominent attorneys and signed by several celebrities, then New York governor George Pataki granted a posthumous pardon to Bruce.
Bruce appeared in and co-wrote two films: 1954's Dream Follies, directed by Phil Tucker; and 1956's Dance Hall Racket, also directed by Tucker ( for both). Both films co-starred Bruce's mother, Sally Marr, and Dance Hall Racket co-starred Bruce's wife, Honey Harlowe (also known as Honey Harlow and Honey Bruce). Bruce and Harlowe married in 1951, divorced in 1957 and had one daughter, Kitty. Additionally, Bruce co-wrote the screenplay for the 1954 Twentieth Century-Fox release The Rocket Man (see below). Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, was published serially in Playboy beginning in 1963, and in book form in 1965. One of his most famous sketches, "Thank You Mask Man," about the Lone Ranger, was set to animation by director John Magnuson in an eight-minute short that was released to wide acclaim in 1971.
Plays based on Bruce's life include Lenny, which opened in New York on May 26, 1971 and was written by Julian Barry, and Lenny Bruce, in His Own Words, a one-man show starring Jason Fisher that opened in New York on February 1, 2006. Other films about Bruce include the 1967, Magnuson-directed documentary Lenny Bruce, which was a recording of his second-to-last live performance. [Sequences from the earlier documentary are included in Lenny Bruce Without Tears.] In 1974, United Artists released Lenny, which was based on Barry's play. The fictional, Oscar-nominated account was directed by Bob Fosse and starred Dustin Hoffman as the comic. Another documentary, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, directed by Robert B. Weide, was released in 1998.