The Great Movie Shorts

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Today is the birthday of Leonard Maltin (b. 1950), well known as Entertainment Tonight movie reviewer, creator of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and…a Three Stooges apologist. It won’t surprise you that it is the latter affiliation which rates him a shout-out on this blog. This is going to be one of those rare occasions where I trumpet a book other than one of my own.

The Great Movie Shorts: Those Wonderful One and Two Reelers of the Thirties and Forties  (later reissued as Selected Short Subjects) is a book I wish I had discovered much, much earlier in my life. For the die-hard old time comedy film fan, it is an indispensable reference work. When I was a kid, I only knew of the shorts of the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals (a.k.a. Our Gang), because that was all that played on local television in my area. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from others that their own local stations also played the shorts of Laurel and Hardy, Edgar Kennedy, and even silents, but it wouldn’t be my fortune to discover this stuff until much later. And then there were those classic W.C. Fields’ shorts; one of the first VHS tapes I ever owned…

But it turns out the shorts universe was much wider than that. For a time, all of the major studios had a shorts unit (just as many of them had animation units), and there were a number of studios (hold outs from the silent days) who specialized in shorts. The briefest of thumbnail sketches of what was out there:

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Mack Sennett: continued to make sound shorts with many of his formerly silent stars, notably Andy Clyde, and released series starring new discoveries like W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby

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Hal Roach: continued on with formerly silent stars like Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and Harry Langdon. Also created an all-female comedy team, initially consisting of Thelma Todd and ZaZu Pitts, then Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, and then Patsy Kelly and Lyda Roberti.

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Educational: famous for comedies starring performers “on their way or on their way down”. The most famous of these at Educational during the talkie era were Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon (after Roach)

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Columbia: the most flourishing shorts shop of them all during the talkie era, and the one that lasted the longest (until the 1950s). Their stars included the Three Stooges, Charley Chase (after Roach), Buster Keaton (after Educational) and Harry Langdon (after Educational and Roach)

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RKO: not far behind Columbia during the 1930s. Their big stars included Edgar Kennedy, Leon Eroll, Clark and McCullough and many others

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Warner Bros (Vitaphone): I’m so focused on vaudeville that for many years I thought Vitaphone was chiefly responsible only for films of vaudeville acts, but they also produced narrative comedy shorts starring Fatty Arbuckle, Shemp Howard, Jack Haley, Lionel Stander and many others

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MGM: their main thing was those narrated MOS Pete Smith Specialties they always run nowadays as filler on TCM. Cost effective for the studio, but frankly in a cinema this would be where I would go out to get the popcorn. More to their credit, they produced Robert Benchley’s shorts.

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Paramount: made many shorts with their long list of contracted comedy stars (e.g. Burns and Allen, per photo above, from Waking the Baby, 1933). They also made shorts with Benchley after he left MGM

By the mid 1930s, the shorts shops started closing. As I said, Columbia was last, in the 50s. The manner in which films were booked came to demand double features. This is why in the 1940s you start getting these incredibly weak comedy features by Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Lupe Velez, the Bowery Boys etc. When I tear down these films its usually not the comedians I have a problem with, its the unnatural length. As a general proposition, comedy wants to be short. Stan Laurel knew this well; he always protested having to do features. The stories these guys tell and the way they tell them is best reeled out over 20 to 30 minutes. And generally that’s about the amount of funny material you get in a feature. In most feature length comedies, the story is all bogged down by 40 minutes or more of extremely boring love scenes, songs, plotting by villains, and so forth. People say they like these movies, but I think they’re lying to themselves. No one can be that vacant. On the other hand, during the average Abbott and Costello feature I get a lot of useful work done: shopping list, paying bills, reorganizing my filing cabinet.

Don’t think you’ve just learned all you need to know! This is just the skeleton! You need to get Maltin’s book for all the delicious fat and muscle. (Sorry, was that disgusting?) I don’t agree with all of Maltin’s assessments of the comedians he writes about. Maltin was one of those precocious early-achieving teenagers. He began publishing film articles and putting out his own fanzine when he was only 15. The Great Movie Shorts came out when he was only 22 years old; many of his brasher judgments strike me as youthful impetuosity. But his passion is contagious, and that’s just what books like this are for.

You can buy it here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Great-Movie-Shorts-Two-Reelers/dp/0517504553

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