Today is the birthday of Earle W. (E.W.) Hammons (1882-1962).
A Mississippi native, Hammons established Educational Pictures (a.k.a Educational Films Corporation) in 1915 to produce educational films to be released to schools and churches, and for its first several years, the studio managed to do that exclusively. To bolster the company’s bottom line, starting round 1919 he began producing comedies as well, with the original idea that he was doing so to underwrite his travelogues and documentaries. But comedy eventually became the whole enchilada, turning even the name of the studio into a joke.
During the 1920s, Educational and Al Christie were sort of poor relations to the major producers of comedy shorts, Mack Sennett and Hal Roach. As the saying goes, Hammons got major talent on the way up and on the way down. In the 1920s, his stable included Al St. John, Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane, Wallace Lupino, Jimmie Adams and Lige Conley. Jack and Jules White, later to make such a huge mark with the Columbia shorts division, got their starts working behind the camera at Educational during this period. And Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle found a home there as a director (using a pseudonym) following his 1921 scandal.
In the talking era, the studio became more important, as the top comedy mogul Mack Sennett began to founder, some major studios began phasing out shorts, and some of the top comedians of the 20s could find jobs nowhere else. Thus during the 30s at Educational we get the likes of Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Andy Clyde, Vernon Dent and Edgar Kennedy. Many who would soon go on to become much bigger stars at the major studios got their start at Educational in these years: these included Shirley Temple, the Ritz Brothers, Danny Kaye, Bert Lahr and Joan Davis. Educational, much like Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone also became a major showcase for top vaudeville stars who did not go on to film stardom, but were important nonetheless: people like Moran and Mack, Joe Cook, Herman Timberg, Willie Howard et al. As well as performers who would later become big on TV, such as Imogene Coca, and Irene Ryan (Granny of The Beverly Hillbillies, who first found fame with the team of Tim and Irene).
By the end of the 30s, the entire industry was changing. Fewer and fewer cinemas were showing shorts. During this period, Mack Sennett, Hal Roach and Al Christie all left the business and most of the major studios stopped making comedy shorts as well. As per the trend, 20th Century Fox, which distributed Educational’s product, stopped that arrangement. Educational’s last comedy short was Colonel Stupnagel’s Cavalcade of Stuff #2 (1939).
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc