The Great Comedians and Their Studios

After years of navigating this treacherous terrain myself, today I felt it was high time to share this little road map of the great comedians of the studio era, and the factories in which they primarily toiled. Our principal field of concentration is the so-called classic era (roughly 1920s through 1950s), although some of them have roots extending back much further, when the landscape was very different. Thus while we mention important companies like Keystone and Roach and other early ones, our main focus is on those that would become the major studios of the sound era.

Fields and Costello, two top Universal ccomedy stars of the 1940s

Universal 

Universal played a major role in two different phases of classic comedy, at the beginning and at the end. If you were to graph it, it would resemble a bar-bell. During neither phase were they known for developing their own comedians, but for plundering those brought along by other studios for the most part.

The company was formed in 1912 by the acquisition and consolidation of some of filmdom’s earliest studios, one of which was Nestor, which came with future comedy auteur Al Christie. Universal also came up with several comedy brands of their own (such as “Joker”), which would wind up competing directly with Mack Sennett’s Keystone. They stole Augustus Carney from Essanay, changing him from “Alkali Ike” to “Universal Ike”.  They poached Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman from Keystone and gave them their own production units.  Important comedians at Universal’s various brands included Max Asher, Billy Franey, Gale Henry, Louise Fazenda, Harry McCoy, Billie Ritchie, Alice Howell, Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran and others (again, many of them former Keystone people).

Then comes the skinny period at the studio for comedy. By the late ’20s and early 30s Universal had discovered a cash cow in the form of horror. They made some talkie shorts with Slim Summerville and others, but relatively few compared with other studios. And unfortunately — unthinkably — Universal destroyed most of its silent film cache in 1948 to save money, so we can’t see most of the films from the early silent period to evaluate.

But the second phase of Universal comedy is well known, easily as well known as Paramount’s great comedy period or that of the Columbia Shorts Department.  It happened late in the game, just around the time some of the studios seemed to be be making less of an effort on the comedy front, allowing Universal to pick up a lot of great comedians at what amounted to a fire sale. They picked up the Dead End Kids from Warner Brothers in 1938, W.C. Fields from Paramount in 1939, the Ritz Brothers from Fox in 1940, and Olsen and Johnson (formerly with Warner Brothers) in 1941. But they did create their own mega-comedy stars in the form of  Abbott and Costello (1940-1956), the team for which they remain best known today. They also developed the popular late comedy series Ma and Pa Kettle which ran 1947-1957.

A quarter century separates Universal’s early and late periods. And, given that the later period includes many comedy classics (including some of W.C. Fields’ most enduring films, the screen version of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin and any number of Abbott and Costello favorites) one can’t help but wonder how the earlier period would measure up. They had some great talent in the bullpen.

(20th Century) Fox

Fox launched their own comedy units in 1916,  including one under the direction of Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), another under Henry Lehrman after he departed Universal. Like Universal, Fox offered many separate brands to exhibitors, such as Foxfilm, Sunshine, and Imperial, and they had great comedy stars like Hank Mann, Billie Ritchie, Dot Farley, Heinie Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Al St. John. As with Universal, many of these were plundered from Keystone and Sennett.

Fox also distributed the product of Educational Pictures which, starting in the mid, 1920s included comedies by the likes of Lupino Lane, and Lloyd Hamilton and later (in the talkie period) Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton (Educational is essential the most obvious linking element between the silent period and the talking period at Fox.  Clark and McCullough started their movie career at Fox in 1928. Fox stopped carrying shorts in 1937, around the time they merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox.

Major Fox comedy stars of the 1930s included Will Rogers; Shirley Temple (who’d come to the studio via Educational’s Baby Burlesks and Frolics of Youth); and The Ritz Brothers (who’d also come via Educational).  In their declining years (early 1940s) Laurel and Hardy made some of their worst comedies for the studio.

Sadly, most of Fox’s silent product (and thus also much of Educational’s) was lost in a fire in the 1930s. It’s a great loss for many reasons. One would be interested in comparing the early silent Fox comedies with those of their competitors. But it also would be interesting to measure them against the studio’s comedy product of the ’30s, which was on the weak side to put it mildly. There may have been some redemption and more vigor in the comedies of the teens — like Keystone product, but slicker. I think it’s likely that there was.

Paramount 

Of all the major studios, Paramount may have the longest and best known association with comedy. It begins with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who launched his own independent production company Comique in 1917, releasing the films through Paramount. In 1920, Arbuckle bequeathed Comique to Buster Keaton and went to work as a star for Paramount directly, until the scandal of 1921 derailed his career. Mack Sennett also cut a deal to release his comedies through the studio starting in 1917, an arrangement that lasted until 1923, and was resumed 1932-1934.  Others who made silent comedy features at Paramount included Raymond Griffith (1924-1927), and W.C. Fields (1925-1928). Harold Lloyd’s independently produced features were distributed by Paramount from the mid 20s through 1936, and he starred in the Paramount comedy Professor Beware in 1938.  The Marx Brothers made their best movies for the studio from 1929 through 1933. Mack Sennett released comedies through Paramount from 1932 to 1933, which led to W.C. Fields getting picked up by the studio again for a second stretch (1932-1938). Burn and Allen worked for the studio from 1930 through 1939, first in their own series of comedy shorts, then usually integrated into feature comedies with ensemble casts, e.g., the Big Broadcast series. Mae West made her classic films for Paramount from 1932 through 1937. In the ’30s both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came to the studio, occasionally teamed in their own “Road” comedies. And the line stretches all the way to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1949-1956), then Lewis’s solo comedies through the mid 1960s. That’s a good half century of solid, reputable comedy output. And, while we’re not not focusing on directors in this post, we’d be remiss in not mentioning that the great Preston Sturges made his masterpeices of the 1940s for Paramount as well. Does Paramount win? One is tempted to assert so — until we recall the minor fact that they also fired Arbuckle, the Marx Brothers, West and Fields. Get your head out of your ass, Paramount!

Columbia

Like the studio itself, Columbia’s comedies have been dissed over the years, but are nowadays garnering well deserved respect. The Cohn Brothers and Joe Brandt began as CBC Film Sales, producing the Hall Room Boys, based on a comic strip (1918-1923), and distributing the Mickey McGuire comedies (1927-1934), starring a very young Mickey Rooney. Frank Capra, the studio’s principle earner, arrived in 1928 to keep the studio solvent. And while Capra essentially invented the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night (1934) and can be called one of America’s greatest comedy directors (You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace, not to mention his early pre-Columbia work with Our Gang and Harry Langdon) his labors were entirely separate from the low comedy happening at the legendary Columbia shorts department (1933-1958). Jules White was the main man there and he created the shop’s signature style, which was fast-paced, violent, and full of cartoon sound effects. The main stars of their stable were The Three Stooges, and for most part the remainder were refugees from the ruins of Roach and Educational, like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase etc etc. When the shorts department closed in 1958, the Stooges continued to make features for the studio through 1965. Another notable Columbia comedy product was the Blondie series (1938-1950), adapted from the comic strip and starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (himself a veteran of comedy shorts at the various studios since the earliest days of talkies.)

Red Skelton, “A Southern Yankee”

MGM

Considered by many to be the greatest of the classic era Hollywood studios overall, MGM was easily the worst studio for comedy, apart from the films they merely distributed. Throughout the 1920s MGM and Metro (one of the companies that was merged to create it) distributed Buster Keaton‘s features, which are comedy masterpieces. And from 1927 through 1938 they distributed Hal Roach films, including the very best output of Laurel and Hardy , and the comedies of Our GangCharley Chase, and many others. This adds up to some of the best comic product in the business, and you can see how proud they are of these associations in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a showcase film in which we have the rare spectacle of seeing Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton in the same movie.

But MGM’s merciless machine was a comedy killer. It seems like whenever their management got their hands on comedians, they succeeded in killing what was excellent about them. Keaton became a contract player in 1929. By 1933, after 4 years of terrible films, he vamoosed, returning later only as a gag man. The Marx Brothers arrived in 1935; by 1941 they were so disgusted with their MGM experience they retired. When MGM took over direct production of Our Gang in 1938, they killed the essential spirit of the franchise. And when Laurel and Hardy escaped from Fox briefly in the ’40s to see if MGM could do any better for them, they were sorely disappointed.

The only comedy star that can truly be called MGM’s creation is Red Skelton, who made his comedies there from 1941 through 1954. Red had starred in some shorts prior to this, but it was MGM that made him a star (with guys like Buster Keaton in the wings to spruce up the gags). Nearly all of the films are excrutiatingly dull — the prevailing MGM comedy aesthetic. The same can be said of the Maisie series (1939-1947), starring the otherwise winning Ann Sothern. The credits promise racy comedy; but the actual product is fairly barren of laughs. You need freedom and independence to make comedy, and you don’t have those when you’re a cog in a machine.

RKO

On the other hand, the most under-rated and unsung studio for comedy from the classic era has got to be RKO. After Paramount, Universal and Columbia, I would have to place RKO in the comedy studio rankings. This despite the fact that the studio had a short life compared to the rest of them — less than 30 years. RKO was founded in 1928, in a move that included a merger of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and Film Booking Offices, which had earlier absorbed the Mutual Film Corporation, which had earlier swallowed up Keystone, Lone Star, Majestic, Reliance-Majestic and others, brands associated with major comedy founding names Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and others. Their product included the features of Wheeler and Woolsey (1929-1938); the shorts of Edgar Kennedy (1930-1947), Clark and McCullough (1930-1935), and Leon Errol (1934-1951), the Mexican Spitfire series starring Lupe Velez (1939-1943); Hal Peary’s Gildersleeve comedies (1942-1944); and the brief teaming of Alan Carney and Wally Brown (1943-1945). But there are many amazing things to remember RKO for, including the musicals of Fred and Ginger, the spectacle of King Kong, and the masterpiece that was Citizen Kane. We can perhaps be forgiven of not thinking of their comedians first, but they had great ones.

Warner Brothers

Similarly we have other reasons to think of Warner Brothers before comedy: gangster pictures, swashbucklers, and Depression Era tap musicals.  But there’s a comedy legacy here as well. In 1924 the Warner Brothers acquired the old Vitagraph studios (where Larry Semon was the big comedy star). This is why their famous sound process would be called Vitaphone when it premiered a couple of years later. In 1928, they merged with First National, which had released many of the masterpieces of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon in earlier years.

Most of the early Vitaphones were more like documentary recordings of vaudeville acts than comedy shorts. They might star comedians like Burns and Allen but in a film like Lambchops they’re just doing their stage act. But some of the Vitaphones of the late ’20s and early ’30ss are proper, plotted comedy shorts, featuring comedians like Shemp Howard, Jack Haley and Lionel Stander. Best of all are a half dozen made by Fatty Arbuckle just as he was returning to pictures to make his comeback in 1932. Olsen and Johnson made three features at Warner Brothers in 1930 and 1931. Not surprisingly a half dozen of the Dead End Kids pictures were made there in the late ’30s with stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. These tend to be more gritty than funny, as they later grew to be.

But the greatest of all Warner Brothers classic comedy stars was Joe E. Brown, who made features at the studio from the late ’20s through the late ’30s. If you’re only going to have one comedy star, that’s a good one to have. Brown was so popular a star in the early ’30s it was as good as having a whole stable of comedians. Warner Brothers did end up making a major mark in the comedy business in the end — in the form of animated shorts, but that’s a topic for a different time.

Odds and Ends

Charlie Chaplin was one of the founders of United Artists. UA released all his movies from A Woman of Paris (1923) on. They also distributed all of Eddie Cantor’s comedies of the 1930s, which were produced by Sam Goldwyn.

Starting in 1940 the former Dead End Kids became the East Side Kids and Bowery Boys at low-budget Monogram (through 1958).

For more  on silent and slapstick film don’t miss my 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 To find out more about show biz history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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4 comments

  1. Well,at MGM you did forget the Robert Benchley shorts,which had started at Paramount and the multitalented stuntman,dancer,b-movie actor and western star Dave O’ Brien in the comedies incorporated in the Pete Smith Specialties series,which he also wrote and directed from the mid forties to 1955.

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    • Yes, I hate the Pete Smith things, I wouldn’t care if they all burned up in a fire, and Benchley made his brilliant shorts for most of the major studios in addition to MGM

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  2. Today, when people think of Warner Bros and comedy, the one thing they are remembered for are the Looney Tunes shorts. Even though they initially were done by Schlesinger, WB had the good sense to leave the boys at Termite Terrace alone for the most part after they acquired them (in what is STILL one of the great bargains in show biz history: $1 million cash on the line- think they’ve recouped that yet??) .

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