Thursday, April 27, 2017

The spice of the program

In 1919, when Earle W. Hammons founded Educational Pictures, the motion picture studio was dedicated to doing what was indicated in its title—making films for schools.  This didn’t work out too well for E.W., so Educational switched to comedy…and enjoyed great success in the 1920s as a fun factory, with successful generators of mirth like Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane working under its banner.  By the 1930s, however, Educational’s fortunes had changed a bit as Leonard Maltin relates in Selected Short Subjects:

Earle W. Hammons
If one searched for a key word to describe the Educational comedies of the 1930s, the best one might be “cheap.”  Educational films almost always looked cheap, even though they were made in most cases by seasoned veterans.  One problem was the claustrophobia of shooting at the company’s eastern studio in Astoria, Long Island.  In addition, one suspects that the largest chunk of the small budgets went to pay the stars’ salaries, leaving very little for sets, costumes, and technical frills.  Nevertheless, the comedies (which were distributed by 20th Century Fox) always made money, despite the fact that the quality of the material was often downright poor.

I should point out here that film historian/friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts is hard at work writing a reference tome on the history of Educational Pictures similar to his splendid compendium on the Hal Roach Studios, Smile Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter, and I strongly suspect he’ll have a (most welcomed) dissenting opinion (I know, for example, he disputes Mr. Maltin's "cheap" observation with regards to Buster Keaton's oeuvre at the studio) .  For that matter, I’ve watched several of Harry Langdon’s Educational shorts and found some of them darned entertaining.

Ad copy for Educational in that era touted “the best of the old comedy favorites…the brightest of the new stars.”  It was a stage stop for folks on their way up and old-timers on their way down.  Notable among the veterans were Langdon, Mack Sennett (behind the camera), and Keaton (whose Educational shorts are available on the Kino-Lorber Blu-ray/DVD release Lost Keaton), with funsters like Milton Berle, Imogene Coca, and Danny Kaye numbering among the newcomers.  Maltin further observes: “There were also vaudevillians and stage comedians like Ernest Truex, Tom Howard & George Shelton, Buster West & Tom Patricola, Tim & Irene Ryan, and Joe Cook, who were not down on their luck, but whose stage success meant little in the movie world.”

Charlotte Greenwood in Girls Will Be Boys
“It took the hilarious dialect comedy of young Danny Kaye, in films like Getting an Eyeful, the contagious good-naturedness of Joe Cook, or the sheer professionalism of Charlotte Greenwood to overcome bad scripts,” Maltin writes in assessing the quality of Educational’s product.  Greenwood, a lanky comedienne who you might remember as “Aunt Eller” in the 1955 movie adaptation of Oklahoma!, is represented on a new release from Alpha Video—Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 2—with a very funny Educational effort, Girls Will Be Boys (1931).  Charlotte plays a housewife who agrees to swap jobs with her husband (Vernon Dent) …unaware that her hubby is now employed as a piano mover.  There’s a lot of sprightly physical comedy in this one (Char channel her inner The Music Box), and Greenwood delivers some nice wisecracks (it’s also fun to see Dent—who later worked alongside his old colleague Harry Langdon in shorts at Educational—as a milquetoast type) courtesy of a script from Paul Girard Smith and Al Boasberg.  (‘Snub’ Pollard also appears in a small role!)  I don’t know what it was about Charlotte, but she demonstrated an ability to shine even with the weakest material—her antics alongside Buster Keaton in his Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) are a testament to this.

Publicity shot of Marjorie Beebe (and non-talking dog)
The copy on the DVD box describes Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 2 as containing “zany, hilarious, and just plain bizarre shorts from the anything-goes pre-Code era.”  Ghost Parade (1931) certainly qualifies for the “just plain bizarre” designation; this Mack Sennett-directed effort stars Andy Clyde in his ‘Pop’ Martin persona, having to deal with the wackiness in a haunted house that previously belonged to his Civil War ancestor.  And by wackiness, I mean the likes of talking dogs (this kind of tickled me, to be honest—when one of the characters imparts some info to Andy he remarks “I know…the dog told me”), xylophone-playing ghosts, and menacing gorillas (played by Sennett’s big-monkey-for-hire Charles Gemora) running amuck in “Moseby Mansion.”  Harry Gribbon (as a police detective) and Marjorie Beebe (as Andy’s secretary) provide solid support (both were big stars at Sennett during Mack’s talkie era); Sennett distributed his comedies with Educational from 1928 to 1932, then switched to Paramount Publix until 1933.

James Gleason, Harry Gribbon, and Mae Busch
Harry Gribbon returns as prizefighter “Ham Hand McShelly” in 1932’s High Hats and Low Blows—not an Educational comedy, but an RKO Pathé two-reeler that was the sixth and final entry in the brief “Rufftown” franchise based on the stories by Arthur ‘Bugs’ Bear (which began in 1931 with When Canaries Sang Bass).  James “Iz zat so?” Gleason played manager Danny Ruff in these comedy shorts, and in High Hats he’s asked by a pal (Tom McGuire) who’s come into money to crash a tony society affair being sponsored by his wife (Maude Truax).  Gleason, Gribbon, and (the ever popular) Mae Busch show up pretending to be society swells, and the party eventually plays host to an exhibition bout between Gribbon and butler Irving Bacon.  I enjoyed this little two-reeler, particularly the scene where Gleason’s bluff is called by party attendee Gertrude Astor—who plays along with Jimmy’s charade until she tells him his bum of a pugilist needs to “stop leading with his chin.”

The remaining shorts on Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 2So This is Marriage (1929) and The Beauties (1930)—resemble those Vitaphone two-reelers that often air on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time; they’re pleasant if unmemorable, though Beauties does have a saving grace in that Billy Gilbert (billed as “Billie”) generates many chuckles as a vengeance-obsessed man whose constant refrain of “For 400 years the blood of a Castilian has run through my veins” gets funnier and funnier with repetition.  The Messenger Boy (1931) stars Benny Rubin as the titular character; he’s hired to look after a brat on behalf of a nightclub performer (Marie Wills), which results in the darling little tot proceeds destroying his tiny automobile.  Later, Rubin must don drag and perform in an act with apache dancers John Sinclair and Bud Jamison (who has a propensity to repel folks due to his onion-eating regimen).  If you like Jewish dialect humor you’ll get a kick out of Messenger…but the high point for me was hearing Rubin use a favorite gag with which I have become most familiar thanks to the Three Stooges (“Tell me your name so I can tell your mother…”  “My mother knows my name!”).

Also new from Alpha Video is Blondes and Redheads: Pre-Code Comedy Classics, Volume 2—a follow-up to the first volume of Blondes and Redheads comedy shorts reviewed here on the blog in March of last year.  I couldn’t get through the entire disc as this was going to press…but this release includes the debut comedy in the franchise, Flirting in the Park (1933), and a very funny outing directed by Sam White in Wig-Wag (1935).  There’s just something about a guy (in this case, TDOY fave Grady Sutton) having to appear in drag that makes for great comedy (Some Like It Hot [1959] taught us this); Sutton is dragooned into the female masquerade by his pal Jack Mulhall, who’s scheming to make his fiancée jealous (not knowing of course, that the bride-to-be—played by Dorothy Granger—is already wise to the gag).  The icing on the cake in Wig-Wag is that it features plum roles for back-to-back Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: Hattie McDaniel plays the family maid (and does a nifty fall into a wedding cake—though it may have been a stuntwoman) and Jane Darwell is Mulhall’s mother, who at one point takes a tumble down a flight of stairs (again—work for a double) while carrying a tiny dog in her arms.  (Bud Jamison is in this short, too, as a butler—the bewildered look Bud gives Grady as Sutton keeps pulling “springs” out of his corset is gold, Jerry.)

Many thanks to Brian Krey at Alpha Video for providing me the screeners (and encouraging my behavior with regards to both the blog and the liner notes I do for Radio Spirits); Brian has informed me that a third volume of Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies will be coming classic movie fans’ way in May, and I’m most looking forward to it.

1 comment:

Grant Hayter-Menzies said...

Love the photo of Charlotte in "Girls Will Be Boys". As her biographer, I am ashamed to admit I have never seen it before. Thanks for sharing!

Grant Hayter-Menzies