Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book on Columbia comedy shorts offers a fascinating glimpse of two-reeler history

                                                                    By Doug Gibson

The Columbia Comedy Shorts, Ted Okuda and Ed Watz’s interesting history — courtesy of McFarland Press — of the 25 years of two-reel comedies the studio generated is fascinating reading if your a genre buff, and interesting even to the fan whose knowledge of Columbia shorts is limited to the several score shorts that starred the Three Stooges. Reading the book, I was amazed at the depth of the comic talent that Jules White grabbed for Columbia over three decades. I was aware of the Stooges, of course, and the former big-name silent stars who worked with Columbia — Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Andy Clyde — but I’d wager very few know of Vera Vague, or Sterling Holloway, or Billie Burke, or Maxie Rosenbloom and Max Baer, or Hugh Herbert, Walter Catlett, Collins & Kennedy, Harry Von Zell, and solo efforts from future Stooges Shemp Howard and Joe Besser, and even Bert Wheeler, plus Wally Brown. All, and more, were under contract with Columbia shorts. (Vague, by the way, garnered two Academy Award nominations, note the authors.)

Okuda and Watz wrote this valuable reference guide before the era of broadband Internet, and YouTube, and Google archives. At that time, only the Stooges were easily available to watch. Others required 16-millimeter film purchases. That’s changed. I can go to YouTube and watch the Columbia shorts of Langdon, Keaton, Clyde, Shemp, Chase, and even catch one of the obscure comedies of Baer and Rosenbloom, which were not available to the authors. In fact, most of Columbia’s other stars failed to catch on in the TV era for two reasons: one, they didn’t have the sheer volume of episodes of the Stooges; and two, nor did they have the fan base. This bears explaining — as enjoyable as the Columbia efforts of Langdon, Chase, Keaton, etc., are, the shorts are not these comics’ best works. Columbia, which under Jules White, stressed loud gags and action, defined the Stooges; many of the others had to adapt to Columbia.

This is not a criticism of Jules White, who seemed an amazing man, with tremendous energy and a desire to grab as many comics as he could while at the helm of the two-reeler section of the studio. From reading this book, which benefits from extensive interviews with Jules White, director Edward Bernds and feature player in many shorts, Emile Sitka, it’s apparent that the executives' disinterest in the shorts department — so long as it was making money — allowed tremendous autonomy for White. According to the book, salaries for the stars ranged from $500 an episode to $1,000 (for Keaton), to $1,250 (for Langdon) and to $2,500 an episode for each of the Stooges.

While most of the shorts were heavy on slapstick, White, and also producer Hugh McCollum, sometimes offered more subtle humor, such as Sterling Holloway, popular in the late 40s and 50s. Also, director Bernds was able to complete some shorts that provided more humor than just slapstick. His Stooges’ short, “Micro-phonies,” (watch below) remains my favorite for just that reason, including the opportunity to hear the beautiful voice of Columbia’s most famous comedy shorts woman, Christine McIntyre, who has achieved iconic status as a Stooge player.

As mentioned, while the Stooges were honed on Columbia’s fast-paced, loud action templates that sometimes ended abruptly, it frequently led to lesser efforts from the other stars. However, as the authors note, by the latter 1930s, Langdon, Chase, and many others were looking for work, and in no position to turn down the above-average paydays. Jules White clearly admired the players he offered starring roles for in the shorts, and it’s a pleasure for genre fans to watch Langdon and others provide laughs in that later era. And, it’s important to remember, the Columbia shorts were wildly popular. Even a sub-par Langdon effort, such as “A Blitz on the Fritz,” was a huge hit for movie-goers watching these shorts prior to the main films. The Stooges were so popular that Columbia used the popularity to boost their feature films, the authors note.

“The Columbia Comedy Shorts: Two-Reel Hollywood Film Comedies, 1933-1958” provide the ingredients that made the shorts. There are short profiles of the directors, Jules White, his brother Jack White (Preston Black), as well as Bernds, Charley Chase, Del Lord, and the unfortunate Harry Edwards, who appears to have been everyone’s least favorite, except for a loyal Harry Langdon. Not surprisingly, the authors note that Edwards was eased out after Langdon’s death in late 1944. Information is included on the writers, how the films were shot, including sound effects, previews, casting, budgets, stunts ... and injuries, pay scale, etc. There are even script samples. Readers may be surprised at how closely the Stooges, for example, followed scripts. The comedy chaos can lead to an assumption that much of the action was ad-libbed, but not really.

All of the shorts produced are provided at least a paragraph of information, and the authors are careful to note where scenes from other shorts were used; a practice that occurred often in the more lean-budget 1950s. For example: Although Christine McIntyre had left Columbia by the mid-1950s, footage of her was used in later “new” shorts.

There are short biographies of professionals involved in Columbia productions. I haven’t mentioned Vernon Dent, a mainstay throughout the Columbia shorts era. Always a featured player, his talent was equal to the stars. Reading Dent’s short biography, I wanted to learn more. It's great to learn that there is now full-length biography of this comedy pioneer, "Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy ...,” from BearManorMedia. The versatile McIntyre, in so many of the Columbia shorts, would be an interesting biography, in my opinion. Edward Bernds penned an autobiography, “Mr. Bernds Goes to Hollywood,” but I have yet to read it.

Okuda and Watz have compiled a valuable, interesting film history tool, with fantastic nuggets of information. It’s as valuable today as it was in 1986, when first released. Now that many of these shorts can be viewed at home, the book is a handy resource. You can buy the book here.

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