Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Talking Three Stooges and more: An interview with the creator of Columbia Shorts Department website

When it comes to history on the 25 years that the Columbia comedy shorts were a staple in movie theaters, there was the book, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," by Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, that has been like a bible for us genre fans. However, one individual has taken it a step further into the digital age.

Greg Hilbrich is the creator of the website The Columbia Shorts Department. It is an always-growing "information-heavy site dedicated to the vintage theatrical short subjects of Columbia Pictures." The website is frankly, priceless, and we are indebted to Hilbrich's hard work and scholarship. Once I discovered the site, I knew we had to interview him for Plan9Crunch, and we have a treasure trove of information ahead of us. It's a long interview, but full of fascinating information, but still not nearly as much information as The Columbia Shorts Department website contains.

Enjoy the interview!

-- Doug Gibson

Plan9Crunch: How did you become interested enough in the Columbia comedy shorts to start a website on its history?

Hilbrich:  Here's the short answer.

It all began with the Three Stooges. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the pre-cable/satellite days when weekends on local television were made for old Bowery Boys and Abbott and Costello comedies, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman films and an occasional Ma and Pa Kettle or a Sherlock Holmes feature. The real fun for me was the after-school programming, shows like Gilligan's Island and The Munsters and old theatrical shorts like Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, The Little Rascals and The Three Stooges. During one of these television viewings of a Stooges short, my dad told me about how, as a kid growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he rarely saw a Stooges short in the theater. Instead, he rattled off the names of comedians he remembered seeing ... Andy Clyde, El Brendel, Hugh Herbert and Buster Keaton. He told me how he recognized Jules White's name (on the Stooges shorts) and that he was the same guy who made the films of the comedians he named, (and) told me that they had the same sound effects. His little discussion on these "other films" ended with the question "How come they don't ever show those guys on TV anymore?" (He recalled seeing the Andy Clyde and Buster Keaton Columbia shorts on WGN Channel 9 out of Chicago in the early 1960s, tied into the same hour-long program with the Stooge comedies).

I asked a few more questions about his movie-going experiences, where I learned that most of what I watched, the old Popeye and Tom and Jerry cartoons were made to be seen in a theater too. I had always noticed the studio logos at the beginning of them, but never quite made the connection at that age. So I went to the library and began my research. Being such a Stooges fan, I found myself checking out books like MOE HOWARD AND THE THREE STOOGES and THE THREE STOOGES SCRAPBOOK. In these books I would find the names of a few of the guys my dad had mentioned, El Brendel and Andy Clyde, in the select filmographies. I also discovered that there were short comedies starring all three of the actors who were more popular for replacing Curly as "third Stooge." So my interest in theatrical short-subjects began ... one thing led to another and that's when I found the book THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS by Leonard Maltin, a book chock-full of the information I was seeking out, but (still) I couldn't find a single one of these films to view.

Then it happened. ... I discovered THE book ... my "bible" of sorts, THE COLUMBIA COMEDY SHORTS by Ted Okuda and Ed Watz. This book was even more chock-full of the information I sought as it was a complete list of every two-reel comedy Columbia produced, 526 of them, between 1933-1958 (The book only concerned itself with those shorts produced in Hollywood by both Jules White and Hugh McCollum. Columbia actually produced/released thousands of one- and two-reel subjects ranging from animated cartoons to sports reels to sing-a-long subjects). There was information on the people in front of and behind the scenes, release dates, actual quotes from folks who appeared in the films and more, But even with this wealth of information provided by Okuda and Watz, one thing that was apparent to the question "How can I get to see some of these things?" ... was that there simply was no easy way. So I started to look into other areas of opportunity such as private 16mm film collectors, mom-and-pop home video companies, and Hollywood collector shows.

Unfortunately, being new to this, I didn't turn anything up right away. My dad died in 1992, so he never got to see any of the films he had me searching for, but shortly after his passing, they seemed to start pouring in, Andy Clyde and El Brendel being the first official non-Stooge Columbia shorts I got to see.

I like to think that my dad had a lot to do with that.

So as I gathered up more shorts for my collection, I also gathered up more bits and pieces of info that THE COLUMBIA COMEDY SHORTS book had omitted; not on purpose, just over time, more information became available. So, with the blessings of Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, my site became a somewhat unofficial and very expanded follow up to their book.

Plan9Crunch: How would you describe your site to a casual web surfer whose knowledge on the subject ends with the Three Stooges?

Hilbrich:  As far as the comedy shorts go,  I often describe a non-Stooge Columbia short as being a Three Stooges film without the Three Stooges. I describe them that way because the same folks behind the Stooge films are behind these other shorts. Easily recognizable are the names of directors, writers, co-stars, gags, plots and sound effects, even the style of the opening titles are all very familiar, giving off a sense of déjà vu even to the casual Stooges viewer. Columbia was the king of the two-reel comedy short. The unit stayed in business until the late 1950s, and the shorts stayed in regular theatrical circulation a good 10 years after Columbia closed the doors on its short subjects division. There was a reason why, and although the 190 shorts starring The Three Stooges were the studio’s number-one two-reeler draw, there were another 336 two-reelers that helped keep the unit in business. So my site explores those other films, all by series. Originally, the site was going to focus only on the two-reel comedies, but I decided to make the site a much wider world when it comes to the shorts that feature the words "Columbia Pictures Presents." I offer information (when available) on every single Columbia short either produced by the studio or produced by other production companies and released through Columbia. Being that there are thousands of titles, my site might be a bit much for the casual web surfer -- it's very info-heavy -- and it could easily scare someone off. It's also a work-in-progress, and I am doing my best to make it user friendly.

Plan9Crunch: Obviously, the Three Stooges have became iconic and are still played today on TV. What separates their long-term appeal from other stars, such as Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon, whose Columbia shorts are appreciated only by a few genre fans?

Hilbrich: The Stooges are far different from Langdon or Keaton, or most of the other comics who appear in these two-reelers, but the shorts of Langdon and Keaton, and many others, were just as popular when originally released.

As I mentioned earlier, not all of the shorts ran in certain areas of the country. I've looked through old newspaper archives, for instance, and in the area my dad grew up in and rarely saw an "Also included, a Three Stooges comedy" in the movie advertisements local theaters ran. I did find a lot of Andy Clyde, El Brendel, Harry Langdon Columbia's advertised, even some simple "Added-Columbia Comedy" blurbs with no description of what the short was. It was definitely television that helped spark the Stooges' popularity (not saying they weren't already a hit).

Because of the Stooges' television success, Columbia’s Screen Gems released to TV a package of some 200 non-Stooge titles. Their selections of titles are somewhat baffling, not every single short in a series was offered. Using the Stooges' success, these films were marketed as sure-fire ratings winners. They weren't, and disappeared from TV a short time after their initial release (maybe turning up as fillers after a movie or during a rain delay of a ball game). I think the reason for this was that they simply weren't the Stooges. They usually ran in a time slot shared by other shows popular with the after-school crowd; combined into an hour-long block of maybe, for instance, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, a Popeye cartoon, and a Glove Slingers short. ... "Glove Slingers? Where are the Stooges?" some kid who just rushed home from school to catch them might ask. Now, as for Andy Clyde and Buster Keaton, I believe because they were still in the public eye, their shorts remained in the rotation (at least at WGN they did). Other stations, such as one in Cincinnati, rotated through the entire package of non-Stooge shorts.

Another reason that these films in their post-theatrical run maybe fizzled out was that there just weren't enough of them to sustain a series of sorts. There were 190 Stooges shorts to cycle through as a daily program, and only 10 Keaton shorts. In some other cases, a series with Polly Moran (that was included in this non-Stooge deal) only contained 2 titles. Yet despite their TV revival failure, a lot of the shorts (many unobtainable today, like Harry Mimmo’s DOWN THE HATCH) were reissued theatrically in the early 1960s.

Plan9Crunch: I have read Okuda and Watz' book, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," and I'd wager the casual reader would be shocked to discover how many Columbia comedy shorts stars there were. Who are some of your favorites among the many, including Hugh Herbert, Charley Chase, Monty Collins, El Brendel, Vera Vague, Sterling Holloway, Schilling and Lane, Baer and Rosenbloom, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser ... and so many more?

Hilbrich: I was one of those who was shocked to see how many comics Columbia starred in two-reelers. My favorite of these others are Andy Clyde, followed by El Brendel. Hugh Herbert’s films are fun when he's paired with Dudley Dickerson, but I like them all; even the worst of the shorts have a moment or two, well, maybe not KIDS WILL BE KIDS (1954), Jules White’s answer to the then-popular theatrical reissues of Hal Roach’s Our Gang (The Little Rascals) comedies.

Plan9Crunch: What can we do to get more of these other Columbia shorts into public consumption? I love Harry Langdon and have managed to see most of his Columbia shorts via YouTube, and I bought the DVD release of Keaton's shorts. But it's a tough task finding these non-Stooges shorts, and recently I've noticed Langdon shorts being taken down from You Tube by Sony for copyright reasons!!?? I would hope Sony would release Langdon's Columbia shorts, but that seems like a fantasy wish.

Hilbrich:  I hope that because Sony is pulling some of the shorts that were posted on You Tube that it's a sign that these little films could be coming to the On Demand DVD service (or maybe even TCM) in the near future. A while back, an online petition was formed to get the Columbia Charley Chase shorts onto DVD -- that finally happened (the set was almost sidelined by the poor reception the Keaton set received). The Chase shorts were made available through the Sony On Demand dvd-r service. A bonus included the Chase-directed Columbia short A NAG IN THE BAD with comics Smith and Dale. Perhaps a petition would help see at least some other shorts in the future.

The two-reelers have crept their way onto DVD. A beautiful restoration of MIDNIGHT BLUNDERS with Tom Kennedy and Monty Collins appears on a set of Columbia horror films, PHONY CRONIES with El Brendel appears on one of the budget Stooges DVD sets, and Andy Clyde’s HOT PAPRIKA appears as an extra on a Hammer Studios pirate-themed set. All but two solo Stooges' Columbia shorts are available on in the Ultimate Stooges DVD set, included are a couple of Andy Clyde and Glove Slingers shorts that co-star Shemp Howard (as well as the Shemp Howard-El Brendel team up PICK A PECK OF PLUMBERS).  The two titles missing are NOT GUILTY ENOUGH (Andy Clyde with Shemp Howard) and a early Joe Besser short produced by Ben Blake called CUCKOORANCHO. I highly recommend this Ultimate Stooges set.

Plan9Crunch: What's the most fulfilling aspect of your Columbia blog for you? Is it tracking down the shorts posters, bio info on the stars, or finding new locations or websites where many of the shorts exist, or something else?

Hilbrich: I love researching this subject, collecting lobby cards and one-sheets for these little two-reelers is fun, but the most fulfilling thing about collecting information about these mostly forgotten films has been helping family members of those who either appear on screen or were behind the scenes during the production actually get to see the films. Harry von Zell's daughter, for example, had no idea that her father ever appeared in his own two-reel comedy series and was floored by what she saw when I sent her some of the films I have in my collection. Why she didn't know he appeared in two-reelers was answered by the fact that he just never mentioned it. Another person who comes to mind is the son of Stooges writer Searle Kramer. He knew his dad worked on Stooges shorts (some of their best, I feel), but had no info or had ever seen the other Columbia films his dad wrote or co-wrote, and I helped him obtain copies of several.

Plan9Crunch: I've noticed there are lost Columbia shorts. Do you think it's more that they haven't been properly looked for or that they are really lost?

Hilbrich: I think it's a mixed bag. I know of a few titles that no material exist on, but I think for the most part, they're out there. I know of a few one-of-a kind prints in private collectors hands, and I know of a few that have been publicly screened that I'd love to get copies of (Harry Mimmo's DOWN THE HATCH in 3D and ROOTIN TOOTIN TENDERFEET, a Max Baer and Maxie Rosenbloom short that was a reworking of Laurel and Hardy's WAY OUT WEST). Probably not the best shorts, but it's nice to know that they're out there, especially with the recent discovery of HELLO POP, a Ted Healy short featuring Moe, Larry and Curly that was made at MGM, that was once on top of the "lost pile," so there's hope.

On a personal note, I finally tracked down a print of MITT ME TONIGHT, the fifth short in the Glove Slingers series. It was part of the Screen Gems' TV package for syndication, but it's been a tough one for me to track down. There were 12 Glove Slingers shorts produced, and I believe only the first 8 titles were in the TV package. A "Holy Grail" of sorts is the last of the Glove Slingers series, HIS GIRL’S WORST FRIEND, as it features my pal Parry Hall's father, Eddie Hall.

Plan9Crunch: There were scores of supporting players in the Columbia shorts, Vernon Dent, Christine McIntire, Dick Curtis ... Who are some of your favorite supporting players?

Hilbrich: I am a big fan of Vernon Dent. Christine McIntyre always stands out, but my favorite is Emil Sitka. That man could have had his own series. His on-screen antics are often funnier than the star player's, to which a comparison to James Finlayson of the Laurel and Hardy subjects was always made by my dad whenever Sitka was on screen. He's always a focal point, no matter how large or small his role is. He's terrific in Billie Burke’s BILLIE GETS HER MAN (1948)  and in the role as Hugh Herbert's uncle in HOT HEIR (1947), a role he would improve upon in its remake, GENTS IN A JAM (1952) with The Three Stooges. And then there's his role as the preacher in BRIDELESS GROOM. Can you imagine one of the other supporting players, such as Vernon Dent or Dick Wessel in that role? Neither can I.

Plan9Crunch: The Columbia shorts had a certain slapstick style, influenced by Jules White and made very popular by the Three Stooges. What impact, in your opinion, did Columbia's more physical style of comedy have on the success, or lack of success, stars such as Keaton, Langdon, Chase and others had. Also, did Columbia leave the lasting impression on comedy shorts, in the same manner that, for example, Glenn Strange's Frankenstein Monster is more iconic than Boris Karloff's monster?

Hilbrich: It's funny that you bring up the Frankenstein comparison, as I associate Glenn Strange with that role over Boris Karloff, too.

Columbia cornered the market on 15-20 minute slapstick comedies with their unique, mostly overly violent tones. But the Stooges' style of slapstick comedy in these Columbia shorts is really different and the boys take it up a notch, even when compared to a short like TRAINING FOR TROUBLE with Gus Schilling and Richard Lane that recycles the same or very similar plot line and gags. There is a smoother flow to the Stooge films, and there is a flat-out attraction to their characterization of human beings. In a Stooges short, Moe, in retaliation will pick up a shovel and swing it into Larry's face as a form of punishment, with a CLANG sound effect. In an El Brendel two-reeler, El might pick up that same prop shovel to begin to throw it over his shoulder, and with that same sound effect of a CLANG, he clips Tom Kennedy in the head. It's an accident that is forgiven, leaving El to be happy. Moe wasn't on the other end of that shovel.

The moments of slapstick throughout these shorts are all very similar, vases get broken over people's heads, monsters or goons chase people through hallways, gun fire blows hats off heads, but it's all a little different than how those same situations appear in the shorts of the Three Stooges. The cartoon violence that is softened by those sound effects mentioned earlier are handled very well in the Stooge shorts, and for that reason the sound effects work better with them. The Jules White approach to the violent style of slapstick does outshine other studios' short-subjects of the era just because that style is much more outlandish in approach and execution.

As for the success or lack of success this style of comedy had on others like Charley Chase or Harry Langdon, I don't think it was lost in first release. If you look through older reviews in trade magazines, audiences ate it up; the shorts were popular, even shorts that we might look at today as being just so-so. Keaton’s Columbia shorts are looked at today as being awful. I really don't think they are as bad as the shorts he made at Educational, and they are definitely 10 times better than the stuff he did for MGM in the early 1930s. Are they as good as his early 1920s output, no, they aren’t. The style is very much off from what viewers today are used to seeing when compared to his silents , and the use of stunt doubles or rear-screen projection can be jarring, but audiences of the day welcomed his films, and I don't think they compared something like THE GENERAL to his Columbia short MOOCHING THROUGH GEORGIA. He was a familiar face from the past once again bringing laughs to the screen.

If anything, it was the release of the films to television that spawned a lack of success; again going back to what I mentioned earlier, the films were broadcast during a time slot children were used to seeing the Stooges in. And the Stooges had more childlike appeal, with Curly’s mannerisms. A good example of a Columbia shorts series being a close second to the Stooges in appeal to both theatrical audiences and younger television viewers later are those starring Andy Clyde. His "old man" character is the draw, a likable goof that wanders into slapstick situations but never comes off as too stupid to sympathize with (as Laurel and Hardy do (to me at least) in their later films for Fox.

Slapstick was the focus of 90 percent of Columbia's two-reel comedies, especially those directed by Jules White. Ed Bernds' approach at directing the shorts sometimes allow an actual story line to develop and conclude in the brief 16-18 minutes with outlandish bits of slapstick peppered throughout. A Jules White short might end on a sight gag with no conclusion to the story line, and some vote that the Stooges shorts at his helm are much more cruel, even with the sound effects softening the violence. TV stations took notice, and some of the gags, for either sensitive material that was a product of the times or extreme amounts of violence, cartoonish or not, were either cut by Screen Gems themselves or by in-house television station editors.

The most violent scene in Columbia shorts history was not even a product of Jules White, but instead by director Del Lord in THEY STOOGE TO CONGA (1943) with The Three Stooges. It's the now-famous climbing spike gag, in which Curly drives a spike into Moe's eye. It's been reported that Screen Gems did not include this short in its rotation of Stooge comedies for syndication, but that is not true. Now whether or not stations chose not to use this short in their lineup  or have their in-house editors remove the climbing spike clip, I'll never know. I'm sure a little of both happened, but I own a Screen Gems print of this title, climbing spike gag and all intact.  But even with some of these shorts slightly edited for violent content, we'll never really know how many kids busted each other's skulls open with a hammer or cut off one another's noses with a pair of scissors, but I think it's pretty safe to say that very few kids were sent to the ER for 32 stitches because one of their pals playing Moe ran a hacksaw across their heads.

Plan9Crunch: What future plans do you have for the site? Any chance of a convention with a full slate of shorts with those players we can't access on TV today?

Hilbrich: The site is still, and will most likely always be, a work-in-progress since I am always updating it with new or expanded information that I continue to find daily, which I couldn't do by myself, so I do feature a page of acknowledgement to all of those who have helped me out. One of the biggest challenges for me is finding information on the less-popular one-reel subjects, especially those from the early 1930s. I've managed to gather up titles, but I'm still working on production credits and the synopsis. There are a few other things in the works, like a media player and gallery for photos of the one-sheets, lobby cards and other bits of related material. There are also some other pages to the site that I am working on, pages with mini-bios for the writers, directors and other behind-the-scenes folks.

The site is also on the way to becoming a dot com site, so you won't have to type in a thousand-letter web address. I'd love to do a screening of the shorts, maybe one day that will happen, but I don't have anything planned.

No comments: