Tuesday, August 28, 2012
The Spice Of The Program, Part One
Ever-attracted to films that either/or are odd, hilarious, surreal, inexplicable and in some instances widely panned (both in their time and decades later), I personally find the wide-ranging short subjects distributed by Earle W. Hammons' Educational Pictures - and promoted as The Spice Of The Program - a intriguing, bizarre and frequently surprising corner of film history.
If the following detailed yet anonymous capsule history posted on Wikipedia is any indication, I am not the only one who greets the Spice Of The Program logo as an invitation to a weird and wonderful place in 1920's and 1930's cinematic lore.
There are numerous instances in which Educational was historically important. Mr. William Goodrich, A.K.A. The Artist Formerly Known As Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, was still banned from cavorting on the silver screen, but directed scads of comedy shorts for Educational. Although silent movie icon Louise Brooks, cast in a remarkably bad Educational short Arbuckle directed, described the former Paramount star as a Dead Man Walking - "just sat in his director's chair like a man dead. . . had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career" - there are individual films from this period in which the sleeping giant's comedy mojo came roaring back to life. One is the following terrific, outrageous, surreal example of It Came From Educational Pictures: the 1932 short comedy, Bridge Wives, featuring a wonderfully unhinged performance by Roscoe's nephew and former cohort from the Sennett and Comique studios - and soon to be grizzled western sidekick - Al St. John.
The comic brilliance of this wild and wooly 1-reeler indicates that Roscoe may not have been a Dead Man Walking after all. Perhaps working with Al again enlivened him.
And . . . for another prime example of sheer silent movie wonderfulness, there are the comedies designed by and starring actor/animator Charley Bowers, whose 1920's series for FBO and Educational showcased his innovative and imaginative stop-motion technique.
Paralleling the country at large, Educational Pictures rode high in The Roaring Twenties before hitting hard times in the 1930's. Founded as a instructional film producer/distributor by real estate tycoon Hammons, who soon determined that the dough-re-me was definitely NOT in educational short subjects, Educational Pictures got in the laughs biz by contracting with two principals from the successful Fox Sunshine Comedies, producer-director Jack White and comedian-gagman Lloyd "Ham" Hamilton in April 1920.
The company would eventually end up distributing short subjects from three major producers - White (a.k.a. Preston Black), Mack Sennett and Al Christie - and be directly responsible for a huge portion of silent film comedy history.
Having hit the big time with Hamilton, Educational raided the Fox studio's comedy shorts department with the aggressiveness of the New York Yankees.
The company bolstered their roster with two triple-jointed acrobatic gymnastic comics, the best in the business, from Fox: the aforementioned Al St. John and Lupino Lane (as well as, a few years later, Clyde Cook).
Adept at signing headlining comedians between stints at all the fun factories, Educational Pictures gave Mack Sennett and Hal Roach a run for their money as "king of the comedy short".
The Mermaid Comedies unit made quite the splash in the Harold Lloyd style "daredevil" genre with a series starring ex-Sennett player Lige Conley, whose fast-paced, hair-raising thrill comedies included Fast And Furious and Air Pockets.
Educational also distributed films by popular "king of prop comedy" Larry Semon, after chronic over-spending on his productions ended a lengthy stint as Vitagraph's top comic.
Without a doubt, Hammons' deal to distribute the internationally popular Felix the Cat cartoons, directed and designed by animation genius Otto Messmer, still qualifies (in 21st century vernacular) as a GOOD CALL!
Since the story of Educational Pictures spans two decades, a zillion films, and even a "just the facts, 'maam" version is way too long for one paltry blog posting, your correspondent will have to follow this up with a Part Two and possibly Parts Three, Four and Five!
Until then, here are some laughs, 1920's style, courtesy of the Mermaid Comedies unit. First and foremost, here's a very rare entry in Jack White's Our Gang style Juvenile Comedies series starring Malcolm Sebastian. While the picture jumps in the opening minutes, stick with it - this is a funny film, restored and with sprightly piano by historian/accompanist Ben Model.
Last but not least, here's the guy who, in this blogger's opinion, still ranks among the very best of all silent era comedians and character actors, the perennial sourpuss himself, Lloyd Hamilton.