Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Spice Of The Program, Part Three

The real surprises here are the sound films. Langdon, a theater veteran before heading to Hollywood, had a fine voice and had no problem adapting to sound." Phil Hall, Film Threat.

In the midst of a movie industry and U.S. economy that was in full crash-and-burn, comedies with the "Spice Of The Program" logo kept somehow getting produced. Onscreen Educational was cranking 'em out, even if offscreen, the studio's fortunes were plummeting in full Great Depression free fall.

Although many silent movie stars had their difficulties making the transition to sound, Lloyd Hamilton, once his 1927-1928 suspension for working in films ended, did quite well.

Hamilton continued starring in very funny talkie 2-reelers through the early 1931 Educational releases.

One big thing that happened at Educational in 1932 was the comings and goings of various luminaries from silent film comedy.

  • After the studio he headed for 15 years went kaput, Al Christie produced 2-reelers at Educational's Astoria facilities and would until the last "Spice Of The Program" short subjects were produced in 1938.

  • Mack Sennett left for Paramount, where he would produce his last popular short subjects series, starring Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields.

  • Hal Roach hired Del Lord, who had been directing the Andy Clyde comedy shorts for Educational, to helm the Taxi Boys series, which were very much in the Sennett style. Some of them (What Price Taxi, Thundering Taxis) starred silent comedy mainstays Billy Bevan and Clyde Cook in talkie versions of such car-crashing 1920's 2-reelers as Super-Huper Dyne Lizzies and Lizzies Of The Field. Del's stay at Roach would be short and he soon moved on to Columbia's comedy shorts department.

  • Another mainstay of Educational and Sennett comedies, ever-grizzled Andy Clyde, would soon join The Three Stooges, Harry Langdon and director/writer Del Lord as "top draft choices" of Jules White's comedy short factory.

    Andy stayed with Columbia for 20 years before finding further success in television as an ubiquitous "old geezer" character actor in The Real McCoys and other shows.

  • Paul Terry's studio in New Rochelle continued cranking out cartoons - TONS of them - for Educational release.

  • Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who kept Educational's comedy shorts program alive by directing (and sometimes writing) scads of them using the nom de plume William Goodrich, got the opportunity to star again in his own series at Vitaphone.

  • Wrapping up a brilliant screen comedy career, Lloyd Hamilton left Educational to star in 2-reelers for director Harry Edwards at Universal in 1931 and then made a few films with Mack Sennett at Paramount. Hamilton's last film, Wedding Belles, was produced in 1934 for poverty row Cavalcade Films.

  • Ham's replacement at Educational: another original, creative and idiosyncratic silent comedy great, Harry Langdon.

Not sharing the disparaging opinion of many historians about Mr. Langdon's sound films, I personally find Harry's 1932-1933 series for Educational, if not on the lofty level of his 1920's feature films (Tramp Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man, Three's A Crowd), still consistently funny, inventive and charming, with fine work from Harry and perennial foil Vernon Dent throughout.

The other star that emerged at Educational in 1932-1933 was Shirley Temple. Here she is, co-starring in the very enjoyable Andy Clyde comedy Dora's Dunkin' Donuts.

On the negative side, Shirley was also featured in Jack Hays Productions' frequently jaw-droppingly bad Baby Burlesks series. In her 1988 autobiography, the actress describes the Baby Burlesks as "a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence" - and also called the films "the best things I ever did".

While Shirley is, as usual, likeable, charming and a skilled actress beyond her years, the idea of presenting spoofs of grownup motion picture genres with an otherwise staggeringly untalented juvenile cast (in diapers, no less) backfires - boy, does it backfire. She's great - and everyone else just stumbles around and gawks at the camera. As seen in the following Baby Burlesks sendup of What Price Glory, the films get laughs more as a "train wreck" embarrassment than from actual humor.

Sometimes, as in Polly Tix In Washington, the Baby Burlesk comedies achieve a certain quality that used to be termed "high camp". Others are just creepy. The worst ones, such as Kid N' Africa, are so incredibly bad as to make the ultra low-budget Mickey McGuire series starring Joe Yule (A.K.A. Mickey Rooney) look like Gone With The Wind.

Educational, figuring Shirley wasn't quite cute enough, produced Poppin' The Cork, a 30 minute musical short celebrating what would be the repeal of the Volstead Act, starring the adorable Milton Berle!

Now, there is a whole other story here - the epic 1932-1933 collapse of Educational Pictures - that I will not delve into, since University Of Toronto professor Rob King has done just that in his abstract The Spice Of The Program: Educational Comedies, Early Sound Slapstick and The Small Town Audience, tackling the story in gory detail.

Richard M. Roberts also penned a comprehensive history of Educational Pictures for Classic Images magazine, including a blow-by-blow of the cataclysmic Sono-Art-World-Wide-KBS Productions-Tiffany Studios merger that bankrupted all participants (Mack Sennett, Earle Hammons, Al Christie).

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