Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Spice Of The Program, Part Four

"A strange twilight zone of down-on-their-luck silent era names like Buster Keaton and moonlighting Broadway celebrities like Bert Lahr and Joe Cook." Aaron Neathery, The Third Banana blog, December 18, 2005

"When they catch Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger, they'll make him watch it twice." Bob Hope, describing his Educational Pictures short subject, Going Spanish.

January 1933 was a dreadful time for America. Bank "holidays" began happening with alarming frequency. Powerful companies were in ruins. How did this happen? Well, the story is lengthy and convoluted, but when one gets right down to it, Mack Sennett, Al Christie and Earle Hammons agreed that their only shot at surviving in a staggering, Depression-slammed motion picture business was to become feature film producers. All got involved in a business deal that went spectacularly kablooey: the Sono-Art-World-Wide-KBS Productions-Tiffany Studios merger in 1932 (soon to be covered at length in Richard M. Roberts' forthcoming book on film comedy).

Americans were overwhelmingly out of work and couldn't afford to buy tickets for anything, so movie houses closed across the U.S.A. The once mighty Fox Theater chain: gone. Paramount and RKO: in Chapter 11. Warner Brothers/First National - teetering on the verge of collapse. Hal Roach Studio - still operating, but on a substantially reduced production schedule. Educational: its exchanges liquidated.

Worse yet, Sennett chose, as stars of a feature length comedy, the minstrelsy radio and vaudeville comedy team of Moran & Mack (A.K.A. The Two Black Crows), popular in their day, especially on recordings, but not necessarily an act that appealed to audiences in the major metropolitan areas, even way back in 1932.

Now if one's heart's desire is to elicit aghast, stunned reactions in a 21st century audience, something akin to the response to "Springtime For Hitler" in Mel Brook's The Producers, run the Educational Pictures stinkers starring Moran & Mack. The Mack Sennett-Educational 2-reeler The Two Black Crows In Africa could still, more than 80 years after its original theatrical release, win the "Absolute Worst Attempt At A Comedy Ever Made" booby prize. Even to latter-day historians, diehard classic film geeks, fans of pre-1935 movies and experts on ethnic humor, the essential appeal of Moran & Mack - unlike silent-era Sennett comedy stars Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Alice Howell, Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, Louise Fazenda, Billy Bevan and others - still seems utterly incomprehensible.

Prolific silent comedy producer and Educational Pictures mainstay Al Christie did not retire as Sennett did. Al continued on as a producer of Educational's comedies and musical shorts in Astoria, New York and would until the last "Spice Of The Program" shorts were released in 1938.

As all of the production switched to the East Coast, the focus became Broadway stars and New York-based vaudeville acts. The new stars of Educational comedy shorts included ever-brash Bob Hope, Bert Lahr in his pre-Cowardly Lion appearances, and the ultra-zany Ritz Brothers.

Here are Harry, Al and Jimmy Ritz in their 1934 film debut, Hotel Anchovy - and pardon the dupey 18th generation print.

Also joining the Educational Pictures lineup at this time: one of the all-time greats of motion pictures, Buster Keaton.

In 1934, fresh off the humiliation that was working for the opulent, yet tone deaf, humor-challenged and comedy deficient Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Buster began starring in a series of two-reelers for Poverty Row producer Educational Pictures.

While the Educationals are as low budget as can be, unlike the MGM talkies, they showcase Buster's acrobatic skills, ingenuity and limitless talent.

Keaton's comedy chops are not just intact, but frequently sublime under the most hurried of shooting schedules and threadbare budgets.

Although the temptation is to compare these shorts to Buster's jaw-droppingly amazing films from the 1920's, in the oddest way, his ability to consistently make something wonderful within the microscopic budgets in these Educational shorts is as inspirational as his big screen epics from the 1920's.

Fortunately, all the Keaton Educationals exist and are available on DVD.

The headliners who soon joined Buster Keaton on the roster for the last three seasons of Educational Pictures comedy shorts included a wide range of vaudeville and radio acts, as well as a cartoonist!

These included the comedy team of Tim and Irene Ryan (yes, the same Irene who later starred on TV in The Beverly Hillbillies), comic artist Jefferson Mechamer, singer Neila Goodele, dancers Buster West and Tom Patricola, droll Paramount short subject star Tom Howard (soon to move on to success in radio with his quiz show sendup It Pays To Be Ignorant), Broadway dialect comic Willie Howard and character actor Ernest Truex.

Other than Keaton's series, the most sought after mid-1930's films of the Educational studio feature the original, zany and iconoclastic comedian/juggler Joe Cook (note: he made precious few film appearances, the best known one being in Frank Capra's 1930 feature Rain Or Shine).

The aforementioned roster of talent was responsible for some surprisingly enjoyable and sprightly 2-reel comedies and mini-musicals at a time when the Hal Roach Studio was phasing out short subjects, RKO had promoted shorts department mainstays Mark Sandrich and George Stevens to feature films and Columbia Pictures' Short Subject Department, under producer Jules White, became synonymous with slapstick.

And through it all, Paul Terry's Terrytoons studio, still a few years away from creating their flagship character Mighty Mouse (a.k.a. Super Mouse) cranked out cartoons - LOTS of cartoons - in New Rochelle.

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