Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Spice Of The Program, Part Five - Presenting Willie Howard

“Willie Howard was the best of all the revue comics, bar none.” George Jessel

“Willie Howard was a great artist. He was a fine comedian, an accomplished dramatic actor, an excellent singer, and a versatile mimic.” Fred Allen

There are reasons why Educational's final years in comedy and musical short subjects compel film historians to hide behind fedoras, shades, trenchcoats and insist "I know nothing - ask me about Francois Truffaut instead!"

Some Educational shorts are just plain bad. Others have their moments, but remain undeniably cheap and cheesy.

Almost all have sound quality recalling the ignominious "microphone in the plant" era of the late 1920's.

One Educational Pictures comedy star who did not create the fear, loathing and dread surrounding 1930's short subjects described as The Spice Of The Program: dialect comedian Willie Howard (1886-1949).

Willie was part of a team with brother Eugene on stage, radio and sometimes movies. Willie & Eugene Howard were considered the best Yiddish dialect comedy act in the business and frequently performed in The Passing Show.

Here, straight from The Roaring Twenties, are The Howard Brothers (the ones who don't say NYUK NYUK NYUK) in Between The Acts At The Opera, one of the pioneering early talkies (pre- The Jazz Singer) and vaudeville time capsules from the Vitaphone Varieties series.

Fast forward to 1937. Willie Howard, now a solo comic, is one of Educational's 2-reeler headliners. His characterization is a goofy and somewhat frenetic Parisian, sometimes a French teacher (Professor Pierre Ginsburg), other times a con artist, always on the take and on the make.

While ethnic humor frequently leaves your blogmeister as ice-cold as Buffalo Bills fans at a December home game, the comic timing, mannerisms, linguistic prowess and sheer verve of Willie Howard obliterates any "I'm too hip to laugh at this" response.

One curious fact about Willie's screen persona: how similar the zany Frenchman is to the Russian dialect characterization ("Nikolai Nikolaevich") adopted by a very young Danny Kaye in his first films, which happen to be Educational comedy shorts.

By the time the 1937-1938 season of Educational Pictures comedies and musicals were shot, the studio was on the way out. In a Hail Mary move, Earle W. Hammons cut a deal with struggling Grand National Pictures, a distributor with high hopes to expand into feature film production. Both folded in short order.

Of the Educational Pictures series, only Terrytoons, produced by the Paul Terry Studio in New Rochelle, retained its status among the 20th Century Fox short subject offerings and lived to see another day.

And with that, an important chapter in the history of screen comedy closed, punctuated emphatically by the 1937 vault fire that destroyed an incalculable chunk of film history: countless original negatives, ranging from dozens of Educational and Fox 2-reel comedy shorts to the lost F.W. Murnau feature 4 Devils.

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