Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part One

I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for comedies produced by the Columbia Shorts Department. Qualified to start a 12-step group for Men Who Love The Three Stooges Too Much? Yes.

Ted Okuda and Edward Watz' book The Columbia Comedy Shorts has done a super job of documenting the history, the back stories and content of every darn 2-reeler the authors could track down (and it's amazing just how many they did track down).

Still, even with Ted n' Ed's fine book, the comprehensive research found on The Shorts Department AND this listing from the Turner Classic Movies website, Mr. Blogmeister is tossing his best dilapidated, dog-eared Three Stooges fedora into the ring and presenting the following overview of Columbia's 25 years of classic comedy shorts - with, of course, the inevitable film clips to illustrate.

Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn's "Little Poverty Row Studio That Could", did not produce their own comedy shorts in the early 1930's, but had been a very active distributor, especially in animation. At one point, the studio distributed both Walt Disney cartoons and the series from the animation studio Columbia Pictures organized under de facto producer - and husband of the prolific and pioneering silent era animation distributor Margaret Winkler - sales executive Charles Mintz.

At the Charles Mintz Studio, veteran animators Ben Harrison and Manny Gould had been cranking talkie Krazy Kat adventures out for Columbia release as early as 1929.

Ex-Fleischer Studio artists Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus and Art Davis headed a second production unit, which had been busy making the Toby The Pup cartoons for RKO, and launched the Scrappy series in 1931.

While Disney's Mickey Mouse and especially Silly Symphonies cartoons were groundbreaking, ambitious and beautifully animated, the Mintz Studio product proved more in the darker New York style of Fleischer, and could often be both imaginative and outré.

In 1934, the Mintz Studio began production on the Columbia Color Rhapsodies series, their entry into the "let's ape Disney's color Silly Symphonies" sweepstakes. While there are enjoyable and entertaining Columbia Color Rhapsodies, the move to "make 'em cute" and emulate the Disney approach had the effect of muting the studio's strengths - originality, surrealistic abandon and cartoony weirdness - while magnifying its weaknesses (frequently nonexistent storylines).

Having distributed some live-action shorts as well, most notably Larry Darmour Productions' low-budget Mickey McGuire comedies (starring Mickey Rooney), no doubt Columbia Pictures chieftain Harry Cohn was itching to compete with the big boys in the comedy short subject market. Cohn hired Jules White and Zion Myers to get the new comedy shorts department up and running in 1933.

The department's first films included the Musical Novelties series, and 2-reel comedies starring Ziegfeld Follies comic (and W.C. Fields cohort) Leon Errol, the bespectacled, ubiquitous character actor Walter Catlett, vaudeville star Lou Holtz and the team of Mack Sennett Studio comic Charlie Murray and George Sidney

The rubber-legged, double-jointed, boozed-up, ever-philandering Errol, most recently in the wonderfully titled Three Little Swigs, was concurrently starring in comedy shorts for Paramount, Vitaphone and Columbia.

Leon started his sporadic starring vehicles for the Columbia Shorts Department with Hold Your Temper. After starring in such strikingly bizarre and funny Columbia comedy shorts as One Too Many and Honeymoon Bridge (both written by ex-Sennett actor/screenwriter Harry McCoy), Leon would move on and headline a long-running series for RKO Radio Pictures (note: the hoodlum on the right in the following frame grab from Leon's RKO comedy The Cactus Cut-Up is character actor Emil Sitka, a future cornerstone of Columbia and especially Three Stooges 2-reelers).

George Sidney & Charlie Murray, the stars of the popular The Cohens & The Kellys feature comedies for MGM and Universal, headlined one of the Columbia Shorts Department's first series.

The last of the George Sidney & Charlie Murray mini-series, Back To The Soil, was released theatrically on August 10, 1934.

Unlike the Three Stooges comedies, the George Sidney & Charlie Murray series remains the definition of "rare and hard-to-find"; only the most dyed-in-the-wool film collectors, classic comedy geeks and professional archivists have seen them since their original release in winter 1933-1934.

Several Sidney & Murray shorts were directed by Jules White. One, Fishing For Trouble, co-stars Walter Brennan and 1920's Christie Comedies star Billy Dooley, A.K.A. "The Goofy Gob", in one of his very few talkies.

Murray & Sidney did appear in the following Paramount Pictures Hollywood On Parade short, entering at 8:03. This seems to be the only readily available bit of theirs in a sound film other than a cameo as Cohen & Kelly in The Stolen Jools.

However, the series that would inadvertently spawn the Three Stooges comedies - and very likely prompt way more than Three Little Swigs from Harry Cohn - was the studio's Musical Novelty series, directed by songwriter Archie Gottler.

Rhyming dialogue, showgirls, goofy songs and goofier plots were the order of the day in these ultra-campy 1933-1934 shorts. The following Musical Novelty, UMPA, the second film in the series, stars Jack Osterman, a.k.a. The Bad Boy Of Broadway. Its music will be quite familiar to anyone who has seen the fifth Musical Novelty short (which includes the first appearance in a Columbia 2-reeler by The Three Stooges), Woman Haters, more times than they care to admit.

Now that Woman Haters, released on May 5, 1934, just happens to be the first of 190 Columbia shorts starring The Three Stooges, just arrived from MGM and no longer working with Ted Healy.

The Three Stooges personalities - and those of perennial Columbia 2-reeler supporting players Bud Jamison and Monty Collins - are pretty well delineated even in this Archie Gottler Musical Novelty short. All handle the rhyming dialogue and singing with panache. Woman Haters is a personal favorite, as vivacious co-star Marjorie White shines and the sheer incongruity of Moe Howard crooning gets me laughing every time.

Arguably, the most significant thing that happened to Columbia Pictures during the 1933-1934 season was the runaway box-office success of Frank Capra's sprightly Depression-era screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, released theatrically on February 23, 1934. To say It Happened One Night was an enormous hit would be an understatement; it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, made Clark Gable a megastar and earned the studio tons of money.

Just how the influx of do-re-me at the height of The Great Depression specifically impacted the Columbia Shorts Department we cannot empirically say, but the next thing you know, prominent comedians were signed and several more series were added to the Musical Novelties on the Columbia Pictures release schedule - and we'll take that up in Part Two.

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