Monday, January 21, 2013

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Five

In the first half of the 1940's, shakeups transpired on and offscreen at the Columbia Shorts Department. Harry Langdon and All-Star supporting actor Bud Jamison died. El Brendel was let go. Curly Howard fell ill as The Three Stooges were becoming box-office champs.

Yet more changes transpired behind the camera. Jack White stopped directing and moved into the story department, where he would remain through production of the last Columbia comedy short, Sappy Bullfighters. Sennett Studio veteran Harry Edwards joined in 1942 - presumably to replace producer-director-writer Charley Chase - and was extremely prolific over the next four years. Sound engineer Edward Bernds, who had worked in just about every capacity for Columbia Pictures and the shorts department, was promoted to director, and proved to be very capable, in particular directing The Three Stooges.

Not surprisingly, The Three Stooges' sustained popularity prompted a plethora of similar knockabout comedies with varied stars - and even more varied results.

Sometimes these efforts succeed. Other times, the completed films present clubfooted, unintentionally funny train wrecks rather than conventionally humorous comedy shorts.

Nonetheless, the "scare comedy", frequently used to excellent advantage by The Three Stooges, soon became a staple at the Columbia Shorts Department - and would remain so well into the 1950's. Another example of this sub-genre, Pardon My Terror, starring Gus Schilling and Richard Lane, sure looks as if it was written specifically with The Three Stooges in mind.

Long after competing comedy fun factories had shut down, Jules White's department didn't just keep going, it initiated new series, even as The Three Stooges and Andy Clyde kept cranking out funny 2-reelers like clockwork.

1940's headliners included "once and future Stooge" Shemp Howard, the team of Gus Schilling & Richard Lane, character actor Hugh Herbert and radio star Barbara Jo Allen (a.k.a. "Vera Vague") from The Bob Hope Show. Most starred in frame-by-frame remakes of films Charley Chase and Andy Clyde made for the Shorts Department in the 1930's.

Although Barbara Jo "Vera Vague" Allen rivals Lucille Ball, Polly Moran, Una Merkel and Marjorie White among the best comediennes to ever work for the Shorts Department, her starring vehicles for Columbia frequently recall the title to the 1968 thriller, No Way To Treat A Lady.

The Vera Vague comedies repeatedly bring up the question, "should a likeable and attractive comedienne get the same treatment as Moe Howard"?

The answer, even given the subsequent slapstick success of Lucille Ball and Joan Davis, is NO, absolutely not. . . not now, not ever. However, some of Charley Chase's Columbia 2-reelers were remade with Vera, with good results, as in the following, Doctor Feel My Pulse.

Unfortunately, Charley wasn't alive to pilot Vera's series and gently steer it away from the trademark Jules White knockabout humor that, while perfect for The Three Stooges, simply doesn't translate from comedians to comediennes. Among his numerous contributions behind the camera, Chase directed The Bargain Of The Century, starring Thelma Tudd and Zasu Pitts, as well as silent era comedies for Mack Sennett featuring such comediennes as Louise Fazenda.

Need convincing that eye-poking humor is not a good choice with comediennes? Watch this uneasy, macabre Vera Vague vehicle, Hiss And Yell, directed with diabolical relish by Jules White. Vera is funny but boy, do bizarre shorts like this one give a new, foreboding meaning to the "Merrily We Roll Along" theme song that opens the non-Stooges Columbia comedy shorts.

Only somewhat more suited to the inimitable Columbia 2-reeler format was Hugh "Woo Woo" Herbert, ubiquitous comedy relief from countless RKO comedies and Warner Bros. musicals.

The ever-fluttery Herbert ended up starring in scads of Columbia 2-reelers, often in tandem with the aforementioned Dudley Dickerson. When cast or miscast as a girl-chasing Romeo, the results can be hilarious in any language.

As for the Stooges, they continued making hilarious films - well, at least until the deteriorating health that led to Curly's hospitalization on January 23, 1945 (after the filming of Idiots Deluxe) became painfully obvious onscreen. The team, however, is still in excellent form in the 1942-1943 season.

More to come in Part Six, as the Shorts Department continued well into the Eisenhower administration and the age of television.

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