Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Two

Did the resulting influx of cash from the boffo box office success of It Happened One Night lead directly to many new hires in the Columbia Pictures Short Subjects department? If the sheer quantity of short subjects Columbia produced in 1934 is any indication, yes!

Columbia's 2-reel comedy factory hit the ground running in 1934 and a slew of comics, writers and directors were signed by producer Jules White.

Added to the initial behind-the-camera staff of Archie Gottler, Lou Breslow and Ray McCarey (who had been directing comedy shorts for Hal Roach and Vitaphone): ex-Sennett Studio mainstays Arthur Ripley and Del Lord; Hal Roach Studio director James W. Horne, who would soon shift over to Columbia's serials department and make the silliest cliffhangers of all time; the prolific Charles Lamont from Universal and the director of several pre-Columbia Pictures entries in the George Sidney-Charlie Murray series; Jules' brother, writer-director and formerly the chief comedy producer at Fox and Educational, Jack White (a.k.a. "Preston Black"); gagmen Felix Adler and Harry McCoy, as well as Clyde Bruckman, the talented (and ultimately tragic) director-writer who had worked extensively with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy and W.C. Fields.

Columbia had been producing Archie Gottler's "Musical Novelties", featuring Betty Grable, "Bad Boy Of Broadway" Jack Osterman, vaudevillian Lou Holtz, Lois January and Frank Albertson, as well as lots of singing, rhyming dialogue and campy production numbers on a tight budget.

Now, the de facto headliners of a certain Musical Novelty opus were about as far afield from the glamorous Grable as humanly possible: three grotesque, exceptionally geeky - and funny - burlesque comedians known as Howard, Fine and Howard.

All enliven Woman Haters, the fifth Columbia Pictures Musical Novelty, with their wacky antics - and there still is nothing quite as funny as Moe Howard singing. Winsome and hilarious musical comedy gal Marjorie White co-stars.

The Three Stooges - Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Jerome "Curly" Howard - unsurpassed masters of NYUK NYUK NYUK and WOO WOO WOO, joined Leon Errol, Walter Catlett and the (soon to exit) comedy team of Charlie Murray and George Sidney on the Columbia roster. Their Columbia series officially began with Punch Drunks, released theatrically on July 13, 1934. The Three Stooges' onscreen personalities and slapstick formula are already very well-established here, and Curly proves quite the dynamo, a whirlwind of physical comedy energy throughout.

Curly is even better once Mack Sennett Studio avatar Del Lord begins directing Three Stooges comedies and gives the team an ideal showcase for their hilarious brand of mayhem.

Harry Langdon and Andy Clyde, both associated with the Mack Sennett organization, also came on board in 1934.

From Day 1, all of the above enjoyed the customary outstanding support from everyone's favorite character actor, Bud Jamison. They would be joined by Harry Langdon's best friend and frequent collaborator, Vernon Dent, in 1935.

Clyde, like Bud Jamison and Vernon Dent quite the trouper, starred in 2-reelers, first with Sennett/ Educational, then at Columbia, for a quarter century.

Andy stayed almost as long as The Three Stooges at the Columbia Shorts Department, from 1934 to 1956, then embarked upon a successful career doing comic character roles in television.

Andy's amiable persona as "the goofy old coot" wears well and, as a veteran of the Del Lord - Felix Adler gonzo slapstick approach, dating back to such flivver-crashing silent Mack Sennett comedy classics as Super Hooper Dyne Lizzies, he took to the Columbia house style and its accompanying pratfalls immediately.

Andy's first Columbia 2-reelers were released at the end of 1934.

Harry Langdon arrived at Columbia after starring in a series of freewheeling and surprisingly good 2-reel comedies for Educational and Paramount in 1932-1934. While any film starring a master comedian such as Langdon will have its moments, his Columbia 2-reelers are a mixed bag, mostly due to misguided attempts to shoehorn Harry into Three Stooges style knockabout slapstick.

Langdon, of course, at one point had been a major star and rival to Chaplin for top box-office attraction in screen comedy.

After his 1927-1928 starring vehicles THREE'S A CROWD, THE CHASER and HEART TROUBLE bombed at the box office, Harry continued to work steadily, but was largely relegated to short subjects and occasional character roles in features. His characterization, acting and comic timing were highly original, ultra-quirky and most idiosyncratic.

Although Harry would never hit the level of mega-stardom he attained in silent features again, he continued working in films up to his untimely death in December, 1944. There are many moments in Harry's sound films when his creativity, originality, formidable comedy mojo and abilities as a character actor shine through.

Still, even in the best of circumstances, there were difficulties translating Langdon's unconventional and hilariously bizarre Little Elf characterization from silents to the less surreal world of talkies. Although Harry's comic skills are not just intact, but as good or better as in his 1920's heydey, it is a bit jarring to hear his pixilated character as well as see him.

When given a director who understood what his characterization was all about, Harry proved capable of outstanding work, with his character role in the Great Depression-era classic Hallelujah, I'm A Bum, directed by Lewis Milestone a standout.

Since Harry had the most difficulty fitting into the Shorts Department's slapstick formula, even with former silent era collaborators Arthur Ripley and Harry Edwards (the third, Frank Capra, the studio's Grand Poobah, periodically visited the set) at the helm, in some Columbia films, everything clicks, while in others, his characterization gets lost in the shuffle.

In such films as the following 1935 Columbia short, I Don't Remember, directed by Jack White, the characterization seems inconsistent, at times crossing the line between "lovable little elf eccentric" and "psycho" - and at that point, not even such capable supporting players as Vernon Dent, Geneva Mitchell and Mary Carr can save the proceedings.

In A Doggone Mixup, he is cast with an aggressive and combative spouse, which undercuts the comedy at every turn - one can't comprehend why she is with Harry in the first place. Langdon may have needed more time, more sympathetic collaborators and a higher budget enabling more attention to detail - and none of these were available to him at Columbia.

In the late 1930's, several more top comedians, directors and writers - more guys who MADE silent movie comedy - would be hired by Jules White to make Columbia 2-reelers. So the story continues in Part Three.

And. . . again, acknowledgements aplenty to Greg Hilbrich's terrific website, The Shorts Department, as well as Ted Okuda and Edward Watz' outstanding book The Columbia Comedy Shorts.

1 comment:

Mike fletcher said...

Informative as always, Mr. Etcheverry!