Monday, January 07, 2013

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Three

Brothers in arms and comedy: Larry Fine, Monty Collins, Curly Howard, Harry Langdon, Moe Howard

To recap: by the end of 1934, The Columbia Shorts Department was up and running in a big way.

Already jettisoned from the Columbia 2-reeler roster by the 1934-1935 release schedule: vaudevillian Lou Holtz and the team of George Sidney and Charlie Murray.

Soon to be phased out: the Musical Novelties series created by songwriter-filmmaker Archie Gottler. One suspects that the vigorous enforcement of the Production Code, which began in July 1934, put the kibbosh on the sometimes risque Musical Novelties.

Leon Errol and Walter Catlett continued making Columbia 2-reelers, while the others were replaced on the 1934-1935 release schedule by The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde and Harry Langdon.

To create the new series for the 1934-1935 season, Jules White hired several prolific directors, all (as headliners Harry Langdon and Andy Clyde were), principal mayhem-makers in the wild and wooly world of silent movie comedy: his brother Jack, formerly the producer/creator of Lloyd Hamilton's acclaimed Mermaid Comedies; Mack Sennett director-writer-jack of all trades Del Lord; from Universal, the very prolific Charles Lamont.

The Three Stooges, of course, were an immediate hit with moviegoing audiences and continued rocking and rolling through the 1930's with great success.

Moe, Larry and Curly were already so popular as early as 1934 that competing studios' animated cartoons (for example, Friz Freleng's Merrie Melodie The Miller's Daughter) were caricaturing them.

To a slightly lesser degree, Andy Clyde would be a perennial audience favorite. He starred in 2-reelers at the Columbia Shorts Department for almost as long as The Three Stooges did.

At one point Andy's Columbia series co-featured Stooge-to-be and former Vitaphone Big V Comedies supporting player and periodic headliner Shemp Howard.

While the fast-paced, gag-filled milieu provided by the ever-inventive Del Lord may well have been the perfect showcase for The Three Stooges, the team also thrived when directed by the knockabout-oriented Jules White and the more deliberately paced Jack "Preston Black" White and Charley Chase.

The story goes that Jules White found Del Lord selling used cars and quickly put him to work on the Three Stooges and Tom Kennedy-Monte Collins comedies.

In the 1937 season, additions from veteran comedienne Polly Moran to prolific Fox and Vitaphone character actor/Swedish dialect comic El Brendel to producer-director-writer Charley Chase, who was responsible for several of the funniest comedy films ever made (His Wooden Wedding, Limousine Love, Mighty Like A Moose, etc.), joined the Columbia shorts department.

Chase signed with Columbia in 1937 after 15 years with the Hal Roach Studio.

He both starred in his own series and directed other comics.

Less influenced by the house style than other comics, Chase's approach and timing is markedly different - in some ways, more subtle, varied and gentler - from his fellow comedy creators at the Columbia shorts department.

The style of comedy Chase pioneered at the Roach studio, in collaboration with Leo McCarey, informs both his starring vehicles and films featuring other comedians at Columbia.

Chase directed many films starring comedians other than himself and The Three Stooges, often with excellent results. There are quite a few original and unorthodox interpretations of the Columbia 2-reeler formula by Chase, such as the shorts Mutiny On The Body and A Nag In The Bag starring the comedy team of Smith and Dale (the inspiration for The Sunshine Boys).

The zig-zagging between Sennett-style slapstick and Chase's Hal Roach Studio comedy sensibility created some pretty wonderful 2-reelers. Why Chase did not direct and write films for Harry Langdon, we'll never know.

Although the best of Chase's Columbia films, oddly enough, tend to star comics other than The Three Stooges, he wrote and directed one of the very best of all 190 of the team's Columbia shorts, the hilarious and tuneful Violent Is The Word For Curly.

Keaton, still unsurpassed in 2013 as an insanely talented feature film director-writer-performer-acrobat and comic genius, was signed by Columbia after three years starring in 2-reelers for Educational.

It is tempting to view Buster's 1934-1941 comedy shorts, like Langdon's, in a "how the mighty have fallen" prism, but Keaton adapts to the low budgets and slapstick formula well and often performs astounding pieces of pure physical comedy.

While it's common knowledge that the Educational and Columbia two-reelers aren't in the same category as such legendary and iconic epic features as The General and Our Hospitality - Keaton could still make magic onscreen, just given a chance.

The Columbia Keaton series' greatest drawback is that since Buster, even well into his forties, could perform difficult stunts and falls with breathtaking skill and panache, he gets shoehorned repeatedly into knockabout and teamed with unrelentingly in-your-face acrobatic comedienne Elsie Ames. While Ames had talent and could perform in a slapstick vein a la Joan Davis and Lucille Ball, let's just say subtlety was not her strong suit.

100% slam-bang slapstick doesn't fit Buster, but he, as always, gives it his best effort and makes the comedy work. On hand to provide stellar support to all the series from the Columbia Shorts Department: Bud Jamison, Vernon Dent and perennial dowager Symona Boniface.

Harry Cohn's studio continued distributing cartoons long after losing the Disney Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse series to RKO in 1932. The Charles Mintz Studio would continue making the Krazy Kat and Scrappy series for Columbia release, produced by Ben Harrison, Manny Gould, Sid Marcus, Dick Huemer and Art Davis, throughout the decade.

Whatever the Mintz cartoons, especially early in the 1930's, lack in slick Disney-style animation technique, they more than compensate for with energy, outrageousness and irreverent, nose-thumbing humor.

The Mintz Studio joined the "let's imitate Disney" brigade (Fleischer's Color Classics cartoons, Ub Iwerks' Comicolor Fairytales, High Harman and Rudy Ising's Happy Harmonies for MGM) with the Color Rhapsody series, starting in 1934.

The Color Rhapsodies series would continue until the Screen Gems cartoon studio closed in 1946.

With high hopes to compete with Fleischer Studio's Popeye, the Mintz Studio bought the rights to Billy DeBeck's comic strip Barney Google in 1934. Unfortunately, the series, directed by Sid Marcus and Art Davis, folded after four films.

Too bad: periodically the Marcus-Davis crew, in such Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoons as The House That Jack Built and The Mad Hatter, proved themselves capable of inspired lunacy. It is entirely likely that they were spread too thin working on both series and Scrappy cartoons as well.

Although the 2-reel comedies of the Columbia Shorts Department have been slammed to a significant degree as a haven for washed-up silent movie stars on the way down, the Chase and Keaton Columbia series have blazing moments and showcase their comic genius just the same. Such blazing moments would, unfortunately, be substantially fewer and farther between in the subsequent decade, the 1940's - and we will get to that in The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Four.

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