Friday, February 01, 2013

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Six

The Columbia Shorts Department, which began as the "C" 2-reeler studio to the A's (Hal Roach, RKO), B's (Vitaphone, Universal) and truly low-budget "D" studio Educational, kept chugging along until it represented "the last studio standing" in the field. Some of the greatest creators of silent movie comedy - Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon - had already come and gone, squeezing maximum creativity and style into tight budgets and tighter shooting schedules.

The good news: The Shorts Department continued producing 2-reelers in quantity long after every competitor had folded their tents. The bad news: an overworked cash cow (The Three Stooges), combined with the inevitable passings, retirements and defections of many talented comedy directors/writers on staff.

By 1945, Curly Howard was visibly ailing, in no shape to continue the daily grind and long hours involved in making motion pictures. Moe Howard pleaded with Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn to give the team some time off. Cohn refused. Curly eventually had his second stroke on the set during the production of Half Wit's Holiday.

Shemp Howard, then starring in his own solo series for Columbia, was convinced to rejoin the team he had left in the early 1930's. He did so, with enthusiasm. As a result, the Three Stooges got a jolt of fresh energy that carried the series into the next decade.

The third Three Stooges comedy starring Shemp (and #100 in their Columbia series), Hold That Lion, featured a cameo by Curly which turned out to be his last onscreen appearance.

This very funny moment (Curly appears at 8:45) was also the only time all the Howard brothers appeared together onscreen.

Two more parallel developments: dwindling budgets and a growing reliance on the "scare comedy" sub-genre, invariably co-starring the uncredited Guy In A Gorilla Suit. After the success of The Three Stooges' If A Body Meets A Body, everyone on the lot starred in scare comedies.

In some cases, as in this Hugh Herbert-Dudley Dickerson short, the scare comedy formula works, largely due to the cast's formidable character acting skills. By this end of the series in the early 1950's, Herbert & Dickerson were working as a comedy team and the kind of racial stereotype gags that were rampant in movies before World War II were receding.

Meanwhile, the studio continued trying out a wide variety of actors in one-shots and mini-series - and especially in scare comedies.

The wide variety of talent featured in Columbia 2-reel comedies included: Billie Burke, who played "Glinda The Good Witch" in The Wizard Of Oz; voice actor par excellence Sterling Holloway; Stooge-to-be Joe DeRita; radio announcer and Burns & Allen Show cast member Harry Von Zell; Bert Wheeler of the comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey and RKO feature film fame;character actor Wally Brown, who was teamed with screenwriter Tim Ryan (note: Tim's comedienne wife was Irene, later to be famous as Granny from TV's Beverly Hillbillies) - and many more.

All of the aforementioned performers acquit themselves admirably as troupers and showbiz pros in the thicket, shovel and 2 x 4 filled landscape that was Jules White-Land, even when the slapstick just doesn't work.

There is an end to this and it comes in the next installment. The Shorts Department at Columbia survived for 24 years!

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