Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Seven

Here, proving behind an inkling of a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Blogmeister adores cheap comedy shorts, is the last in a series about the Columbia Shorts Department.

This was no small feat, as clips from even the most obscure Columbia 2-reelers - even unavailable titles which do not star once and future members of The Three Stooges and will never, ever get an official DVD release - have been getting yanked in quantity from YouTube (obviously, one of the 5 or 6 regular readers of this blog works for Sony Pictures).

The big game-changer for theatrical short subjects was the end of Block Booking, which guaranteed movie studios an audience for short subjects and was struck down by a 1948 Supreme Court ruling. With Block Booking in place, studios could say to theatre owners "if you want that Jean Arthur feature, pallie, then you have to take these El Brendel-Tom Kennedy shorts and Columbia Color Rhapsodies and Fables cartoons, too - like it or not".

Television became the key outlet for live-action slapstick, showcasing comedy by Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Lucille Ball, with Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello and Ernie Kovacs soon to follow. By the premiere of I Love Lucy, The Three Stooges, seeing the writing on the wall, had made many TV appearances.

The 1950's saw big changes at The Shorts Department. Hugh Herbert passed away in March 1952. Dudley Dickerson, who deserved better than the stereotypical roles he got, left Columbia and appeared in the Mr. And Mrs. North TV series. Vera Vague finished her series and went on to many roles in television. While The Three Stooges and Andy Clyde were "the last headliners standing", Shemp Howard passed away in 1955 - and the team, always troupers, kept soldiering on.

The four films The Three Stooges had to make after Shemp's passing to complete their 1955-1956 contract are now known as "The Two Stooges" or Fake Shemp films: Rumpus In The Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers and Commotion On The Ocean.

There was, indeed, no post-1954 film of Shemp in these remakes, just stock footage and shots of the back of Joe Palma's head! By this time, the costs of making 2-reel comedies had increased - and budgets had decreased - so much that the new films were often dominated by footage from previous films, anyway.

Behind the camera, even more of a shakeup took place at the Columbia Shorts Department. Del Lord retired. Edward Bernds, who, among many other things devised those ingenious sound effects that created The Three Stooges' surreal universe (and eventually directed numerous entries in the series), left to direct Bowery Boys comedies.

After a brief, unhappy stint directing Columbia 2-reelers, Richard Quine said "no mas, no mas" and transitioned to television and feature films, most felicitously as a key collaborator of comic geniuses Ernie Kovacs and Jack Lemmon.

Sadly, the talented and prolific writer/director Clyde Bruckman, who made comedy magic with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, The Three Stooges and other comedians, but did not make a lot of money while delivering those belly laughs to moviegoers, committed suicide in 1954.

Jules White became the sole director - and that meant the eye poking part of the equation really hit high gear in the 1950's. Just about all those patented Jules knockabout variations can be seen in the astonishingly tasteless and yet weirdly funny 2-reeler starring Eddie Quillan and Wally Vernon, Nobody's Home.

Quillan and Vernon make The Three Stooges look refined and genteel in the following gloriously unsubtle piece of work.

And speaking of unsubtle, here's a shameless and astonishingly inept Our Gang ripoff, released theatrically on December 9, 1954, The Mischief Makers in Kids Will Be Kids.

Slapstick and The Three Stooges would continue, but not until Joe Besser, who had starred in comedy shorts for Columbia a few years earlier, came on board as "the third Stooge" to shoot the team's last 2-reelers in 1956-1957.

No doubt Besser could be very funny, often hilariously so, as the following clips from the Abbott & Costello and Joey Bishop shows illustrate.

However, as a Stooge, although he gets plenty of laughs with his patented catchphrases ("not thooooooo hard, you crazeee") and gives the comedy his all, Besser never seems like quite a comfortable fit as a member of the team. Thus, you see such films very late in the team's 24 year run as this, Sweet And Hot, clearly an attempt to launch a musical offshoot series starring prolific television character actress Muriel Landers. Although likeable and a very good songstress, Ms. Landers seems miscast in a Three Stooges film.

The last of the 190 Three Stooges shorts, Sappy Bullfighters, was released on June 4, 1959, eighteen months after the department closed at the end of 1957.

Little did the boys know that they would soon be introduced to new generations of fans via television and go on to appear in several feature films, with another former Columbia 2-reeler star, Joe DeRita, on board as the new "third Stooge".

While snark-laden 21st century television humor frequently leaves Mr. Blogmeister as sub-freezing as the Atlantic in January, those uncultured, not terribly ambitious 1930's comedy shorts still provoke laughs - not just the creme-de-la-creme from Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase and Our Gang at Hal Roach Studios, but the randy vaudevillian weirdness of Clark & McCullough, those misguided yet intriguing Vitaphone "Big V" comedies (often featuring Shemp Howard), the no-budget train wrecks from Educational Pictures and yes, even the eye-poking 2-reelers from Columbia.

That said, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog lifts its half-full glass and says, "here's mud in yer eye" to The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Vernon Dent, Bud Jamison, Hugh Herbert and all the others who made us laugh - and still do!

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