Thursday, July 1, 2004

Comedy Movie Shorts

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, Hollywood produced huge numbers of live action, comedy shorts. For decades they would be part of the movie going experience, which generally consisted of a cartoon, a live action short, a newsreel, and a feature film. With the advent of television, many of these comedy shorts entered syndication. People like myself, who were born long after live action shorts ceased to be a part of the movie going experience, were then able to see movie shorts that had entertained others in earlier decades.

Possibly the most successful studio to produce comedy shorts was Hal Roach Studios. In 1915, Hal Roach and his partner Dan Linthicum founded the Rolin Film Company. Roach produced comedies featuring the legendary Harold Lloyd, comedies which proved successful enough for Roach to buy out his partner. Afterwards, Roach renamed his studio "Hal Roach Studios."

While the Harold Lloyd films were successful, perhaps the most successful series of shorts to emerge out of Hal Roach Studios were those featuring Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel was a slender Englishmen with a gift for slapstick. Oliver Hardy was a husky Southerner with a gift for the "slow burn (the facial expressions and body language which show that a character is getting angry). The two both appeared in the movie The Lucky Dog in 1921, although it would be many years before they worked as a team. The two later appeared together in the Hal Roach production Forty-Five Minutes From Hollywood in 1926. The two had an unmistakable chemistry in the film. Legend has it that producer Leo McCarey suggested that the two be made a permanent team. Regardless, the first official Laurel and Hardy short was The Second Hundred Years in 1927. Thereafter, they made 106 films together. In addition to their popular shorts, they also made feature films, starting with Pardon Us in 1931. The two ceased making shorts in 1935, by which time the relationshp between the two of them and their relationship with Hal Roach was under stress. In 1940 they left Hal Roach. They 8 more films between 1940 and 1945, with one final film together made in 1950.

I grew up with the Laurel and Hardy shorts. They were aired on various local TV stations throughout the years. Most notably, KRCG aired them on their kids' show, Showtime, for years. I remember in high school that once a eyar our science teacher would tell us to make sure to come class the next day, as we would be covering very important material. The "important material" would be two of the classic Laurel and Hardy shorts! I have always loved Laurel and Hardy and to this day I regard them as the greatest comedy team of all time, even surpassing Abbott and Costello. Only the Marx Brothers may be greater.

The Our Gang comedies made by Hal Roach nearly matched the Laurel and Hardy shorts in success. Roach started the series in 1922 under the title "Hal Roach's Rascals;" however, the first film was titled "Our Gang" and that was the title that critics and the general public used for the series. Eventually, Roach officially changed the series' name to Our Gang. There was naturally a bit of turnover in the cast of the series, as the child actors eventually grew out of their roles. Perhaps the most successful and best loved run of the series were the shorts made in the mid-Thirties, when the series centred on George 'Spanky' McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, and Darla Hood. Indeed, both Spanky and Buckwheat had among the longest careers in the Our Gang comedies. Spanky first appeared in an Our Gang short in 1932 and appeared in his last in 1942, a total of 95 episodes. Buckwheat appeared in his first short in 1934 and his last in 1944. In 1938 Hal Roach sold the Our Gang series to MGM, who had distributed Roach's films for years. Produced by MGM, the Our Gang comedies went into decline. MGM ceased production of the series in 1944. Hal Roach eventually bought the films back, but not the Our Gang title. When the series was released to television synidication in 1955, then, it needed a new title. The series was renamed The Little Rascals.

Like the Laurel and Hardy shorts, I grew up with the Our Gang shorts. KRCG also aired these as part of Showtime. Like many people, my favourite shorts were those from the mid-Thirties, featuring Spanky and Alfafa--arguably the two most popular "Rascals" of all time.

Another popular series of shorts produced by Hal Roach were those featuirng Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. Hal Roach cast Thelma Todd alongside many of the popular comedy stars of the day--Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Harry Langdon. She was teamed with Zasu Pitts in a series of shorts, although she also appeared in such feature films as the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and Palooka. Todd was a gifted comic actress and one of the great sex symbols of her day (the press referred to her as the "Ice Cream Blonde" and "Hot Toddy"). Unfortunately, she died under mysterious circumstancs in 1935.

As a child my only exposure to Thelma Todd was in the films she made with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. Even then, I thought she must have been one of the most beautiful women to have ever walked the earth (I preferred blondes even back then). I got to see many of the shorts she made with Zasu Pitts when the Hallmark Channel started running various Hal Roach shorts years ago. Not only was Todd extremely beautiful, but she was a great comedic actress. She had perfect timing and was capably of both verbal word play and slapstick. It is a shame that her life ended all too soon.

Of course, Hal Roach Studios was not the only studio to produce comedy shorts. Columbia produced what may be the most successful comedy shorts of all times, The Three Stooges. The origins of the Stooges were as part of comedian Ted Healy's act. In 1922, Healy decided he needed someone for his slapstick comedy routines. He hired Moe Howard. Moe's brother Shemp later joined the act. In 1925, Healy hired violinist Larry Fine, bringing the number of Stooges to Three. The Stooges appeared with Healy on Broadway and, with the 1930 20th Century fox film Soup for Nuts, on film. In 1934 the Three Stooges left Healy's act and signed with Columbia to make a series of comedy shorts. In all, the Stooges made 190 shorts and 20 feature films.

Even as a child I was not a huge fan of the Three Stooges. While I have often found myself laughing out loud at their shorts, I have always found their routines to be somewhat repetitive. They have never seemed nearly as funny to me as Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. While I can watch one Laurel and Hardy short after the other, I find I can only watch the Three Stooges sorts a few at a time.

Unfortunately, with the possible exception of the Three Stooges, it seems to me that the classic comedy shorts are being shown on television less and less. American Movie Classics once showed them a good deal and I believe that Turner Classic Movies shows them once in a while, but the classic comedy shorts have all but disappeared from local TV stations. That is a shame, as I feel they are among the funniest things ever made. Indeed, the shorts of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and Todd and Pitts are far funnier than most modern day sitcoms.

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