Though generally forgotten today, Leon Errol was a popular comic actor during the 1930s and '40s. The bald Australian, whose pinched, bird-like features suggested a comical buzzard, had been a vaudeville and Broadway star allied with Ziegfeld before he turned to films on a regular basis in 1930. Occasionally he lent his support to stars like Abbott and Costello (in their underrated The Noose Hangs High in which he is very good) and oddball projects such as his co-starring role in, of all things, The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944) opposite a mostly transparent Jon Hall. But Errol is best remembered for starring opposite tragic star Lupe Velez in eight "Mexican Spitfire" comedies, made at RKO from 1939-43. At RKO, Errol also enjoyed long career as the star of his own series of shorts, ten of which have been compiled by VCI as the Leon Errol Two-Reeler Comedy Collection.
The shorts run 14-18 minutes apiece, and are as follows: Twin Husbands (1946), Pretty Dolly (1942), Bet Your Life (1948), Oil's Well That Ends Well (1949), Lord Epping Returns (1951), Dummy Owner (1938), His Pest Friend (1938), Bested by a Beard (1940), Man I Cured (1941), and Framing Father (1942).
The shorts typically revolve around upper-class businessman Leon Errol (Leon Errol) knee-deep in a series of mix-ups usually involving a pretty blonde, which Leon's wife (usually played by Dorothy Granger) always jealously and mistakenly assumes is Leon's mistress. After a reel and a half of double-entendres and slapstick, often incorporating Leon's angry boss or important clients, the situation is resolved and all is well again.
This collection of short comedies is a bit more genially amusing than VCI's concurrent Edgar Kennedy Two-Reeler Comedy Collection. Comedy-wise, the Errol shorts are really only marginally better, but the weaker ones play somewhat better due to Errol's consistently enjoyable performance. Unlike Kennedy, who came from the Mack Sennett school of slapstick, and who struggled to overcome weak material, Errol was a naturally funny man. His expressive features and surprisingly agile body (he was nearly 70 when the later shorts were made) are better suited to these formula shorts than Kennedy's persona was to his.
At the same time, the scripts for the Errol shorts are far more repetitive than the Kennedy ones, though one should remember that these shorts were never meant to be watched one after another, any more than entire serials were intended to be viewed in a single sitting. Viewed over several weeks, the Errol comedies hold up fairly well. That said, the best shorts in this collection have almost identical stories. In Twin Husbands, chaos ensues when Leon's twin brother comes to town looking to fool around with the dames. In Lord Epping Returns Errol revives his character from the Mexican Spitfire films, a stuffy British lord reminiscent of Charles Coburn. One side note: in this short, an unbilled actor playing Epping's aide Chumley appears to be none other than an unbilled Nigel Green, the soon-to-be famous character actor who was appearing on American television at the time.
Video & Audio
As with VCI Edgar Kennedy Collection, 16mm TV prints were the main source for the Leon Errol Two-Reeler Comedy Collection. (Some prints bear titles altered to include the C&C Television Corp. logo.) Overall, the quality is well below par, but watchable. Unlike the Kennedy shorts, these are at least consistent and without the hissy sound that plagues several of the Kennedy shorts. The bit rate on the dual-layered disc is acceptable.
The only extra is an Leon Errol Biography, presented as a slow-moving, rolling "scroll." What's billed as Trailers are simply clips from other VCI titles.
Unlike the Kennedy shorts, which seem forever trapped in a world of early-talkie slapstick, Leon Errol and his short subjects changed with the times. One has mostly pity for hapless Edgar, but Leon Errol comes off as very likeable, like a favorite, mildly eccentric uncle. One wishes VCI had put more effort into getting better film elements for these (presumably) public domain titles, but at the same time they should be commended for putting together a package of the kinds of shorts the big studios have all but abandoned.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.