This review will try to explain what's so special about sixteen one and two-reel comedies made directly after the conversion to talkies, but it's really unnecessary -- they're very funny and speak for themselves. Aside from the film history angle, seeing big talents like Bing Crosby in their screen infancy, we get a good look at a pack of notable screen comedians little known outside of clip shows - by now we've seen Chester Conklin and Ben Turpin caricatured in cartoons much more often then their actual starring roles.
I'm presuming that the tidy text intro on the back of the package is by Bret Wood, the film writer and documentarian - he gives us a quick understanding of the significance of the short subjects without an involved theoretical discussion. The advent of sound made studios scramble for 'talking comedians,' which they found on Broadway and in Vaudeville. The wide range of talent on display show the variety that was being tried out on film - singers, comediennes, ethnic-oriented comedy. Wood's choice also demonstrates how standard silent slapstick stayed alive as stage clowns entered the arena - sound didn't kill that tradition at all.
Fit to Be Tied (1930) George Burns & Gracie Allen.
It's easy to see why they put this item first as it appears to be vaudeville stage act, minimally adapted to the screen. Burns and Gracie pad out a 'crazy tie saleslady' routine with a couple of annoying extra salespeople. Gracie's ditz is still the cutest thing ever, and George looks good with too much makeup. They even do their patented "Say goodnight!" farewell.
Getting a Ticket (1929) Eddie Cantor.
Eddie runs afoul of a motorcycle cop, leading to the expected seven-minute verbal comedy routine. It's the usual schtick, with Eddie getting away with a slightly off-color joke and proving he's the real Eddie Cantor by singing a song. Judging by the country lane location shooting intercut (not so convincingly) with stage work, many of these early short subjects were filmed in New York, where the talent was presumably performing nightly.
A Broadway Romeo (1931) Jack Benny.
Good old Jack looks like a spring chicken here, in a minimalist show set at a Broadway magazine stand.
What Price, Pants? (1931) Smith & Dale.
This anarchic and rather sneaky farce was directed by famed screenwriter Casey Robinson, and it's an elaborate mini-movie. Smith & Dale appear to be specialists in Jewish-American humor and enliven a tale of management vs. Labor. The best pants-maker in the business asks for a raise, gets himself fired and then imagines a world where pants are prohibited instead of liquor. Pants are sold under the counter and speakeasy clients have to get 'em off fast when the cops show up. The sneaky boss has a plan to cheat our hero out of a hefty inheritance by giving him half of the company, but Smith turns the tables on him. It all sounds like the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a Hollywood writer eager to put it to his studio bosses!
It Might Be Worse (1931) George Jessel.
So this is the young George Jessel. He's reasonable enough but doesn't seem to be the stuff of legends. Maybe he needed the ladykiller reputation to put it all together; I always think of him in those WB cartoons where the hick chick is seduced by the Hollywood smoothie and ends up laying an egg back in Oklahoma. Jessel uses comedy to talk a pal out of suicide -- it is the depression, you know. As far as Savant is concerned, Jessel redeemed himself by producing Nightmare Alley.
Sing, Bing, Sing (1933) Bing Crosby.
This is actually a Mack Sennett one-reeler, and it ends with a signature Sennett chase in a runaway car driven by a gorilla, a man in an excellent suit. Crosby croons a few numbers, elopes with his girl in an airplane and gets his name both above and IN the title, proving he was a progressive, take-no-prisoners kind of self-promoter. His makeup is much better here than in Going Hollywood or an earlier two-color musical revue, where he tended to look like a shaved, painted monkey.
The Introduction of Mrs. Gibbs (1930) Lulu McConnell.
This enjoyably loud-mouthed comedienne makes herself unwelcome in a ritzy home with her sloppy manners and clueless sense of etiquette. She was a big vaudeville star but wears thin after a while - the writing isn't all that clever.
Cleaning Up (1930) Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, Gibson Gowland.
Two great silent clowns are joined by a famous silent actor playing straight man -- Gowland is of course the leading player whose career was flattened by his excellent performance in Greed. A territorial dispute between two street sweepers escalates into an environmental disaster along the tit-for-tat lines of Laurel & Hardy's Big Business. I believe this one ends in a chase where we see a Hollywood view of Highland Avenue looking North from Willoughby street ... the giant Bekins storage building is already there, surrounded mostly by vacant lots.
The Plasterers (1929) Charles O'Donnell & Jack Blair,
Plastered (1930) Willie West & McGinty and
A Put Up Job (1931) Karl Dane and George K. Arthur.
Disc producer Bret Wood arranges three short subjects with similar themes in chronological order. All three of these acts present a pair (or trio) of workmen performing frantic workplace mayhem gags involving planks (whop!) buckets (glorsh!) and insidious Rube Goldberg mechanical traps. The gags are great and some of the clowning is really expert - in one show a guy tumbles from a fairly high landing in an awkward pose and lands on his feet. The stage artistes work out their gags for the camera, and we can see the style gaining in sophistication from year to year.
Lighthouse Love (1932) Franklin Pangborn, Mack Swain, Ben Turpin.
Pangborn, Turpin and others are Marines chasing Chinese dolls in the quaint city of Hang Chow - this would make an excellent co-feature with M*A*S*H or The Sand Pebbles. Top-billed Dorothy Granger (she of 229 features and shorts, ending up with Raintree County) is a French tattoo artist named Nanette that all the boys are crazy about. It gets more strange at a lighthouse where Mack Swain's drug love potion comes into play. When a cat takes a sip, it sees an animated she-cat dancing in a harem outfit. Swain sees Nanette swinging from the chandelier in a negligée. Just when we think Pangborn is playing a straight character, he goes in drag to fool Swain. Ben Turpin shows up to cross his eyes and do a pratfall for the finale. Plenty weird.
The African Dodger (1930) and Breaking Even (1932) are two titles starring Tom Howard, a cantankerous older guy in a bowler hat whose specialty is haranging people non-stop, with maybe a bit of juggling thrown in somewhere along the line. His grating patter is probably typical of many comics of the day ... since he doesn't have all that much in the way of an engaging personality, we have to appreciate him for his sheer stamina.
100% Service (1931) George Burns & Gracie Allen.
This is a one-act comedy with George checking into a hotel staffed with surly employees. Gracie's at the cigar counter doing her magic; her brand of incompetence is delightful. As with the majority of these short subjects, there are only a few simple camera angles. One rather wide shot of the two of them at the counter lasts at least a minute.
Poppin' The Cork (1933) Milton Berle.
This is a completely independent musical comedy featurette from "Educational Pictures" with lots of girls in gym outfits in a college setting. Berle is a fur-coated toothy clown made up with so much lipstick that he looks like Gwyneplaine in The Man Who Laughs. He's got more klunker jokes than anybody but pushes them as frantically as always. At one point he "ums and ahs" for a second, and the film cuts to the next joke. It's not often one sees a flub like that reatined in a filmed show.
The shows are licensed from the "Douris Corp." which may be a private collection or an archive; they've contributed archival clips to recent docus on Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney. All contain original Paramount and Mack Sennett logos. (Note, thanks to several readers: The Douris company is the new archive controlling what was once the Raymond Rohauer collection.)