I've sung the praises of Warner's direct-to-consumer
program, the Warner Archives, many times in the past and I'm going to
once. They've released an amazing
collection of early talking films in the Vitaphone Cavalcade of Comedy Shorts
Collection. It's a treasure-filled
six-disc set that has a little of everything.
From jazz musicians to vaudeville acts to short plays this
covered all the bases. That would be
enough to make me recommend it, but there are also two whole discs of
Technicolor shorts that look absolutely beautiful.
It's a must-buy collection that includes
hours and hours worth of entertainment.
Though the first films were silent, people had been trying
to make movies almost since the media's inception.
As early as 1895 Thomas Edison marketed the Kinetophone,
a machine that would allow a single viewer to watch a short reel of
music piped into earphones, and though that system ultimately failed,
didn't. There were a couple of big
obstacles that stood in the way however.
The first was amplification, how do you make the sound loud
an audience to hear it? (Phonographs at
the time were not powered by electricity, you just wound it up and the
emitted from a horn. It wasn't very
loud, but sufficient for a small room.) The other problem was
synchronization. How do you get the
sound to match what's on the screen and stay in synch?
Western Electric decided to try their hand matching sound to
movie pictures and came up with one of the first practical systems.
Audion amplification tube and the condenser microphone they solved the
problem, and by using a single motor to run both the film projector and
phonograph they solved the synching issue.
Their new system had its flaws, the oversized 16" records could
played 20 times before they wore out for one, but it sounded much
the competing sound-on-film systems. So
in 1925 Warner Brothers bought the system, dubbed Vitaphone, and
experiment with adding synchronized sound to their films.
Though the sound-on-disc system would be abandoned within a
few years, Vitaphone was part of the Warner Brothers studio for decades
responsible for their short subject releases.
At first they mainly released vaudeville acts and musical
numbers. It was easy to get a group or act
to come in
and record a bit for some quick cash, but Vitaphone shorts started
quickly and soon become mini-movies.
The great thing about Vitaphone shorts in general and this
collection in particular is that these films are a document of the past. It's one thing to read about a popular
vaudeville act like Fritz Herbert and his sister Jean's drunk
routine but seeing the act is another thing all together.
(You can see the Herbert's act in The Sunday
This set collects a wide variety of Vitaphone shorts, from
vaudevillians at the height of their popularity, to big bands, to
dramas and comedies there's something for everyone here.
The set starts out with a 1926 recording of vaudeville
stars The Howard Brothers doing some of their jokes and singing. It's one of only two films the duo made (the
other is Paramount's
I'm Telling You (1931)). Their song
and patter are the perfect introduction for the rest of the collection: The jokes are dated and the songs are no
longer well known, but it's entertaining and fascinating to watch.
There are a lot of surprising films here, with just about
every one offering something special. One
of my favorite discoveries was a series of shorts (going by the names
Album, Movie Memories, Thrills of Yesteryear, and others) that riff
movies ala MST3K. Each short was
comprised of a series of clips from old films and a narrator would poke
the action. Not only were these pretty
funny but the narrator also pointed out some of the stars featured in
films, many of them (like comedian John Bunny) forgotten by the time
Another great series is Vaudeville
Reel. These four movies highlighted
some A-level vaudeville acts that were very, very good.
One of the installments features an excellent
trio of tap dancers who went by the name The Three Queens who inspired
see if they had been in any other films (apparently they were in one
Vitaphone movie). Each short is made to
resemble a vaudeville show with an attractive girl holding up a sign
name of the act (is there a name for those things?) followed by a
that lasts a couple of minutes. There
are all sorts of acts: a guy who eats a
lit cigar followed by a violin and then some of his suit, a dog
Chinese acrobats, and even a diminutive song and dance team. As I said,
the acts have been honed to perfection from years on the vaudeville
Not all of the films had top talent, but the lesser acts can
still be just as entertaining. Nine
O'clock Folks (1931) featured
another mini-vaudeville show, this one with the framing story of a town
meeting, but the acts, while polished, didn't feel like they ever
played on the
big circuit. There was a guy with really
long shoes (3-4 feet) who dances and did tricks that his enormous
possible and the show concludes with a "bouncer" who does a comedy act
trained dog in a tuxedo. Not anything
that would impress Ziegfeld, but it's the type of entertainment that's
anymore, and that makes in very interesting.
Another highlight is the two Technicolor discs. These
were a lot of fun and beautiful to
watch. They start out with a pair of
Errol films, Service with a Smile and
Good Morning Eve. The
former has him trying to scam his
insurance company after his service station burns down by insisting
the work was done by attractive women in skimpy outfits who sang while
repaired cars. The latter is just as
plays Adam, and after Eve convinces him to bite an apple (not on
course) they take a trip through the ages stopping in ancient Rome,
a Medieval castle, and finally present day New York.
A lot of these were pretty funny too, especially if you like
witty word play. In Gypsy Sweetheart a
butler is reading the palm of an attractive young gypsy:
Butler: I see a trail of broken hearts where ever you
go... How tall are you?
Butler: How tall are you with regular fellows?
Marx brother's fans will recognize the lady of the house in
this short, Margaret Dumont.
The shorts in this collection are:
Between the Acts at the Opera (1926)
Favorite Orchestra of the Motion Picture Colony (1928)
Tal Henry and His North Carolinians
The Opry House (1929)
Red Nichols and His Five Pennies (1929)
Fashion's Mirror (1930)
Henry Santrey and His Soldiers of Fortune Orchestra (1931)
Opening Night (1931)
One Way Out (1931)
Jack Buchanan with the Glee Quartette (1930)
Bubbles (1930) - odd piece with kids dancing and singing
The Grand Dame (1931)
Nine O'clock Folks (1931)
Hot News Margie (1931)
The Mild West (1933)
Rooftops of Manhattan
Thrills of Yesterday: Serious Moments from Serial Days
(1931) Movie Album (#1) (1932)
Movie Album (#2) (1932)
Movie Memories (#1) (1933)
A Penny a Peep (1934)
The Camera Speaks (1934)
Hollywood Newsreel (1934)
Movie Memories (#2) (1934)
A Trip through a Hollywood Studio (1934)
Harry Warren, America's Foremost Composer (1933)
Barber Shop Blues (1933)
A Big City Fantasy (1934)
Phil Spitalny & His Musical Queens (1934)
Don Redman & His Orchestra (1934)
Mr. & Mrs. Jesse Crawford at Home (1939)
Vaudeville Reel (#1) (1934)
Vaudeville Reel (#2) (1934)
Vaudeville Reel (#3) (1935)
Vaudeville Reel (#4) (1935)
Service with a Smile
Good Morning Eve
What, No Men?
King of the Islands (1936)
Changing of the Guard (1936)
Echo Mountain (1936)
The Sunday Round-Up (1936)
Out Where the Stars Begin (1938)
These 53 (!) shorts arrive on six DVDs housed in a
The mono audio track sounds very good for films of this
age. There's a touch of background noise
in some shorts, but nothing distracting.
The voices are clear and it's easy to discern what's being said. What more could you want?
This full frame image is pretty amazing - they all look
fantastic. There's some very minor print
damage (spots and dirt) here and there, and just one or two have some
of film decomposition, but that's it.
The contrast is excellent and the level of detail is
strong. Overall these are some great
This is an absolutely amazing set. A truly
wonderful compilation of some very
entertain and historical short subjects.
Anyone who enjoys shorts or early cinema should run out and get
a copy. DVDTalk