I'm a fan of short subjects films, commonly known as shorts. Not only are they mini-movies where the whole story is wrapped up in 20 minutes, but they were a place for filmmakers to learn their craft. Back in the studio system days directors, technicians, and actors would often start out making shorts where they'd work with experienced people, some who were past their prime but still full of knowledge and others who never quite made it to feature films. There was such a demand for shorts that a whole industry developed with many smaller studios focusing on cranking out enough product to meet demand. Some of these, like Disney, even went on to make features themselves.
Of these independent production companies, one of the most famous, as well as most successful, was The Hal Roach Studios. Starting in the early days of silent film, Roach made comedies and they did it well. They introduced the world to Laurel and Hardy, the Our Gang Comedies, and were home (at one time or another) to such luminary talents as Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, and Charlie Chase. One of the things that made Roach so successful was his constant search for new talent that he could groom into a solo act or part of a team. Edition Filmmuseum has just released a wonderful two-disc collection of Hal Roach shorts, aptly entitled Female Comedy Teams. This set features 13 shorts, each staring a pair of women comedians. While none of the pairings reached the heights of Roaches most famous teams, these shorts are never the less funny, entertaining, and well worth watching.
The first pair of shorts are silent films, my favorites in the set. Feed 'Em and Weep (pieced together from a few incomplete copies. It's still not whole, but the missing sequences don't ruin the effect of the film) and A Pair of Tights. These both stared Anita Garvin and Marion Byron, and are hilarious. Byron stole every scene she was in, and I'm astounded that she didn't make a bigger splash in the movie business. The diminutive comedienne (she was 5' tall) looks like a female Harry Langdon and has impeccable timing. It's a shame that after she left Roach her career petered out.
The Garvin and Byron films were obviously inspired by
A Pair of Tights is also a great film, but they've strayed from the dumb and dumber formula of Laurel and Hardy in this short. Byron's boyfriend is bringing his boss over to meet Garvin. The men at really cheap however (the 'tights' from the title) and are hoping to spend some time with the women without having to spend anything. They're women have different ideas and convince them to go out for dinner, and on the way they stop for ice cream at
Next we advance (though some would say devolve) to the early sound era and another female duo, this time Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts (the latter's first name is pronounced "Say Zoo" according to the actress herself.) This was a great pairing, with the gorgeous Todd playing nicely off of Pitts' confused, scatterbrained persona. Pitts gets most of the laughs but she needs Thelma's calm, Mary Tyler Moore-like "I'm going to make it" attitude to do it.
One of the best shorts in this series is Show Business, where Todd and Pitts have a vaudeville act involving a trained monkey. They get a call from their agent at the last minute to replace an act in a touring show and have to pack in a hurry and get to the train station. Once there they run into the star of the revue, Anita Garvin playing herself in a hilarious over-the-top performance as a spoiled star, something she probably had a lot of real life examples to draw from. Once on the train, the pair continue to get in the star's way, and when their monkey escapes, things just get worse.
Thelma Todd is still gorgeous and still plucky, and Patsy Kelly's tough-talking, wise-cracking, but not too smart character is funny, but the two don't mix quite as well at the other pairings in this set. One good example of this is in the funny short Beauty and the Bus. In this adventure the girls win a brand new car in a raffle, but get into a minor scrape when Thelma bumps the car in front of her at a stop light. The mild-mannered owner of the car they hit indignantly asks for their contact information since they've so grievously wrecked his car. While Thelma tries to calm the man and convince him that his car isn't really damaged, Patsy goes ahead and damages it for him, ripping off a fender. This is followed by a classic 'escalating violence' routine, the type that Laurel and Hardy made famous in Big Business (possibly the funniest short ever committed to film). The big difference however is that Thelma doesn't enter into the mayhem. She spends her time pleading with Patsy to stop her destruction and bemoaning the damage that's being done to her newly won car. Viewers really have to suspend their disbelief for comedy shorts like this one, and that's harder when Todd is behaving like a rational person rather than diving right in and enjoying the chaos. The destruction is still funny, and there are a lot of laughs in this short, but with a few tweaks it could have worked better.
Things work better in Babes in the Goods. Here Todd and Kelly are working in a department store and they're asked to stay late and demonstrate a new dish washer in a window display "as long as you have an audience." When a drunk take a shine to the pair of girls in the window, he stays long after everyone else has departed, causing the women to get locked into the display window overnight.
This set contains the following films:
Feed 'em and Weep - 1928 - Directed by: Fred L. Guiol
A Pair of Tights - 1929 - Directed by: Hal Yates
The Pajama Party - 1931 - Directed by: Hal Roach
On the Loose - 1931 - Directed by: Hal Roach
Show Business - 1932 - Directed by: Jules White
Asleep in the Feet - 1933 - Directed by: Gus Meins
The Bargain of the Century - 1933 - Directed by: Charley Chase
Beauty and the Bus - 1933 - Directed by: Gus Meins
Babes in the Goods - 1934 - Directed by: Gus Meins
Maid in Hollywood - 1934 - Directed by: Gus Meins
The Misses Stooge - 1935 - Directed by: James Parrott
Top Flat - 1935 - Directed by: William Terhune, Jack Jevne
This two-disc set is imported from
The two channel mono soundtrack has been cleaned up and sounds very good for films this old. There is some background noise but it's at an appropriate level and doesn't distract. The dialog is clean and easy to make out.
These restored shorts have never looked better. They really did a great job on them. The contrast is good, the picture is sharp and common video defect such as blooming or washed out images aren't present at all. A wonderful looking collection.
The only video extra is a five minute clip from Going Ga-ga, the only Byron/Garvin film not included in this set. In addition to that, there are several DVD-ROM features including original scripts to two of the films, a pair of essays on performers appearing in this set, and three photogalleries.
Taken as a whole, this set is a great addition to any collection of shorts. They range from amusing to outright hilarious, and it's a rare chance to see some talented actresses at work. Highly Recommended.