"This act's a variety 'cause that's just what it's going to be one big surprise after another in fact just one darn thing after another..." from Songs and Impressions featuring Marlow and Jordon
And that's exactly what you get with Vitaphone Varieties (1926-1930), just one big surprise after another. This wonderfully entertaining collection of 60 shorts from the earliest days of sound movies has been released by Warner Brothers through their Warner Archive MOD program, and it's well worth tracking down. There's a little bit of everything in this set, nicely showing what a wide range of entertainment was coming out of
If you've read my review of the Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy Shorts you'll know that I really enjoy early cinema and vaudeville acts, and this collection is packed to the gills with more of that type of entertainment. The best part of working your way through these nearly forgotten treasures is discovering new entertaining acts and performers, and realizing how funny and offbeat a lot of these acts were.
Just about all of these actors came from vaudeville and stepped into the Vitaphone studio for a quick couple of bucks. Little did they realize that over 80 years later, the films that they created would still be in circulation and a valuable archive of what the masses had for entertainment in those years between the wars. I had only heard of a couple of the people featured in these shorts before popping the discs in, so I discovered a lot of great acts.
In general, each act was a mini-variety show: The comics will dance, the musicians goof around, and they all sing. These acts are polished and well timed, honed from years and years on the circuits. Not only are they tight, but when they do mess up it's hard to tell if it was intentional or not. Everyone had flubbed lines before and knew how to recover. For the comics, the patter was surprisingly fast-paced. These rapid-fire jokes don't follow a typical set up/punch line rhythm, either, but one punch line would be a set up for the next, as in this example from Val and Ernie Stanton's funny short Cut Yourself a Piece of Cake where one brother asks the other about his violin playing:
Do you play be ear?
No, I only play by request.
Oh, what a shame, you must be terribly out of practice.
Two of my favorite shorts were done by the team of Born and
In the second Born and
Some of the acts are a bit dated. (Okay, they all are... but some more than others.) The short Dream Café features Jimmy Clemons as a drunk who encounters a couple of women who each dance for him. While the first one is kicking up her heels Jimmy yells "she's got a fly on her knee" several times. That went right over my head and I still don't get it.
Another performer who did a drunk act (you just don't see those anymore... they used to be pretty popular even as late as the 70's with Foster Brooks appearing on a lot of variety shows) is Fred Ardath. In These Dry Days, which was filmed during prohibition, a man and woman come across Ardath soused in the park. At one point the woman informs him that alcohol is unnatural and that other creatures won't drink it.
Woman: Take the jackass. If you give him a bucket of beer and a bucket of water, which will he drink?
Ardath: The water.
Ardath: That's 'cause he's a jackass!
These aren't all vaudeville acts however, as the title proclaims, it's a variety. There are several short plays too, some of which were very good. The Death Ship takes place on board a vessel where a plague has taken most of the crew. Only two men are left, the captain and a mate, and one woman, a passenger. Both men have fallen in love with the girl and the captain decides to kill his rival while they're out at sea where no one will ever be any wiser. It's surprisingly dramatic and engaging.
There are also novelty acts like Charles C. Peterson, "Billiard Champion of Fancy Shots." As he introduces the short he explains that he's going to "entertain you in the scientific art of billiards." He does some pretty impressive shots, but he also misses quite a bit. One shot he attempts three times and then gives up. He retains his cool mostly, lightly saying "This one I usually make on the second try" and such, but at one point it's obvious that he looses his cool and they have to cut the take.
Another great thing about this collection is that some familiar actors turn up. Actor Montague Love (he fought John Barrymore in the famous sword fight at the end of Don Juan) has a short, Character Studies, where he performs several scenes and shows that he has a wide range when it comes to the type of roles that he can play. Silent star Gladys Brockwell gets top billing in Hollywood Bound, but oddly she's just a supporting actor, only really having one scene.
The most surprising person to show up however is the beautiful Ann Howe in The Wild Westerner. You won't recognize her name, and I'm probably the only one who would be excited about her appearance, but she played the maid in Charley Chase's Mighty Like a Moose. It's one of my favorite Chase shorts and I always thought she had a lot of appeal. This is her second and last movie appearance. I have no idea what happened to her, but she dances and crack jokes in this lovely short.
While these are very entertaining, viewers should be warned that they are not PC. There are acts in black face, jokes are made about various minorities, and there are more than a couple of things that modern audiences might find offensive. In She Who Gets Slapped, for example, a hen-pecked husband is told to slap his wife when she gets out of line. You just have to remember that these were filmed over 80 years ago, and it was a different time.
The shorts in this set are:
The Morrisey and Miller Night Club Review
Colin & Glass in "Sharps and Flats"
Earl Burtnett and His Biltmore Hotel Orchestra
Val and Ernie Stanton in "Cut Yourself a Piece Of Cake"
Brown and Whitaker in "A Laugh Or Two"
Jimmy Clemons in "Dream Cafe"
Bert Swor in "A Colorful Sermon"
Gladys Brockwell in "Hollywood Bound"
Jay C. Flippen in "The Ham What Am"
Harry J. Conley in "The Book Worm" mini-play
Dora Maughan With Walter Fehl in "Song Impressions"
Henry B. Walthall in "Retribution"
Dick Rich and His Synco-Symphonists
Montague Love in "Character Studies"
Kjerulf's Mayfair Quintette in "A Musical Melange"
Val Harris with Ann Howe in "The Wild Westerner"
Eddie White in "I Thank You"
Marlowe and Jordan in "Songs and Impressions"
Val and Ernie Stanton in "English as She is Not Spoken"
Jack Waldron in "A Breath Of Broadway"
Florence Brady in "A Cycle Of Songs"
Earl Burtnett and His Biltmore Hotel Orchestra
Mitchell Lewis in "The Death Ship"
al Lyons and His Four Horsemen in "My Musical Melange"
Robert Emmet Keane in "Gossip"
Born and Lawrence in "The Country Gentlemen"
The Rangers in "After The Round-Up"
Arthur Pat West in "Ship ahoy!"
Frank Whitman "That Surprising Fiddler"
Ann Codee and Frank Orth in "A Bird in The Hand"
Bud Harris and Frank Radcliffe in "At The Party"
Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties
Fred Ardath in "These Dry Days"
Jack White With The Montrealers
Dooley and Sales in "Dooley's The Name"
Charles C. Peterson, Billiard Champion Of Fancy
Hobart Cavanaugh,Regina Wallace in "Sympathy"
Mel Klee in "The Prince Of Wails" - black face
Harry Fox and Bee Curtis in "The Bee and The Fox"
Coletta Ryan and Duke Yellman in "Songology"
The Gotham Rhythm Boys
"Poor Aubrey" By George Kelly With Franklin Pangborn,Helen Ferguson,Clara Blandick Andruth Lyons
Billy "Swede" Hall & Company in "Hilda"
"Revival Day" With Slim Timblin
"Niagara Falls" With Bryant Washington and Helen Jerone Eddy
John T. Murray and Vivien Oakland in "Satires"
Jans and Whalen in "Two Good Boys Gone Wrong"
Carlena Diamond: Harpist Supreme
Anderson and Graves in "Fishing around"
"Surprise" With Tom Dugan and Barbara Leonard
"What a Life"
"Pack Up Your Troubles" With Douglas Stanbury and The Lyric Quartet
"She Who Gets Slapped" With Tom Dugan
Betty and Jerry Browne in "Let's Elope!"
Joe Frisco in "The Songplugger"
This set contains 60 shorts on four DVD-Rs. They arrive in a single-width keepcase and each disc has its own page (none of that overlapping DVD crap here).
As with the other Vitaphone shorts I've recently reviewed, the mono audio track to these sounds very good for films of this age. There's a touch of background noise in some shorts, but nothing distracting. The voices are generally clear and it's easy to discern what's being said.
This full frame image is pretty amazing. The quality is generally very high, and I wouldn't consider any of these bad or hard on the eyes. There's some very minor print damage (spots and dirt) here and there, and just one or two have some evidence of film decomposition, but that's it. The contrast is excellent and the level of detail is surprisingly strong. Overall these are some great looking movies.
This is another wonderful set of Vitaphone shorts. Historical, entertaining, and incredibly amusing, there are a lot of great surprises hidden in this collection. A DVDTalk Collector's Series title.