Warner Brothers, through their direct-to-consumer program The Warner Archives, have been releasing a treasure trove of early sound shorts over the last couple of years. Their latest collection, Vitaphone Varieties Volume Two, is another wonderful collection of vaudeville acts, band performances, and short plays that were used to entertain audiences over 80 years ago.
Like the first volume and the Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy Shorts set, this collection has a great assortment of entertainment. It starts off with a musical short performed by the Hawaiian group the Kalama Quartet. Native Hawaiian music was pretty popular in the in the early part of the 20th century and this short sought to capitalize on both the music and the appeal of having scantily clad women dancing around. While the group itself look like they come from the South Pacific, most of the dancing girls look like they came from a chorus line.
Viewers will find several novelty acts in this set, and we can be thankful that their performances were recorded for posterity. A written description of Chaz Chase "The Unique Comedian" can't do him justice. Chaz' act basically consisted of eating things you wouldn't think people could ingest: a lit cigar, a ukulele, a bottle cap, etc. You really have to see it to get the full effect. There's also a musical short featuring Harry Wayman and His Debutantes; their gimmick was that the band that totally consisted of women.
There are a couple of other unique musical acts that are fun to watch. Banjoland features a pair of banjo player playing duets, and there's also a film featuring Guido Deiro, "The World's Foremost Piano-Accordionist." While he was accomplished when it comes to playing a squeeze box, he's best remembered as Mae West's first husband. Who said accordions aren't sexy??
Joseph E. Howard had an act that was a little bit different from the rest. He sings several popular (at the time) songs, but the main attraction is that he wrote them. A fixture on Tin Pan Alley, Howard's act basically consisted of singing snippets from songs and tying them together with "and then I wrote this melody..."
One of my favorite shorts showcasing a group was Harlemania featuring the Norman Thomas Quintette. They are in impressive black act that play some fast, hot jazz, but the drummer steals the show. He sure is an energetic showman, beating on his drums while dancing around them and then taps out a beat on the floor while sliding under a grand piano. Fun stuff.
One of the best parts of watching these shorts is seeing some famous people very early in their careers. A very young Joe E. Brown is featured in one of the funnier shorts, and Fred Allen, who would become famous through his radio show (and the long running (staged) feud his show had with Jack Benny's) stars in Prize Playlets, a humorous film where Allen tries to get a Broadway producer interested in one of his many plays, all of the horrible. Fred Allen also co-wrote Faint Heart a short staring Bert Lahr who most people remember as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.
Another star who would hit the big time via a radio is ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his puppet Charlie McCarthy. (Am I the only one who finds it odd that a ventriloquist had a popular radio show? How do you know if his are moving??)
Silent movie star Blanche Sweet appears in the filmed mini-play Always Faithful (one of her three talking films) along with WB stock actor John Litel. Sweet's husband is an executive with a coal company and he has to travel to a mine and get some striking miners back to work, and it's interesting to see the way that unionized strikers were portrayed. When Blanche tells her husband to be careful he reminds her that he's taking a gun and that he'd "just as soon shoot one of those hyenas as light a cigarette."
That's only scratching the surface. There's something interesting and entertaining, either the short itself of the people who appear in them, in just about every offering in this set. It's a great collection and well worth searching out.
The shorts included are:
1) Hawaiian Nights (1927)
2) Waring's Pennsylvanians, "The Famous Collegiate Orchestra" (1927)
3) Joe E. Brown in "Twinkle, Twinkle" (1927)
4) The Happiness Boys, Billy Jones And Ernie Hare 1927)
5) Phil Ohman And Victor Arden, The Piano Duettists (1927)
6) Harry Wayman And His Debutantes (1927)
7) Earl Burtnett And His Biltmore Hotel Orchestra (1928)
8) Abe Lyman And His Orchestra, The Maestro Of Syncopated Symphony (1927)
9) Eddie Peabody in 'Banjoland' (1928)
10) Joseph E. Howard, America's Popular Composer (1928)
11) Chaz Chase, The Unique Comedian (1928)
12) Roy Fox And His Montmarte Café Orchestra (1928)
13) Guido Deiro, The World's Foremost Piano-Accordionist (1928)
14) Norman Thomas Quintette in 'Harlemania' (1929
15) Blanche Sweet in 'Always Faithful' (1929)
16) Gregory Ratoff in 'For
17) Ann Butler And Jay Brennan in 'You Don't Know The Half of It' (1929)
1) Georgie Price in 'Don't Get Nervous' (1929)
2) Kraft And Lamont in 'Rarin' To Go' (1929)
3) Grace Johnston And The Indiana Five (1929)
4) Fred Allen's Prize Playlets (1929)
5) Bert Lahr in 'Faint Heart' (1929)
6) 'The Operation' With Edgar Bergen And Charlie Mccarthy (1929)
7) Jack Osterman in 'Talking It Over' (1929)
8) Lou Holtz in 'Idle Chatter' (1929)
9) Scott Sanders in 'Scotch Taffy' (1929)
10) The Poor Fish (1930)
11) Shaw And Lee in 'Going Places' (1930)
12) Trixie Friganza in 'Strong And Willing' (1930)
13) The Yacht Club Boys in 'A Private Engagement' (1930)
14) Josephine Harmon in 'Harmonizing Songs' (1930)
15) Pat O'brien in 'Crimes Square' (1930)
16) Edgar Bergen in 'The Office Scandal' (1931)
17) Helen Morgan in 'The Gigolo Racket' (1931)
18) Jack Haley in 'Success' (1931)
This set contains 35 shorts on two 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 very good. 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, but it's never distracting. The contrast is excellent and the level of detail is surprisingly strong. There are a couple of shorts that have very short (less than a minute) sections that are missing due to film decomposition. In those cases an appropriate still is put on the screen while the audio continues to play. Aside from those brief scenes these are some great looking movies.
This set represents the 11th and 12th DVD of Vitaphone shorts I've watched in a little over a week, and I'm sad that I don't have more to dig through. These are fun, interesting, and offer a wonderful look back at what entertainment was like a couple of generations ago. This collection works both as a historical document and as an enjoyable way to spend some time. Another DVDTalk Collector's Series title.