After a long wait, Warner Brothers, through their direct-to-consumer program The Warner Archives, have released the third volume of Vitaphone Varieties. It's been over four years since the second volume was released, and it's great that they are continuing the collection. This single disc (the previous installments were multi-disc collections) contains 16 rare shorts with appearances by performers who are great, not so great, and just weird. It's a fun and entertaining collection that's sure to amuse.
Most of these one-reel shorts feature performers that were recruited from the vaudeville circuits. (One performer didn't even bother to change the patter in his act, and discusses how everyone came out to see a vaudeville show.) At the time these were surely just a quick and easy way to fill out the bill, but it's wonderful that these acts have been preserved since it gives modern viewers a chance to see what type of entertainment could be viewed at a vaudeville show. While none of the people appearing here really made it to the big time, and it's not unfair to say that they've all been forgotten (though some do rank a footnote in the cinematic history books) they're all worth watching.
The shorts included are all musical in nature, but they really run the gamut from classy to absurd and everything in between. In the former category is Kjerulf's Mayfair Quintette: three young ladies who play the harp accompanied by a vocalist and a violinist. Also in the quality column is Cuban-born opera singer Carolina Segrera who appears in a short too singing with Don Alberto & His Argentines.
Then there are the humorous pianists who play songs and tell jokes while clowning around at a keyboard. Herschel Henlere, billed as "The Madcap Musician," is a proto- Victor Borge mixing verbal and slight physical comedy with amusing piano play. One of the best acts in this sub-genre is the team of Clara Barry and Orval Whitledge. He plays while she sings and they both keep the jokes flowing smoothly and with great timing. You can tell that they've done the act literally thousands of times and know exactly how to play it for the best effect. They're also more humorous than the other acts on the disc with some pretty good jokes, even though there is a fair amount of self-deprecating humor. At one point Clara quips "jokes are cheap... and we should buy a few."
I'm drawn to the more unusual acts that show up on these collections and this volume does not disappoint in the 'they really did that on stage for a living' category. It's hard to imagine The Big Paraders performing today. This group consisted of five very obese men and women who sang, danced, and even performed acrobatics while the pianist (also very large) told jokes. It's one of those odd shorts that you won't forget anytime soon.
Another duo that practices an extinct form of entertainment is Edison and Gregory, 'The Two College Nuts.' These men (who look a decade or two past the time when they would have been in college) make music (in the broadest sense of the word) by slowly letting the air out of inflated items. They use a rubber glove, an inner tube, and one of them even played a saw. They jokes weren't as polished and they were definitely a second-tier act. It's clear that they earned their modicum of fame by being a novelty.
One act that I found interesting was Zelda Santley, a musical impersonator. She would impersonate various stars singing including Ted Lewis, Maurice Chevalier, Fanny Brice and... Mae West. The last one is unusual since this short was made in 1929 and West didn't make her screen debut until 1932. The star was in the news in 1927 when the Broadway play she wrote and was staring in, Sex, was raided and West was convicted of "corrupting the morals of youth" but I can't imagine that many people would have heard her sing at that point. An interesting choice for Zelda to mimic.
The shorts included are:
Mayer and Evans, The Cowboy And The Girl
Kjerulf's Mayfair Quintette in "A Musical Melange"
Gilbert Wells "A Breeze From the South"
The Croonaders in "Melodious Moments"
Carolina Segrera, The Cuban Nightingale, with Don Alberto & His Argentines
The Big Paraders
Edison and Gregory, 'The Two College Nuts,' in "Joe College"
Horace Heidt And His Californians
Bobbie Arnst and Peggy Ellis in "Rhythms in Blue"
Molly Picon "The Celebrated Character Comedienne"
Zelda Santley in "Little Miss Everybody"
Summers and Hunt in "Some Pumpkins"
Herschel Henlere "The Madcap Musician"
Al Trahan in "The Musicale"
Clara Barry and Orval Whitledge in "Jest for a While"
Ben Bernie And His Orchestra
This set contains 16 shorts on a single DVD-R. They arrive in a standard. There is no insert.
As with the other Vitaphone shorts that WA has released, the mono audio tracks on 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.
Another interesting and fun set. There is a lot to like here, from quality music, to oddball novelty acts and everything in between. Make sure to check this one out. Highly Recommended.