I can’t hide the fact that I am addicted to short subjects
of the 1930s and ‘40s. I even seek them out on Turner Classic Movies by tuning
in at 20 minutes before the hour, on the chance that one will turn up as filler
between feature films. Now Warner Archive has made my life a bit easier by
collecting 36 MGM one- and two-reelers in a three-disc DVD set called Classic Shorts from the Dream Factory Volume
To be honest, a lot of these films aren’t worthy of the “classic” designation; many are mediocre and some are downright dreadful. But most of them are charmingly odd, and that’s what draws me to them. Have you ever seen a bandstand shaped like a giant waffle iron? You will if you watch Happily Buried (1939), a love story about a man who believes in square waffles and a woman who prefers round ones. (I’m not making this up.) Would you be curious to see a musical in which pairs of shoes talk to one another? Try New Shoes (1936), starring Arthur “Dagwood” Lake, with music and lyrics by the team that later wrote Broadway’s Kismet.
There’s a fascinating sketch called The Rounder (1930) starring a young, sardonic Jack Benny. Gentlemen of Polish (1934) is an intriguing patchwork short featuring vaudeville heroes Shaw and Lee that includes leftover bits from MGM’s Hollywood Party feature.
Your eyes will pop out when you see the lush, over-saturated three-strip Technicolor in Gypsy Night (1935), which also features some stop-motion puppet animation.
The ideas for these miniature musicals and comedies are wide-ranging and often bizarre—like a musical dentist’s office staffed by chorus girls, in Dancing on the Ceiling (1937)—but that’s what keeps me coming back for more. There are even serious topics like the writing of “La Marseillaise,” in Song of Revolt (1937), starring Leon Ames. You never know who’s going to turn up in the cast roster, from up-and-comers like Virginia Grey and Ann Rutherford to such welcome character actors and comedians as Billy Gilbert and Benny Rubin.
The ones worth skipping are a handful of dreary vignettes about classical composers directed by James A. FitzPatrick, the man responsible for MGM’s long-running series of travelogues. Like those globe-trotting shorts, these dramatic presentations are astonishingly inert.
There is one genuinely famous short in the collection: Every Sunday (1936), which served as a joint audition for Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin (who’s even referred to in a throwaway moment as Edna, her real name). And there’s one notable screen credit: Buster Keaton is the director of an undistinguished musical short called Streamlined Swing (1938), made five years after he’d worn out his welcome as a performer at MGM.
Vast as this assortment may be, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. I hope there are more DVD sets on the way. (How about the Historical Mysteries?) In the meantime, check this one out at www.warnerarchive.com.