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The Lion Roars—For Short Subjects

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
January 8, 2014 12:00 AM
11 Comments
  • |
Classic Shorts-Dream Factory-Vol 2-300

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 2 (1929-1946).

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.

The giant waffle-iron stage in "Happily Buried" (1939)
The giant waffle-iron stage in "Happily Buried" (1939)

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.

Animated puppets come to life in "Gypsy Night" (1935)
Animated puppets come to life in "Gypsy Night" (1935)

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.     

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11 Comments

  • SHAYNES | January 11, 2014 11:06 AMReply

    One of the DVD collections of shorts I'd like to have is the complete run of PASSING PARADE titles!

  • DBenson | January 10, 2014 2:51 AMReply

    Overall, not quite as good as the earlier collections -- especially the Vitaphone set with the lunatic Technicolor mini-movies -- but still a lot of fun. They're quite a contrast from comedy shorts built around star comics, often packing a B feature plot into two reels or even one.

    "Once Over Lightly" is the pick of the litter, a consistently clever sendup of college musicals set at a barber college. AND it has Billy Gilbert.

    I'm definitely hoping for a lot more shorts.

  • evan jeffrey williams | January 8, 2014 9:07 PMReply

    Yes the Fitzpatrick Travel shorts were "inert" but visually valuable especially for the pre-war color footage that preserved a record of counties, culture and events that were soon to be destroyed.

  • JLewis | January 9, 2014 11:52 AM

    You two nailed the Traveltalks. They are absolutely gorgeous if a bit "sleepwalking" in their narration. That organ music used post-war on some of the British reels was a huge mistake. However, where else can you see Holland and Switzerland in spectacular 3-color Technicolor as early as 1934? The very thought of lugging large cameras overseas... including an increasingly militaristic Japan must have been a challenge.

    Unfortunately, TCM shows them too frequently and the Warner shorts all too sparingly, probably because not enough have them have been dusted off from their vaults. The WBs of the thirties with E.M. Newman producing are a step-down visually using the cheaper color systems during the second half of the decade, but they have plenty of lively critter shots and better-than-average commentary. (That is, the very few that I've seen.) By the forties and fifties, Warner clearly aped the competition with those wonderfully slushy orchestrations (as loud as the feature films) and top-notch narrators like Marvin Miller and Art Gilmore. It seems like the Warners wanted to keep the audience as alert and awake as possible before the main feature. In addition, their live-action shorts played along with Bugs Bunny, so they did have to be a bit "zesty".

  • John | January 8, 2014 11:40 PM

    Worst thing about the Fitzpatrick Traveltalks is the irritating voice of Mr. Fitzpatrick! A professional narrator would have improved them greatly. In the pre television era they must have been an invaluable source for many actual and wannabe world travelers. Many of them were beautifully photographed by first rate studio cameramen including future John Ford favorite Winton Hoch. I'd welcome a multi-disc box set from the Warner Archive but with most likely would only view one or two at a time. I do look for them on TCM though!

  • mike schlesinger | January 8, 2014 7:02 PMReply

    Fine overview, as always. BTW, I believe--though I'm not 100% sure--that the Shaw & Lee short was never actually released. Apparently no one even knew it existed until it turned up by accident during a search at (I think) the Library of Congress. Gives me hope for CONVENTION CITY!

  • JLewis | January 8, 2014 6:59 PMReply

    I was waiting a bit for it to go on sale, but I may give in anyway. Just hope they don't put out the "Historical Mysteries" as you suggested... and John Nesbitt (which can easily be combined with them)... TOO soon on DVD, after I've already splurged on this one.

    My ultimate dream is to see some of the rarely seen Warner travelogues you once bragged about in your Selected Short Subjects book (maybe some Andre de la Varre stuff in CinemaScope and such curious titles like JUNGLE TERROR) as well more of the Robert Youngson compilation reels. A few of the latter have trickled onto Warner DVDs as "extras", such as the excellent SPILLS AND CHILLS.

  • Jody Morgan | January 8, 2014 6:09 PMReply

    I'm addicted to the shorts as well, for the same reasons: even the ones that aren't good are, at the least, interesting time capsules. In fact, I check the "weekly" tab at the TCM website's Full Schedule page (add /schedule/ to the .com address, then click "weekly") every day or two, just to try to catch which shorts will be broadcast when over the next few days.

  • Norm | January 8, 2014 5:24 PMReply

    To paraphrase JN, "Where does LM get all them wonderful toys/ideas ?" The historical values of even the lesser short subjects are priceless if only for what they say about those times, what is entertainment and what passes for it. Nothing like having a debate about waffles, where was Jonathan Swift when you need him. I can only imagine Judy Garland hearing the Directors instructions, "You need to project more." Deanna(Edna) Durbin, gone but not forgotten...
    Leon Ames film quote," I should have taken better care of my teeth..."

  • jupiter | January 8, 2014 11:03 AMReply

    I'll remind everyone that the classic Warners "Night at the Movies" DVDs come with shorts, cartoons, and newsreels - often related to the feature film. I always get excited to pick up a Warners movie from the library.

  • Shruti Mehrotra | January 8, 2014 12:29 AMReply

    Nice

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