It's astonishing to me that it has taken so long for Felix Feist's 1936's Every Sunday, one of 36 (count 'em 36) MGM shorts, to finally be showcased in a DVD assemblage; after all, isn't anything with Judy Garland attached a guaranteed instant sale for classic home video fans? The fact that this much-beloved short also has the once-only team-up with fellow femme-tyke Deanna Durbin was obviously the no-brainer decision to feature their likenesses as the cover art for CLASSIC SHORTS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY, VOLUME 2 (1929-1946), now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.
While hordes of Judy and musical fans will undoubtedly purchase the above just for that one selection, there's lots more to recommend this admittedly mixed bag of schticks.
To digress a bit, I must say that I'm a huge fan of the Warner Bros. Vitaphone shorts, ca. 1931-1933. They are really unsurpassed when it comes to peppy, raunchy, cut-to-the-chase entertainment. While there's nothing that matches their brashness here – and, indeed, much of the enclosed underlines the studio's post-Code obsession with the routine – there's never anything less than interesting in this celluloid collage. Basically, the one-and-two reelers can be categorized into four sections: Wow!, Cool, WTF!? and Train Wreck.
In defense of MGM, they still represent my favorite shorts outlet by the mere fact that for over a decade they were the distributors of the Hal Roach output. Any studio that released the peak Laurel & Hardys, Our Gang, Charley Chase and, to a lesser extent, the misadventures of Thelma Todd (with ZaSu Pitts, Patsy Kelly, Lyda Roberti), Taxi Boys and The Boyfriends cannot be (no pun) lionized enough. But, let's be fair – they served as Roach's distributor, and, therefore are not covered here either. The talent, however, is another question. Shorts Departments from any studio were training grounds and test cases for rising (and, in some sad cases, falling) stars – both in front of and behind the cameras.
Directors Jacques Tourneur, Fred Zinnemann, George Sidney and Charles Walters all began in the Metro short subject unit, and most are represented here. Ditto composers (some truly godawful, which is part of the wincing fun), cameramen, writers, set designers and editors. While nothing can hold the candle power of Garland (or Durbin), you'll behold embryonic appearances by the likes of Dennis Morgan (still working under his real name, Stanley Morner), Virginia Grey, Arthur Lake, Ann Rutherford and George Murphy. There's mirthful wackiness by some of my all-time comics, including Billy Gilbert and Benny Rubin – the prime entry being an early starring vehicle for Jack Benny. For party poopers of the Ned Sparks variety, there's ample evidence of why many young attractive folks deservedly NEVER made it beyond the ten-twenty minute running times.
Most of the contents of CLASSIC SHORTS are musicals, deemed either Miniature Musical Comedies, Musical Gems or Tabloid Musicals – the difference which soon became so blurred that MGM eventually dropped the individual monikers altogether. The visual quality is generally top-notch, but with a couple looking the worse for wear. The audio is uniformly swell.
Of primary interest for me were the pre-Code titles; while they're only two included, they are both worth mentioning. Copy, from 1929, is a drama that takes place entirely in a newsroom. It features the excellent actor Roscoe Karns as a well-lubed, fast-talking (what else?) reporter getting the skinny on a ship excursion disaster of the General Slocum kind; insult to injury: his wife and kid are on the vessel. It's mostly a showcase for 100% Talking Pictures, and it's pretty engrossing. Highlight: calling a deli for refreshments brings forth a misinterpretation of “...news, NOT Jews!”
1930's The Rounder is the aforementioned Jack Benny comedy, filmed not long after the comic's appearance as the M.C. in 1929's Hollywood Revue. While he doesn't quite have his character down yet, he does have the timing (it's the difference he would soon brilliantly learn between snidely being all that as opposed to simply thinking you're all that). He impersonates a male escort out to snare Dorothy Sebastian. Along the way, he insults dumb cop George K. Arthur and maid Polly Moran. When vulnerable Sebastian reveals that her face is an open book, Benny snaps “Well, close it.” When she wonders if his feelings are that of true love or just reflect his agreed-to lavish rates, Jack quips, “How can I HELP but love you at those wages?!” Yeah, it's prehistoric, but a must-have for any Benny buff.
1934's Gentlemen of Polish offers the double-take of Dewey Robinson as an aristocratic butler and a Jurassic glimpse of Walter Brennan; the surreal ending is a tick shy of Tod Browning.
The bizarrely strange Gypsy Night (1935), directed by Harold Hecht, is a Technicolor nightmare wherein frightening toys in a creepy perv's caravan come to singing-and-dancing life. Being a sucker for early color (two and three strip), I watched the whole thing with lip-biting terror. The photography is aces (Ray Rennahan, William Skall), and the music is by no less than Harold Adamson and Burton Lane.
More 1935 Technicolor is on view in Memories and Melodies and Two Hearts in Waxtime, written and directed with jaw-dropping rigor mortis by James FitzPatrick. FitzPatrick, best known for his TravelTalk series (which, in their own right, were unintentionally funny), was still feeling his way during this period. While he should be applauded for his support of the Technicolor process (again photographed by Rennahan with Skall assisting on the latter), he is easily the worst director of live action ever tricked out by Metro. His uninspired staging defines stodgy, appended by atrocious acting and editing that represented the gold standard for “asleep at the wheel.” The writing conjures up the bad ol’ days of transition-to-sound. Memories is a mini-bio of Stephen Foster, so embarrassingly mawkish that you might want to have an airsick bag handy. An excuse for lackluster renditions of Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Home and other KKK favorites, this freakish display is best screened only for non-discriminating viewers who revel in the antics of El Brendel and Old Mother Riley. Waxtime is no better, being a musical about a drunk on the D.T.s. As a janitor in a dummy factory (how apt), the pic's unpleasant protagonist spouts such witty comic nuggets as “How'd ya like to have someone jerk your arm off?” That's the highpoint, folks – ultimately causing the villainous dummies (Fu Manchu, Bluebeard, Frankenstein's monster) come to life. Regretfully, they don't kill him...or FitzPatrick. This pair is tantamount to Citizen Kane compared to a later FitzPatrick travesty, Mendelssohn's Wedding March (1939, also in Technicolor) – the longest one-reeler in cinema history and, hands down, the most unbearable short in this collection.
Violets in Spring (1936), directed by Kurt “The Fly” Neumann, is a lofty George Murphy-Virginia Grey romp, paying homage to Astaire-Rogers, Love Me Tonight and apparently even Metropolis. George Bassman music celebrates the psychology of love and romance with welcome appearances by Leonid Kinskey and, as a flustered professor, Billy Gilbert.
Sammy Lee's New Shoes (1936) is like a David Lynch Puppetoon. A movie where footwear is as horny as their human counterparts, this toe-tapper has Arthur Lake competing with a disturbing array of singing and dancing leather – dare I say sole music. Featuring lyrics like “Hold your tongue, you heel,” “I'll give it the boot,” and “I stumbled on our love” likely will have viewers deciding if they prefer to sit it out or walk on by.
Georgie Stoll and his Orchestra let 'er rip in Swing Banditry (1936), directed by Reginald LeBorg. It's a gangster musical where the pugs and thugs are actually swing-copators, and given a much-appreciated boost by Franklin Pangborn as a harried radio announcer.
The ludicrous No Place Like Rome (1936), directed by LeBorg, is a merry anachronistic satire on the ancient city a la Roman Scandals and The Boys from Syracuse. Starring Frank Albertson and Suzanne Kaaren with Billy Gilbert and Fred Kelsey, this Bassman-arranged musical spoofs The March of Time and contains some rather risque (especially for post-Code) references and one-liners regarding soiled togas, women's bath houses and virility. Besides, how can you go wrong with a dastardly scoundrel named Draculous Delirious?
Annie Laurie (1936), costarring Dennis Morgan and Ann Rutherford, is the perfect appetizer for those contemplating suicide. An incredibly depressing account of the title character's immortalization in verse, this short could be the biggest downer to the musical genre until the emergence of Baz Luhrmann.
“Marriage is okay, but not for people” is the credo championed in A Girl's Best Friend (1936), a pervy LeBorg opus that charts the unappealing romance of hurl-friendly leads Mary Doran and John Wharburton. It's about a lady reporter stalking a male skank playboy. Later B-movie meisters Val Burton and Will Jason concocted the story and wrote the music, while Stanley Rauh and Richard Goldstone are guilty of the script. In a forerunner of underhanded sexting, the lead creep records his liaisons on his trusty dictaphone. Sheila Terry and Clarence Kolb offer welcome sights, but that ain't enough. “Where there's smoke, there's fire” shrieks one of the lyrics. Not really.
Dancing on the Ceiling suggests an iconic visual of the Fred Astaire kind, but, alas, no. It's all about a lady dentist who only treats male patients. The title comes from a gas-induced fantasy wherein the doc's all-girl bare-legged assistants (and band members) gives the quivering guys the once-over, drilling them mercilessly. Trust me, it sounds a lot better than it is, as the nice production values can't overcome the lousy direction and acting – nor lyrics like “Climbing the stair, Some gay boy...Seemed to get in my hair...” This and Gershwin's death did not bode well for 1937.
Bars and Stripes (1937) features music by David Snell and charts the efforts of a dubiously talented band to get arrested so that they can appear on a prison radio broadcast. The denouement expressed in the narrative of “Less swing than a rusty gate” sings volumes.
Messrs. Lee, Snell, Burton, Jason, Rauh and Goldstone are return offenders for Some Time Soon (1937), an ersatz low-rent Lubitsch groaner about a dethroned prince working in a Brooklyn razor blade factory. “None of us is inflammable” is the best line, and let's leave it at that.
Calling Little Maestro (1937) unwatchable is an upgrade. It's about a pint-sized vagrant mistaken for a virtuoso, and thus fed by the staff of a ritzy nightclub...and, and...(YAWN). The one saving grace is that the drunken schtick by the head waiter seems to be genuine. Perfectly understandable.
The title Song of Revolt (1937) unquestionably works best when applied to the audience impatiently waiting for the main feature to commence. An early effort by Roy Rowland, this clarion call to rally the troops in 1792 Strasbourg (you've already lost me) is made palatable only by the unintentional hilarity of Leon Ames trying to match the badly chosen vocalizing of the unfortunate selected by Metro's music department to dub him. That and the fact that the Baron looks like Canada's political buffoon du jour Rob Ford. In spite of impressive stock footage from 1935's A Tale of Two Cities, this Revolt is...revolting.
Carnival in Paris (1937) offers the bizarre romantic pairing of Ann Rutherford and Henry Brandon (as Chaplinesque gamin waif and museum janitor). Directed with panache by William Thiele, the major appeal of this short is the stunning photography by John Seitz...even though the climactic title sequence looks like a Von Sternberg soiree in a brothel. Or perhaps because of that!
1938's The Canary Comes Across is yet another example of MGM's apparent rabid fascination with prison musicals. Another radio broadcast, a convict glee club...reasons enough for solitary confinement. Suffice to say, leads Virginia Grey and Erik Rhodes do the best they can, but viewers'll still be hollerin' for parole...or lethal injection.
Snow Gets in Your Eyes (1938), directed by Will Jason, unfurls against the ridiculous backdrop of a department store indoor ski jump (which I was shocked to discover was an actuality). There are some funny one-liners (about Jack Benny) and a truly wonderful interlude performed by a Harlem group (Hi-De-Yodel). Virginia Grey is again the star lead, with horrific support from Charles Judels and a certain Hudson Shotwell (a porno name if ever I heard one).
1938's The Magician's Daughter has reporter Frank Albertson concurrently romancing Eleanor Lynn while attempting to expose her prestidigitator pater Maurice Cass. Not wise. It's swiftly paced by Felix Feist and offers numerous trick SFX highlights, plus the show-stealing appearance of Tommy “Butch” Bond as Lynn's kid brother and ventriloquist prodigy.
“Boycott the Babes!” is the ridiculous decree issued forth by a co-ed college's astronomy frat glee club in It's in the Stars (1938). Fortunately hormones intercede, helped by a plethora of slang lyrics offering up “Not in the groove!,” “No oomph,” and “Beat it out.” Highpoint is an all-out observatory snogging fest, captured and televised on a big screen for all to enjoy with heavy bated breath. Headed by Johnny Downs and Eleanor Lynn and directed (from his idea) by David Miller, Stars' script is by Robert Lees and Fredric Rinaldo, who would soon churn out box-office gold via their screenplays for the early Abbott & Costello Universal classics.
Streamlined Swing (1938) is perhaps the most fascinating entry in this collection, as it's a rapid-paced musical directed by Buster Keaton. The surreal plot has a railroad's contingent of African-American porters absconding with no less than an observation car – which they turn into a land-locked eatery. The insanity of it all (the only white character who “gets it” turns out to be certifiably crazy) is pounded home by the lightning cutting and cartoon scenario. It's so disjointed and mind-boggling that one can only conclude (especially by its one-reel length) that Swing remains yet another example of a project yanked away from the comic genius and tampered with by a bunch of old white suits who likewise didn't get it.
1938's Men of Steel (directed by Sammy Lee with a screenplay by Stanley Rauh and music by David Snell) attempts to comically show the romantic and industrial complications a la management vs. labor inside the Honey Foam washing machine company. “Keeping America Clean” is the motto of the day, and the songs and lyrics by Bob Wright and Chet Forrest more than gently slip in a few anti-union asides (the pro-labor company honchos refer to each other as “comrades”). The outcome is a no-brainer, but for those who need a clue, allow me to paraphrase the riddle, “What's black and white and Red all over?”
Once Over Lightly, another 1938 mini-song fest, is a delight from start to finish. It's a razz on the even-then already clichéd college musical – 'ceptin' instead of an Ivy League center of academia, the two-reeler takes place at a barber's school (Clipton College to be exact). Ostensibly, the picture stars Johnny Downs and Dixie Dunbar, but is stolen by Billy Gilbert (who also cowrote the short with Mort Greene and Julian Jochfelder) as Dunbar's befuddled pop and even more befuddled head prof. The finale on the gridiron is an exciting shave-off...and is as funny as it is goofy. The wacky songs (featuring a moonlight manicure number) are by Greene and director Will Jason. There's even a Curly Howard homage – and a terrific sequence wherein Gilbert gets to do his classic sneeze routine.
A Dream of Love (1939) is an apt title, as it's another snooze-fest written and directed by James FitzPatrick. It purports to chronicle an affair of the heart in the life of Franz Liszt; sans Ken Russell or the participation of the composer's real-life paramour Marie Duplessis…why bother? Minus even the swatches of FitzPatrick's use of Technicolor, this monochrome dead weight cinematically defines the term “dull as dishwater.”
1939's Somewhat Secret relates the stolid anti-Swing policy of the Dimsdale School for Girls. But babes gotta get in the groove, so they sneakily plot to attend a nearby jitterbug rally. The real secret is that their bearded staid Professor Barnes is a former syncopator whose determined-to-reunite band members include Benny Rubin. Even the institution's frigid headmistress melts under the influence of the music's “barbaric rhythms,” so who am I to carp? Sammy Lee directed, David Snell provided the score and Greene and Hochfelder wrote the script (from a story by Richard English). Greene also cowrote the scatty tunes.
Happily Buried (1939) may be the most bizarre christened titles, and doesn't skimp with delivering the goods. It's another industrial opus, with the Romeo and Juliet rivalry between two waffle iron firms. The hero actually does get entombed as part of a stunt to heat up his outfit's not so hot sales. Felix Feist swiftly paces the scenario (by Feist, Richard Goldstone and Jack Woodford). Snell did the score, and Bob Wright and Chet Forrest penned the ditties. The supporting cast is worth noting, with Benny Rubin as a Hindu mystic who helps the male lead go all David Blaine, plus Mary Treen as a secretary and a bit by Tommy Bond. There's even a World's Fair finale – a sure-fire come-on for any movie fan in 1939.
Rhumba Rhythm (1939) is the first of a series of comedies featuring Mary Treen and Sally Payne as two nitwit movie fans determined to annoy and irritate Hollywood stars into giving up their autographs. By snatching silent clips of MGM luminaries at actual events, director Sammy Lee wisely realized that he could incorporate their names into the one-sheets. You know, “Oh look, there's Clark Gable!” Eventually the ladies do interact with “stars,” but never of the Rhett Butler kind. In this modest initial installment, Treen and Payne offend the likes of George Murphy, Chester Morris, Arthur Lake, John Carroll, Frank Alberston, James Dunn, Arlene Whalen, June Lang and some starlet named Lana Turner. Can't deny chuckling at any act called the Dancing Theodores or Eduardo Chavez and his Conga Orchestra. And is it my imagination or does Payne have an Amy Poehler thing going on?
Back in their salad days, Abbott & Costello got booed off the stage when paying customers discovered that the duo were not The Merriel Abbott Dancers. No foolin'! Anyways, you can see what all the excitement was all about in Love on Tap, a 1939 comedy featuring the fetching all-girl hoofers (that's “hoofers!”). Directed by George Sidney, this thinly disguised peep show has the see-through gowned goils ruining the romance of their manager and her frustrated boyfriend (Mary Howard and Truman Bradley) with their constant upsets and problems. That their demands are nebulous whiny complaints that any three-year-old could solve doesn't speak well for the females' I.Q. They do make up for it via their fancy stepping, but, frankly I'll take “Who's on First?” any day.
Heavenly Days, from 1943, is kinda like a precursor A Matter of Life and Death for the bubblegum set. Directed by Josef Berne (from a story by Reginald Le Borg), the Edward James-Paul Gerard Smith-Michael L. Simmons script has recently deceased Brooklyn band leader Fred Brady trying to crash the Pearly Gates. The world's greatest composers are his jury, and they hate him (Brahms doesn't understand boogie-woogie). Brady, through some slick-talking jive and adaptation of styles changes their minds – and soon all the long-hairs are beatin' their daddies eight to the bar. There are a number of genuinely witty lines – the best being one by Tchaikovsky, wringing his hands eagerly as he snarls “Let me know when Freddy Martin gets here!” The great Eric Blore plays the Head of Admissions and Our Gang's Buckwheat appears as Gabriel...so you're really not going to lose. It's also beautifully shot by Robert Surtees.
1943's Ode to Victory is a hodge-podge dedicated to America's Fighting Forces. Written by Polly James (from a story by Edward L. Cahn, who also directed), Ode's title dirge was especially penned by Nat Shilkret and Patricia Johnston. It's fairly cheaply made, utilizing newsreel clips and bits from MGM historical dramas including The Big Parade, Of Human Hearts and Northwest Passage. The sergeant/conductor of the military band seems to be actor Glenn Anders, the slimy parasite from Welles' Lady from Shanghai, which makes it all interesting, to say the least.
Jan Clayton stars in Spreadin' the Jam, a 1945 hep-cat musical that recounts that long-ago-and-far-away good neighbor policy, known as The Rent Party. It's the grooviest apartment building in town, populated by swing musicians, singers and dancers. As they congregate to help out their local damsel in distress, we culture hounds become privy to a barrage of swing 1940s slang vernacular. That the dwelling's prehistoric landlady (Helen Boise) is loosened up enough to cut a rug (revealing she was really something in 1906) is a perk finale in this silly but entertaining effort – the first directorial credit for Charles Walters (who also cowrote the script and title song with Ralph Blane and Earl Brent). It's also possibly comedian Ben Lessy's finest moment in cinema!
The proceedings end on a sour note with 1946's Musical Masterpieces, a groaning inept exercise in visual interpretation of classical pieces. The non-charismatic presence of Carlos Ramirez and Lucille Norman don't help their uninspired warblings of Flight of the Bumblebee, Donkey Serenade, Tales of the Vienna Woods and Song of Love (for a superior comparison, go with the Bob Clampett cartoon A Corny Concerto). A small child who appears with them displays disturbing signs of trauma – looking first terrified, then understandably insane. The lousy direction by Merrill Pye is so beyond routine that I thought it another FitzPatrick effort (I truly believe that they sent him all over the world just to keep him off the MGM lot). But of course the beauty of DVD is the ability to pick and choose...and eject.
CLASSIC SHORTS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY, VOLUME 2 (1929-1936). Black and White/Color. Full frame [1.37:1]. Mono audio. UPC # 883316897126; CAT # 12933899. SRP: $40.99.
Available exclusively through The Warner Archive Collection [www.warnerarchive.com].