video review by
Gary Johnson

 
Paramount Comedy Shorts

 

[click on photos
for larger versions]

Video company
Web site:
KINO ON VIDEO

Before television sets occupied prime territory in virtually every living room in America, families frequently turned to the movie theaters for an entire evening of entertainment. They didn't go expecting to see only a single movie, as is usual today. They typically saw double features, an A feature (90 minutes or longer) backed by a modestly-budgeted B movie (50 to 80 minutes in length). In addition, the audience was usually treated to cartoons and one or more shorts (as well as newreels and maybe even a serial episode).

While cartoons from the '30s and '40s are still relatively well-known (Popeye, Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry, etc.), short features have become largely invisible. Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics occasionally fill out their schedules with shorts, but in these cases shorts are simply time fillers

One purpose of this new series from Kino On Video is to help rectify this oversight and help people re-experience some of the classic Paramount shorts. In 1997, Kino released their "Hollywood Rhythm" series, which focused on Paramount's musical shorts. Now, Kino opens the vaults for Paramount's comedy shorts. Focusing on the years 1928-1941, this new trio of videos contains many pleasant surprises, as well as a few let downs.

The Robert Benchley video (called "Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin") is one of the most eagerly anticipated of this series. From the late '20s through the early '40s, Benchley created some of the funniest one-reel comedies to come out of Hollywood. In 1936, he even won an Academy Award for his "How to Sleep" short (not included on this video). Benchley's career in Hollywood began in 1928 when Fox Films filmed his filmed his "The Treasurer's Report." Taking the form of an impromptu lecture by an ill-prepared club treasurer, "The Treasurer's Report" shows Benchley reading a dry financial statement--with hilarious results. Most of Benchley's subsequent comedies took the same form. In "The Sex Life of a Polyp," Benchley plays an incompetent lecturer who tells a ladies club about his scientific research, aided by some nonsensical film footage that shows the male polyp glowing brightly to attract the female. Unfortunately, Benchley's best work was at MGM (that's where he filmed "How to Sleep") and of course you won't find any of his MGM work on this video. So we're left with a tantalizing glimpse of his earliest material, and then his mediocre work at Paramount. Kino rounds out this video with so-so comedies by fellow Algonquin table members Donald Ogden Stewart and Alexander Woollcott.

The other two videos in this series, "Cavalcade of Comedy" and "Studio Snapshots," contain several choice comedies as well as a few forgettable ones. The standouts include George Burns and Gracie Allen in "Fit to Be Tied" and "100% Service." In addition, you'll see the original "Sunshine Boys" Smith & Dale in "What Price, Pants?"--an imaginative comedy where a tailor dreams about a world where pants instead of liquor are the main attractions at speakeasies: men walk around the town with their shirt tails hanging out and their boxers in full view until they check into the local speakeasy and then they pull on pants! One of the biggest surprises in this set is a raucous musical comedy called "Poppin' the Cork." While most of the comedies on these two tapes were filmed on the cheap, often involving only a single set, "Poppin' the Cork" is an elaborate short that features a madcap Milton Berle and some low-budget musical numbers reminiscent of Busby Berkeley.

 


"Hollywood on Parade: The Paramount Comedy Shorts, 1928-1941" are now available from Kino on Video. The series consists of three videos: "Cavalcade of Comedy," "Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin," and "Studio Snapshots." Suggested retail price: $24.95 each. For more information, we suggest you check out the Kino On Video Web site: www.kino.com.