When it comes to Hal Roach comedy shorts it’s impossible for me to be objective. It’s not that I think every one of them is great; what I feel is an overall affection for the people in them and the world they inhabit. Kit Parker’s Sprocket Vault has recently released Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Two 1932-33 and Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-33. The print quality overall is superb—better than I’ve ever seen these films look before—but even I have to admit that the laugh quotient is spotty at best.
Charley Chase did his finest work in the silent era, especially when he was working with director Leo McCarey. He got off to a good start in talkies but by the time these 1932-33 shorts went into production it was decided to depict Charley as a simpleton instead of a young man-about-town. It’s hard to root for such a dunce, so even when the Roach team resurrects a great slapstick set-piece from a silent short (All Wet) in Fallen Arches, the results aren’t up to snuff. What’s more, Charley’s best leading lady, Thelma Todd, got busy with her own series and wasn’t available to appear with him after 1932. She brightens every film she’s in, like my all-time favorite The Pip from Pittsburg (1931). The most enjoyable shorts in this collection are the last three, which Chase directed himself using his real name, Charles Parrott. Sherman Said It features some vocalizing, which Charley loved, while Midsummer Mush andLuncheon at Twelve indulge in sheer slapstick. They capture some of the freewheeling quality that’s missing from the other two-reelers in this two-disc set. (As a bonus, Kit Parker has included the four-reel Spanish-language version of Looser Than Loose, in which Charley delivers his phonetically-learned dialogue surprisingly well.)
Hal Roach had already attempted to create a female counterpart to Laurel & Hardy in the late 1920s when he matched slow-burn Anita Garvin and pixieish Marion Byron. Teaming beautiful blonde Thelma Todd, who was already under contract, with the well-established comedienne ZaSu Pitts must have seemed like a natural, but it’s awkward to watch women performing roughhouse slapstick gags. There are bright spots here and there, and one true gem, The Bargain of the Century (directed by Charley Chase), but the best way to describe their work together is “uneven.” They far outshine their material.
And yet, I derive great pleasure from watching Hal Roach comedies even when they don’t hit the bull’s-eye. I enjoy listening to LeRoy Shield’s music scores and their familiar themes. I love the contributions of the often-unbilled supporting and bit players like Charlie Hall, James C. Morton, Harry Bernard, Harry Bowen, Jack Barty, and Baldwin Cooke. Billy Gilbert, who costars in so many of these films, never fails to make me laugh. And I take pleasure in looking at Los Angeles streets and neighborhoods as they appeared in the early 1930s, especially Culver City, where the Roach studio was located. All of this supersedes (or should I say obliterates?) criticism. If you share my fondness for the world that Hal Roach’s team of laugh makers created then you owe it to yourself to add these DVDs to your collection.
At MGM, a publicity executive named Pete Smith became an unexpected screen personality without ever setting foot in front of a camera. With his sing-songy voice, fondness for wordplay and he was the popular narrator and producer of a long-running series of one-reel shorts that lasted more than twenty years. Warner Archive has gathered 75 of the Pete Smith Specialties on a four-disc set labeled Volume One, indicating that there are more to come! These novelty shorts covered a wide range of topics, from sports highlight reels to human interest stories. They served as a proving ground for young directors at the studio like George Sidney, Jacques Tourneur, David Miller, and Gunther von Fritsch, to name just a few. A handful of the shorts were filmed in Technicolor, like Penny Wisdom and featured camera tricks and ultra-slow-motion, like Quicker ‘n a Wink.
In the 1940s, a B-movie actor and would-be cowboy star named Dave O’Brien starred in a series of comedy shorts that emphasized sight-gags and elaborate stunts. Some of the earliest examples are seen here, including Studio Visit and I Love My Husband, BUT. O’Brien also directed these under his real name, David Barclay, and shared writing credits with Joseph Ansen (father of film critic David Ansen) and Parkyakarkus, the radio comedian whose real name was Harry Einstein (father of Albert Brooks and Bob “Super Dave” Einstein). No doubt we’ll see more of these pratfall-laden comedies in Volume 2.
Smith’s brand of humor is an acquired taste for some people but I’ve always appreciated his individuality and fondness for toying with the English language. He also did a great kindness for me when, at the age of 20, I corresponded with him in preparation for my book The Great Movie Shorts and then agreed to provide me with a foreword. I’m happy to say that a revised edition of the book, now called Selected Short Subjects, is still available through Amazon as an e-book or in paperback via print-on-demand. The e-book has the advantage of a built-in index, using word search, which the physical version lacks.