The Joe McDoakes Collection

I never dreamed this would happen: a six-disc set collecting the entire Joe McDoakes series! (Or perhaps I should say oeuvre.) For the uninitiated, I should explain that these ten-minute shorts, made between 1942 and 1956, were a snappy blend of slapstick and situation comedy featuring George O’Hanlon (later famous as the voice of George Jetson) as an ordinary guy who always wound up “behind the 8-ball.” I first documented the series in my book The Great Movie Shorts, many years ago, and had a devil of a time tracking down prints. They weren’t shown on television, and while some were available in 16mm, finding them was hit-and-miss. I actually traveled to Washington, D.C. to screen some of them on a Steenbeck editing machine. I never knew if I’d have a chance to see some of them again.

Writer-director Richard L. Bare concocted the first entry as a student project at USC, and wound up selling it to Warner Bros. for a…

tidy profit. Then Warners commissioned more and he moved to the Burbank lot for the next decade, turning out these comedies with rare efficiency, often shooting more than one at a time to make optimal use of sets, wardrobe, and supporting casts. (No wonder the studio later tapped him to direct episodes of its first filmed TV shows.)

The humor in the McDoakes series is not what one would call subtle. In fact, they revel in sheer silliness. Many are based on old burlesque routines like “Pay the two dollars” (So You Think You’re Not Guilty) and rely on familiar gags and concepts. But O’Hanlon’s enthusiastic portrayal of an all-American dope, slick production values, Bare’s filmmaking savvy, and the presence of a parade of wonderful character actors and starlets make them fun to watch. In early entries you’ll see Frank (“Yesssss?”) Nelson, Fred Kelsey, Douglas Fowley, Fred Clark and a young Cleo Moore; later on, Fritz Feld, Iris Adrian, Arthur Q. Bryan, and Joi Lansing. Joe’s wife was played first by Warner ingenue Jane Harker, then the pert Phyllis Coates, and finally Jane Frazee, best known as a B-musical leading lady but here demonstrating considerable comedic know-how.

I would not recommend watching all 63 entries in a row, or even in large gulps. Screening these shorts back to back reveals their economies and repetition, which theater audiences wouldn’t have recognized seeing them months apart. And, of course, some entries are better than others. But there are definite gems here, like So You Want to be a Detective, a truly ingenious parody of The Big Sleep and Lady in the Lake, filmed with a first-person camera and making great use of narrator Art Gilmore. So You Want to Want to Be Pretty, So You Want to Play the Piano, and So You Want to Go to a Nightclub are among my other favorites: clever shorts that pack a lot into just ten minutes’ time.

I am thrilled that the Warner Archive Collection is dipping into its vast short-subject library and making these films available at long last. For more information, go to the Warner Archive website. (Warner Archive)

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June 2024