Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ The Vitaphone Comedy Collection: Volume Two: Shemp Howard (1933-1937)

Frank at his wedding

This week's Warner Archive Wednesday is a little different. We have a guest blogger in the form of my good friend Frank! He's a co-worker and a good friend. I love chatting with him about classic film and anything related to pop culture. I'm very honored that he was willing to do a guest post for me for Warner Archive Wednesday. In this post he tackles The Vitaphone Comedy Collection: Volume Two: Shemp Howard (1933-1937) from Warner Archive and does a fine job indeed. I hope to have more guest posts from in the future! Enjoy.

Thanks to Raquel I jumped at the chance to view and review this Vitaphone Comedy Collection Volume 2 with the big picture of Shemp on the cover. Twenty-one shorts totaling seven hours and one minute!

One of fun aspects of watching “classic movies” is spotting character actors as they appear in minor roles. Shemp Howard is one of those actors who provides me with enjoyment whenever I watch Another Thin Man (1939), Buck Privates (1941), In The Navy (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), and The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942), to name a few.

Aside from the first short in this collection, where he is featured in only one scene totaling approximately thirty seconds, Shemp is featured quite prominently in the remainder as a part of the supporting cast or sharing or receiving top billing. All these shorts (with copyright dates from 1933 through 1936) contain the witty banter and physical humor that one would expect from a typical Stooge short. Shemp appears in a number of roles, such as a circus worker, an archaeological assistant, a vaudeville actor, a butler, a fireman, a baseball pitcher (playing a teammate of real-life major leaguers Jerome “Dizzy” and Paul "Daffy" Dean), a process server, a military man, a gambler, and a harried husband. I could not possibly begin to describe what makes this type of humor funny, so I will attempt to provide a few of the many high points contained in these shorts. Often the viewer knows what is going to ensue due to the movement of the plot, but the humor payoff remains high, and these shorts are very re-watchable.

The first short, “Gobs of Fun,” features Charles Judels and George Givot . They play sailors who try to outwit each other and their first mate as they attempt to woo the first mate’s less-than-faithful sweetheart.  I found their antics very amusing. As noted above, Shemp’s scene is brief (this is the only short in the collection in which he does not receive an on-screen credit) but hilarious as one of the sailors demonstrates to him how to “get women.” The reaction of Shemp and his female companion to this demonstration is priceless humor in my opinion.

Shemp Howard and Daphne Pollard in His First Flame

Shemp Howard and Daphne Pollard in His First Flame
The shorts which feature Shemp with Daphne Pollard (“Smoked Hams,” “A Peach of a Pair,” and “His First Flame”) are true highlights of the set- I enjoyed the chemistry they clearly shared on screen, and the verbal and physical humor is bountiful. “His First Flame” is memorable just for the plot point of firefighter Shemp and wife Daphne attempting to demonstrate to the chief of the fire department that Shemp’s homemade special fire-dispelling powder actually works. They go about doing this by setting a part of their house on fire. The inevitable house fire which ensues is quite spectacular and dramatic, as the outdoor location of this part of the short adds to the realism of the inferno. There is much more in this short which is funny, but I will leave it to the viewer to discover.

Johnnie Berkes and Shemp Howard in While the Cat's Away 
Johnnie Berkes and Shemp Howard in While the Cat's Away 

The shorts pairing Shemp with Johnnie Berkes (“While the Cat’s Away,” and “Absorbing Junior,”) also are amusing. Johnnie also appears in most of the seven Joe Palooka shorts which I will cover below. “While the Cat’s Away” contains a hilarious little moment when Shemp, attempting to clean up all the empties in the room due to their wives’ imminent arrival, Shemp reacts to a framed photo of friend Johnnie’s wife which is on a dresser.

Shemp is also paired with Roscoe Ates, whose shtick is that he stutters. Ates plays the umpire in the short “Dizzy and Daffy” which features the Dean Brothers. This is humor that modern audiences might find uncomfortable, but audiences of the 1930s clearly did not- one of the Ates shorts is entitled “So You Won’t T-T-T-Talk.”

The seven “Joe Palooka” shorts feature Shemp as Knobby, the manager of young, slow-speaking, kind-hearted and polite boxer (and eventually heavyweight champion of the world) Joe Palooka, played by Robert Norton. Shemp and his cohorts Johnny (played by Johnny Berkes- billed in the earlier shorts as Johnnie) and Punchy (played by Lee Weber) do their best to manage and train Joe with a mixture of some know-how and a lot of incompetence and sheer blind luck. Knobby and his helpers genuinely care about Joe’s well-being. A sub-plot is Joe’s romance with Ann Howe, played by Beverly Phalon, who also cares deeply about him.

Kick Me Again

These shorts usually end with Joe being inspired to dispatch his opponent through some verbal misunderstanding- this plays out on screen much more effectively than it reads. Shemp also is involved with hitting and being hit quite often. (This brings me to another observation – Shemp in this collection often has moments where he appears to be playing the “Moe Howard” role, in that he is or thinks he is in charge and verbally and or/physically bosses his cohorts around.) I was very impressed with Lee Weber as Joe’s sparring partner Punchy who has a very large appetite. In “Here’s Howe” there is an impressive scene where Shemp directs a shadow-boxing Punchy in the ring which clearly demonstrates Weber’s talent for non-verbal humor. The boxing scenes in these shorts were to me surprisingly more brutal than I had anticipated.

I enjoyed the Joe Palooka cycle of shorts so much that I was sad when the last one was over.

After the first three shorts, the remaining eighteen were directed by Lloyd French. The first thirteen were photographed by E.B. DuPar, while the remaining eight were photographed by Ray Foster. The most common story writers listed were Jack Henley (who co-wrote all but one), Dolph Singer, Burnet Hershey, and Eddie Forman, with the writing done either in pairs or a few instances as a trio.

The picture quality is very good, as is the sound. Also, the background music is at an appropriate level throughout the shorts so the dialogue is always discernible.

Part of the enjoyment of viewing this set is the discovery of something new in something old, in this case something filmed around eighty years ago and probably not at all easily available to watch until this release. The big revelation for me is the quality of many of the lead performers and supporting players. I began viewing the set focusing on Shemp and came away with a much greater appreciation of the comic talents of his fellow (and previously unknown-to-me) performers. This reinforces the fact that the more famous comedy entities did not work in a vacuum. Non-credited performers also often have their comic moments to shine throughout the set.

I would highly recommend this collection to Shemp and Stooges fans and to anyone fond of slapstick!

Vitaphone Comedy Collection Volume 2 from Warner Bros.

The Vitaphone Comedy Collection Volume Two: Shemp Howard (1933-1937) is available from Warner Archive as a two disc DVD-MOD set. 

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, one title is reviewed from the Warner Archive Collection. We received the The Vitaphone Comedy Collection: Volume Two from Warner Archive to review.

1 comment:

  1. I have to watch this set. Nice post Frank!

    Raquel, when you and Carlos visited you were just down the street from Shemp Howard's homes and old stomping grounds:


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