Sunday, December 18, 2005

"The best of the old comedy favorites, the brightest of the new stars"

Founded in 1915 by Earle W. Hammons for the production and distribution of classroom films, Educational Pictures quickly, and lucratively, shifted gears and began producing comedy shorts. Educational hit its peak sometime in the mid-20s, releasing Jack White's acclaimed Lloyd Hamilton shorts and distributing Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat cartoons. But in 1933, following a financially disastrous partnership with Mack Sennett to produce features (as Sono Art-World Wide Pictures), Educational was forced to sell off its exchanges and reopen at Paramount's old Astoria, Long Island facility (where The Cocoanuts and Follow The Leader were shot). Now releasing through 20th Century Fox, Educational had become a strange twilight zone of down-on-their-luck silent era names like Buster Keaton and moonlighting Broadway celebrities like Bert Lahr and Joe Cook, taking advantage of the studio's convenient proximity. Not only silent era performers but producers and directors found Educational a friendly port during the industry's turbulent transition to sound. The studio's product was wildly uneven during its final decade with even the best shorts looking extremely threadbare. As cheap as the shorts may have been, and as poor as the writing frequently was, the talent on display was undeniably impressive.

I found this 1936 trade ad for Educational on Ebay last month and it nicely illustrates the bizarre blend of "old comedy favorites" and "new stars" that populated the studio's product at the time. Buster Keaton, at a low point in his life but still capable of wonderful work, and the brilliant Joe Cook are clearly the studio's prize performers (Joe Cook had no better film vehicles than his shorts), but the lower ranks are pretty fascinating, too. Bert Lahr, the most famous of the second-stringers depicted, should have been a major film personality (IMO) but his film career never clicked and today he's remembered primarily for his performance as the Cowardly Lion. Tom Howard, Joe Cook's stooge from Rain Or Shine (1930), had his own series, appearing with his own stooge George Shelton. Both went on to star through the 1940s in the radio quiz parody It Pays To Be Ignorant. Until I saw this ad, I had no idea that professional milquetoast Ernest Truex had ever been the featured performer in anything, let alone his own series of shorts. He found work in film and on TV through 1965 as the meek next-door neighbor or the ineffectual boss. Truex's wife, Mary Jane Barrett (bottom right), appeared with him frequently on Broadway and, it seems, at Educational, although she doesn't have an IMDB listing. The rest of the comics are the aforementioned "new stars" and of them, only Tim and Irene Ryan, the poor man's Burns and Allen, went on to have any kind of substantial screen career. Gruff Tim and madcap Irene became a standard feature of poverty row musical comedies through 1944. I've never seen any of their work for Educational but The Wacky Family (1936) must be one of the weakest film titles of all time. Tim, a prolific B-comedy screenwriter, died in 1956. Irene Ryan, who divorced Tim in 1942, went on to lasting fame as Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. Incidentally, Tim and Irene are featured on the original 1934 sheet music for Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. I'm assuming they introduced the song on radio. Does anyone out there know? The team of Patricola and West had a brief series of for Educational between 1935 and 1938, reportedly interchangeable with that of Educational's other musical comedy duo, Timberg and Rooney (curiously not depicted). It seems that Earl Oxford appeared in exactly one short for the studio and I can't find even that many for the amiable looking Fred Lightner (any relation to Winnie? There's a definite resemblance). Singer Niela Goodelle headlined her own series (and appeared at least once with Earl Oxford on Broadway), but I'm unsure about Nell Kelly, another Broadway singer.

This eclectic lineup represents Educational's last gasp. E. W. Hammons, eager to re-enter the features market ever since his 1931-33 partnership with Sennett, gambled it all and lost. In 1938, he merged Educational with Grand National Pictures just as it was sinking into bankruptcy, apparently in a bid to save it. But Grand National's situation was terminal and, when it finally folded in 1939, it took what remained of Educational with it (Fox took over distribution of the Terrytoons). Just a few years later, adding insult to injury, a vault fire at Fox's Deluxe labs destroyed a tremendous number Educational's negatives, all but wiping out the studio's (presumably superior) silent output and erasing most of the film careers of Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane, a staggering blow to the record of the silent era.

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Anonymous Greg G. said...

I love Bert Lahr as well. I've often thought that Curly Howard took a lot from him but I've never seen this acknowledged.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I think it's possible, although that debt isn't quite clear in Curly's first film appearances at MGM (minus the inspired noisemaking, he seems to owe a bit more to former Healy stooge Fred "Pansy" Sanborn). Once at Columbia, though, I can see what you mean. On another note, I think Lou Costello owes a bit of a debt to Curly!

Bert Lahr as Third Stooge following Shemp's death.. Now there's a "what if" scenario. How about Curly Howard in Waiting For Godot? "I'm a victim a' coicumstance!!"

6:04 PM  
Anonymous John Owen said...

Curly defnitely took his Nyahng, nyahng, nyahng expression of dismay from Lahr. Interesting. I've heard Freddy Sanborn's contribution to the stooges so thoroughly and firmly dismissed over the years that it never occurred to me that Curly or anyone else would borrow from him. But that makes some sense. Healy knew what dynamic he wanted in the group and may have given direction to Curly to adapt the pansy act. That Curly took that and created a uniquely weird comic persona of his own is a testament to that extraordinary performer.

11:30 PM  

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