Hey kids! How's this for major obscure classic comedy news? After a lengthy absence, Greg and Heather Hilbrich have returned to the global interweb with The Shorts Department, a tribute to, and a trading post for, the mindbendingly rare Columbia comedy shorts of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Greg's former site, Half-Way to Hollywood: The Non-Three Stooges Columbia Two Reel Comedy Shorts, was sorely missed when it disappeared in 2004, but The Shorts Department, expanded in scope to include the Columbia serials, cartoons, and East Coast output as well, promises to be a great improvement.
Although I remain ambivalent about Jules White, the Columbia Shorts Department had an astonishing roster of talent and while some, such as Buster Keaton, were ill-served, others flourished there. Hugh Herbert, Shemp Howard, and Richard Lane did some of their best work at Columbia, and others like Gus Schilling, Andy Clyde, and Harry von Zell frankly never had it so good.
A few words about Gus Schilling and Richard Lane. Over the years, Jules White tried time and again to create a new comedy team by almost arbitrarily pairing up contract comics. Most of these scattershot pairings, such as Billy Gilbert and Cliff Nazarro (!) led nowhere, but White finally hit the jackpot by teaming Dick, the tough-guy schemer, with Gus, the milquetoast nebbish in a series that ultimately lasted four years and eleven shorts. By and large, thanks to Dick and Gus's engaging personalities and deft teamwork, the Schilling and Lane comedies are among the best the Columbia shorts unit produced and it's something of a pity that the team was never moved into features (at a time when RKO was cashing in on the success of Abbott and Costello with the likes of Brown and Carney, how could Dick and Gus have possibly gone wrong?). Among the series' rather unique elements is a running gag with Gus's former burlesque partner (and Fay Wray stand-in) Judy Malcolm who, at least once each picture, will walk up to Gus, slap him across the face and exclaim "How dare you remind me of someone I hate!!". Greg has all but one of the Schilling and Lane shorts, the elusive Hold That Monkey (1950), available for sale.
The twenty-three volumes (!!!) of cartoons from Columbia's Screen Gems Studio that Greg has available are also mighty enticing, especially for an animation geek like myself. I'm especially keen on getting my hands on the wildly underrated Fox and Crow shorts and the legendary Krazy Kat cartoon Li'l Anjil (1936), a high-profile attempt by Screen Gems to bring George Herriman's vision to the screen (the silent b/w home movie print I own suggests a misfire, but the animation and backgrounds are beautiful). Much more on the world's most obscure cartoon studio can be found here.