Monday, August 13, 2007


Topping my list of classic shorts in desperate need of rediscovery are George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes one-reelers for Warner Brothers, in my opinion the funniest and most consistent short comedy series of the 40s and 50s. Columbia had quantity, RKO had gloss, but Warner's had a unique house style and a seemingly higher regard for the quality of their shorts than most of the industry. Beginning in 1942 as Pete Smith-style, semi-informative shorts, Richard Bare's "So You Want to..." films were elevated to full comedy series status in 1946 with star George O'Hanlon finally given full speaking roles as a gruff, befuddled comic everyman. Any fan of the Leon Schlesinger cartoons of the 40s should find most of the Joe McDoakes shorts strangely familiar, sharing as they do the general tone, pacing, and humor of that studio's best work. Their anarchic streak and cynical nature, cornerstones of Warner comedy, also place them well apart from the 50s TV sitcoms they passingly resemble (I have to wonder what O'Hanlon's own 1956 sitcom, Real George, was like). As for the cast, O'Hanlon is a marvel. He began the series with his personality in full bloom despite never previously having been cast in a full character role (although I imagine that it helped that his parents were vaudevillians). With his mobile face, distinctive voice and impeccable timing, it's a puzzle to me why he wasn't groomed for work outside the Joe McDoakes shorts, but as it stands, it took the cancellation of his series for O'Hanlon to move on with his career, the highlight of which, unfortunately, was his role as the voice of George Jetson. Other Joe McDoakes regulars of note were Phyllis "Lois Lane" Coates as Alice McDoakes, Jane Frazee as the post-1953 Alice, and the amazing Clifton Young as Joe's pal Homer Hotbox and other assorted menaces to Joe's general well-being (Young was formerly "Bonedust" in the 1925-31 Our Gang comedies. He should have been a huge success on TV in the 50s had he not died while smoking in bed in 1951). Why, oh why, aside from basic market forces, won't Turner simply release the full Joe McDoakes series as a DVD set?

So You Want to Be on the Radio (1948). Joe and Alice become ensnared in the vicious cycle of late-40s radio quiz shows. Clifton Young plays the ominous quizmaster of Double Up or Drop Dead!.

So You Want to Be a Detective (1948). One of the most Clampett-esque of the Joe McDoakes shorts. Joe daydreams that he's private eye "Phil Snarlow" in this satire of hardboiled detective movies and specific spoof of Robert Montgomery's use of the subjective camera in Lady In the Lake (1947). Clifton Young plays the not-so-menacing "Num Num". Watch for the multiple-dead-bodies-falling-out-of-the-closet gag that Bob Clampett used in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) done incredibly well here in live action.

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Blogger Kevin K. said...

Totally agree. The few McDoakes I own are a lot of fun to watch, even when they're uneven. O'Hanlon and Clifton Young seem (and even sound) years ahead of their time. They would've made a great pair on a '50s sitcom.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

That "Radio" short was the best McDoakes entry I've seen. Cynical and funny as hell. How'd they get away with "The Sweetheart of Felta Thigh"?

I like how the credits always feature an image of the director tearing his hair out, too.

1:41 PM  

Every April Fool's, I screen clips from classic comedies, vintage cartoons, and whole shorts for co-workers. This year, I included "So You Think You're a Nervous Wreck" in the mix. No one in the room had previously seen a McDoakes. Everyone laughed their heads off! These shorts really are fantastic. O'Hanlon was way underrated for sure!

6:42 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

It seems clear that O'Hanlon was the last truly great short comedy star.. and as his only rivals in the field by 1956 were the Three Stooges w/ Joe Besser it hardly seems worth debating. And yet O'Hanlon and his series scarcely rate a footnote! Shameful.. I just wish there was someone to properly kvetch to. Incidentally, Charlie Hall's last screen appearance was in the second to last McDoakes comedy "So You Want to Play the Piano".

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The '8 Ball' series is a lot of fun and the writing is really clever. One reel is probably the right length for them.

Bill Lava's work with the full Warners orchestra shows he was capable of better things than the weak scores he came up with for the 1960s Warners cartoons.

I've always been a big fan of Art Gilmour (especially his movie trailers). I love his turn at the end of 'Detectives'. Though I keep waiting for him to say "And now, the World Tomorrow!"

It's sure strange hearing George Jetson's voice come out of a human after all these years.

If I recall, didn't Bare direct episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies?

It's a real shame more of these aren't available.


11:20 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Bill Lava was firmly on autopilot by the time he began handling the LL/MM scores. It was just another assignment by that point. His Joe McDoakes scores, OTOH, hold their own against Carl Stallings' best work.

Richard Bare ended up taking the long road back to comedy directing. His ability to quickly crank out high quality footage made him highly sought after as a TV director. He ended up spending so many years working on TV dramas and westerns that by the time "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" came along, he reportedly had to convince the producers that he was capable of handling comedy. Never did an episode of "Beverly Hillbillies", though.. as far as I know.

Only a sliver of O'Hanlon's appeal is evident in his work on "The Jetsons". He had a wonderfully expressive voice, but he had an equally, if not more, expressive face. Well, it's better than not being remembered at all!

11:49 AM  

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