I reviewed a pair of Alpha Video releases that I obtained from Oldies.com back in the merry month of May this year; the theme of these two discs was that they featured a mixture of the sound and silent “Mickey McGuire” comedies that starred Thrilling Days of Yesteryear bête noire Mickey Rooney. One of the DVDs, Mickey’s Movies, also showcased a pair of non-McGuire shorts in Howling Hollywood (1928) and Shamrock Alley (1927); Alley stars child performer Malcolm Sebastian in the persona of “Big Boy,” a very well-received series produced by Educational Pictures (a studio that churned out mostly comedy shorts) from 1925 to 1929.
I liked Shamrock Alley at the time I watched it…though in retrospect, my enthusiasm for it might have had something to do with the fact that Mickey Rooney wasn’t in it. I say this because, owing to the fact that I was a bit pressed for time after last night’s election debacle, I wanted to watch something that I could sit through quickly and that wouldn’t require a great deal of analysis…and I thought a recent Grapevine release (from February 2014) of six “Big Boy” shorts might be just the tonic. Included in this collection is the first two-reeler in the series, Baby Be Good (1925), in which motion picture audiences were introduced to the two-year-old star whose trademark attire included derby, diapers and floppy shoes.
Still, I have to be honest. I was pretty underwhelmed by the material on the DVD. Most of the comedies were a bit boring, and both the title cards and gags fairly heavy-handed. Which was disappointing, because I had heard a lot of positive word-of-mouth on the shorts; many fans compared them favorably to the Hal Roach Our Gang comedies, taking special measures to admit that they certainly couldn’t match those classics but for an imitator they weren’t bad. My fellow classic movie bloggers are well aware that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to kiddie thespians, but I’m convinced my problem with some of the Big Boy shorts is that young Malcolm often appears ready to burst out crying at any moment. (“If you don’t nail this shot, Malcolm, there’ll be no pudding for dessert. Oh, and we’ll shoot your dog.”) Sebastian got a lot better with maturity; there are moments in Shamrock Alley where he sort of reminded me of Jackie Coogan.
Of the comedies that are on the Grapevine release—four of which are also available on an Alpha Video DVD, released about the same time—I probably enjoyed Raisin’ Cain (1926) the best; Big Boy and his gang wreak havoc in a ritzy mansion after a doctor mistakenly diagnoses one of its inhabitants with smallpox. An individual who critiques this movie over at the IMDb asks: “Why would anyone look at nonsense like this when he could look at Our Gang?” While that may be a tad harsh, they’re not far from the mark on that one—there’s a “Little Rascals” comedy entitled Giants vs. Yanks (1922) with a similar plot. She’s a Boy (1927) is also not too bad, with our hero a young WWI orphan who assists some of “our boys” in fighting the deadly Hun (again, I was uncomfortable with a kid that age in that sort of milleu with ammo and bombs and the like). Good, Cain, Boy, and My Kid (1926) all feature organ scores from David Knudtson; the remaining shorts, In the Backyard (1926—not its original title, by the way) and Grandpa’s Boy (1927) highlight the work of composer Nee Dell Drop. (Grandpa’s also features some rather obtrusive sound effects that I could have done without. Neither Backyard nor Grandpa’s appears on the Alpha release.)
The Big Boy shorts were produced by Jack White, whose brother Jules would later go on to become head of Columbia’s shorts department (the story goes that Jules originated the idea for the “Big Boy” series…then Brother Jack handed it off to veteran comedy director Charles Lamont); the series came to an end in 1929 because star Sebastian had reached the tender age of six and was about ready to retire. (Malcolm made an appearance in the Our Gang comedy Shivering Shakespeare  to further the Little Rascals connection.) You might have better luck with these shorts than I did; I like to think that I’m open to unfamiliar comedies but watching these two-reelers just left me bored.