The end of October brought forth another volume in Alpha Video’s Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies series, and friend of the blog Brian Krey was good enough to aim a screener for Volume 4 screener in the direction of Rancho Yesteryear. “A collection of six racy, hilarious, and often politically incorrect shorts from the anything-goes pre-Code era!” reads the copy for this release…and while the jury is still out on the “racy” aspect of this DVD (I thought the material seemed tame for the pre-Code era) the “politically incorrect” portion is right on the money.
That’s because one of the six two-reel comedies on this collection features George Moran and Charles Mack—a highly successful vaudeville teaming known as “The Two Black Crows.” The duo earned that appellation because like their radio counterparts Amos ‘n’ Andy (a.k.a. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll), Moran and Mack performed in blackface (the Crows also enjoyed success with recordings and a radio show comparable to A&A). Moran and Mack’s comedy was for the most part non-racial, but in these more enlightened times it understandably doesn’t wear well. (Keep in mind that there are very few comedians from the era who didn’t dabble in the practice—Will Rogers, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, etc.—heck, finding a movie where Eddie Cantor isn’t doing blackface is like trying to find a parking place with time left on the meter.)
Here’s the irritating thing about the Moran and Mack short, Hot Hoofs (1933): it’s actually a pleasant comedy, with the time-tested premise of a couple of schmos being taken by a sharpie (played by serial/B-Western mainstay Wheeler Oakman) when they purchase a lame racehorse. Moran and Mack (as “Egbert” and “Willie”) turn the tables on Oakman by selling him back his useless steed after painting the nag black (in keeping with the blackface motif, I’m guessing). Hoofs is most impressive for an Educational short (a lot of the Educational comedies had what Leonard Maltin remarked in Selected Short Subjects a “cheap” look), with solid direction from comedy veteran Harry Edwards, a script co-written by Ewart Adamson (both Adamson and Edwards later went to work for the Columbia shorts department), and even background music…which I thought most unusual. I think if someone had engaged in a little less controversial casting the two-reeler would work a bit better.
On the other end of the spectrum is a team that didn’t perform in blackface…because it wasn’t necessary. The duo of Ford Washington “Buck” Lee and John William “Bubbles” Sublett were solid vaudeville favorites (they were the first black artists to play Radio City Music Hall), and between 1929 and 1930 producer Monte Brice (in association with Pathé) featured “Buck and Bubbles” in six two-reel comedies. High Toned (1930), inspired by the “Wildcat Stories” composed by author Hugh Wiley (he also created Asian sleuth Mr. Wong), has the team returning from the Civil War and hoping to resume their lives in the lovely antebellum South. (Yes, I am being sarcastic.) Bubbles’ fiancé, however, has fallen for the erudite valet of Bubbles’ former employer…so our hero challenges the butler to a wrestling match to decide who will win her hand. (The information is not available at the [always reliable] IMDb, but the actor playing the referee in this short looks an awful lot like Spencer Williams.)
High Toned has almost as many problems as Hot Hoofs: the valet is chased away from the wrestling match by a “voodoo charm” (ouch) and the two-reeler ends with Buck and Bubbles sitting down to enjoy a meal of fried chicken (double ouch). But I was inclined to cut this one a bit more slack only because of the presence of Sublett—“the father of rhythm tap.” Buck and Bubbles would make appearances in films like Variety Show (1937) and Atlantic City (1944), but on his own, Sublett is perhaps best known for portraying “Domino Johnson” in Cabin in the Sky (1943), where he performs the show-stopping Shine. (You’ll see Bubbles’ incredible footwork briefly in High Toned, as he does a little dancing on the stoop at the residence of his former employer while waiting for someone to answer the doorbell.) Asked in 1978 who he thought was the best tap dancer Sublett retorted: “You’re looking at him.” (He did not lack for confidence, that’s for sure. Sublett then elaborated that he thought Fred Astaire was the best dancer—“He had a good teacher,” and that instructor was Bubbles himself, whom Astaire proclaimed the finest tap dancer of his generation.)
One of the more novel shorts on Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 4 is 1932’s It’s a Cinch. It’s pleasant enough: Monte Collins plays a dance teacher who winds up squaring off against a bruiser (Tom O’Brien) in a boxing match after embarrassing the big lug in the greasy spoon where Collins’ girlfriend (Phyllis Crane) works; the fact that Monte hits his would-be nemesis in the puss with a pie telegraphs that the director of Cinch is a true comedy veteran…and that man with the megaphone is William Goodrich, the nom de mise en scene of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle, who was persona au gratin in Tinsel Town after being accused of the rape of actress Virginia Rappe (a charge that he was later exonerated of), had to work behind the camera under a pseudonym (his pal Buster Keaton had suggested “Will B. Good”…I wish Roscoe had taken him up on that); Cinch was one of several two-reelers helmed by Arbuckle for Educational that year (including the hilarious Bridge Wives, which starred nephew Al St. John) on the cusp of returning to the big screen with a series of Vitaphone shorts (of which six were completed before his passing in 1933).
Monte shows off his terpsichorean talents in Cinch in a brief scene where he instructs his students in a dance routine…but in Ticklish Business (1929), he gets to show off his crooning side, partnered with Vernon Dent in a short where the two second bananas play struggling songwriters. The nuts and bolts of show business are also the subject of How Comedies Are Born (1931), an RKO effort in which four second echelon comics—Harry Gribbon, Tom Kennedy, Bud Jamison, and Harry Sweet—get together at Tom’s house (much to the dismay of Mrs. Tom) to work on a script for a film comedy. Comedies promises a bit more than it can deliver, but I enjoyed seeing the quartet giving their all and even engaging in a musical interlude or two (Jamison has a hell of a tenor voice). This one was directed by co-star Sweet, the man responsible for getting RKO’s shorts department in business (he instituted Edgar Kennedy’s long-running “Mr. Average Man” series, for instance).
The final short on this DVD is Nifty Nurses (1934), which gets enthusiastic write-ups at the IMDb from a few people…but personally, I thought the two-reeler was a bit on the meh side. TDOY fave Billy Gilbert is on hand, which is never a bad thing (one of the funniest things in Nurses is his character’s name, “Dr. Hofbrau”) but the top billing in this one goes to former Our Ganger Johnny Downs and actress Sally Sweet, and is set against the background of a hospital where doctors often interrupt serious medical discussions to engage in pursuits like a crap game. (That and a visual gag where spectators in the operating theatre wave pennants like a football game crowd were the highlights.) Both Gilbert and Downs made shorts at Columbia in the 1940s (Downs starred in a very funny effort, Groom and Bored ); overall, Nurses plays a lot like a Vitaphone “Broadway Brevity”—the kind of short that’s being beaten to death on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.
Rounding out these shorts are a couple of extras: The American Explorer: Manhattan Special (1934), which isn’t mentioned at the IMDb (though another short in that series, Washington Limited, is) but features Broadway columnist Leo Donnelly channeling his inner Pete Smith by narrating a travelogue that includes some inelegant observations about New York’s ethnic makeup. This is paired with Ben Turpin in Person (1934), apparently an outtake from a Hollywood on Parade short with the legendary cross-eyed comic. If you’re looking for novelty, you’ll certainly find it aplenty in this new Alpha Video release.