I began to ignore short people almost completely this year.
No, I don’t mean children, my first serious girlfriend (4’11”) or any of the Munchkins (surviving, or otherwise).
Other than cartoons, I completely dropped any discussion of Best Short Subject (Comedy), to match my wanton ignorance of Best Short Subject (Novelty). My shunning of the diminutive is even worse, since the Academy killed off those two completely, reshuffling them into added new categories: Best Live Action (Color), Best Live Action (One-Reeler) and Best Live Action (Two-Reeler). Yes, I’m reeling. Sorry — that was the best I had. Sometimes I’m not very punny.
Best Editing, Best Assistant Director, and Best Sound Recording, as you faithful readers know, have already been sent to stand in the corner for a variety of reasons.
So that makes a total of six categories I sent to their beds without any supper (can you tell I’ve been a parent? Oddly enough, I never sent either one of my kids to a corner, or to bed hungry).
Let’s start bringing them back to the table — kiddy table first.
Best Assistant Director:
Six gents were nominated, for six movies I’ve thankfully (and not so thankfully) already seen: Jack Sullivan won for The Charge of the Light Brigade, over William Cannon, Anthony Adverse; Eric G. Stacey, Garden of Allah; Clem Beauchamp, The Last of the Mohicans; and Joseph M. Newman, San Francisco. No, I still haven’t got a clue how to judge any of these for their contributions. The Assistant Director’s achievements are almost entirely behind the scenes, from what I understand — let me know in comments below if I’ve gotten that wrong. What can I tell you about these folks? Sullivan’s niece Beth went on to create Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Stacey’s wife was a censor in the Hayes office; let’s hope she didn’t bring that workplace attitude home with her. Beauchamp started out as an actor named Jerry Drew, with a bit part in W.C. Fields’ International House as a cameraman. Newman ended up working on both Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As for Cannon, the IMDB credits him with doing some writing on The Wizard of Oz, as well as assisting director Victor Fleming. Let’s hope that satisfies my fellow trivia hounds, and that you’ll forgive me for being so clueless.
Here is a fine example of a come-hither poster for San Francisco:
Best Sound Recording:
The Academy seems to have started to hand out these nominations like candy (take a look at the travesties of the music categories in a few years, when every studio could have a nomination just for asking!). The original winner was MGM’s favorite bad boy technician, Douglas Shearer, for the earthquakes in San Francisco. Let’s get ready to rrrrrrrruuuuuummmmmblllle! The other eight nominees were Fox and E.H. Hanse pluckings, for Banjo on My Knee; Warner and Nathan Levinson’s thundering horse-hooves, for The Charge of the Light Brigade; United Artists and Thomas T. Moulton’s marital discords for Dodsworth; Hal Roach and Elmer A. Raguse’s childhood shenanigans for General Spanky; Columbia and John Livadary’s tuba oom-pah-pah’s for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; Paramount and Franklin B. Hansen’s bang-bang-shoot-em-ups for The Texas Rangers (no, not the baseball team — the team the Lone Ranger played for originally!); and Universal and Homer G. Tasker’s care for Deanna Durbin’s golden throat (settle down in the back there!) for Three Smart Girls.
Of those, the ones I didn’t see for my book were Banjo on My Knee; General Spanky; and The Texas Rangers.
Banjo on My Knee is something I’m glad I caught up on, as it stars Joel McCrea as a new bridegroom who flees his new bride Barbara Stanwyck and his father Walter Brennan, when McCrea mistakenly thinks he’s killed somebody. Buddy Ebsen shows up to sing and dance. Here is Ebsen knocking it out with Stanwyck:
Not a great film, but an enjoyable one.
General Spanky is the only full-length Our Gang / Little Rascals feature, with George “Spanky” McFarland defending the Confederacy…and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas as a slave?!? Oh. My. Stars. And. Garters. No. Just no. I watched it — you probably shouldn’t. Don’t even get me started on the watermelon song. The original shorts are far better.
The Texas Rangers stars Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie as former outlaws sent out to arrest their old friend, Lloyd Nolan. Surprisingly for a basic oater, the director is King Vidor. Did the villain really need to be called “The Polka-Dot Bandit”? A decent Western, but nothing really remarkable. We do hear the bullets clearly.
We might as well let the earthquakes keep it.
Best Live Action (Color):
I wouldn’t have thought there were enough color shorts out in 1936 to warrant a separate category, but I was wrong (hey — it happens! Try not to cry too much, ok?). The studios were using the short form to paint their toenails (dipping their feet in the pool, as it were). Give Me Liberty won for Warner Bros., over MGM’s La Fiesta de Santa Barbara and Paramount’s Popular Science J-6-2.
Give Me Liberty (currently available on Warner’s Errol Flynn boxed set as an extra) is an imaginary little patriotic tale in which George Washington encourages Patrick Henry to get oratorical on the king’s ass. Mrs. Henry joins in, and finally, we get the “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech. In reality, the first Mrs. Henry was a lunatic who had to be kept under lock and key. But who are we to quibble with that glorious color? And glorious it truly is here, especially on the DVD release. Here is an excerpt:
La Fiesta de Santa Barbara can be found on the DVD release of For Me and My Gal, and features Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Andy Devine, Ida Lupino, and Warner Baxter in a festival in Santa Barbara, north of Los Angeles. The more interesting reasons to see the short is twofold: one, Judy Garland shows up for the first time in color, and for the last time as part of the Gumm Sisters, singing “La Cucaracha” — and even better for fans of the great comedians, Harpo Marx AND Buster Keaton appear as well! Harpo makes a rare appearance out of costume, but still not talking. Keaton puts on a Mexican accent (which others do as well, with vary degrees of success and/or stereotypical behavior). It’s not a particularly funny short, but more of a curiosity piece — and great to win a bar bet. “What movie has Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx, Gary Cooper, and Judy Garland?”
Here is the first half:
Judy is on the second half.
Finally, we have Popular Science J-6-2, one of a long series of science grab-bags put out by producer Jerry Fairbanks in full color from 1935 to the Fifties. Unfortunately, no information could be located as to what specifically this episode offers — even the producer’s website omits this one. Shields Pictures has released a DVD of 75 of the Popular Science series, which can be ordered here (but if the website is any guide, the nominated film isn’t included):
Best Live Action (One-Reeler):
Hal Roach, backed by MGM, won for Bored of Education, the 146th Our Gang short, over Paramount’s Moscow Moods, and Pete Smith & MGM’s Wanted – A Master.
I have very fond memories of many of the Our Gang shorts as a child (they were renamed the Little Rascals for television). Bored of Education was one of my favorites, because the new teacher was so kind to the kids, she bought them ice cream for their first day together. Spanky and Alfalfa rig a way to cut class, until they realize they’re missing the ice cream. A balloon is involved. Bored of Education still works today, largely due to the charisma of Spanky and Alfalfa.
Here is your chance to pick up some tips on how to play hooky from school — or not:
Moscow Moods has left almost no footprint in the record books, outside of the fact of its nomination. TCM does have an entry for the Paramount shorts, give very brief summaries. This is what they have from a fan on Moscow Moods: “Experimental musical showcasing Bunchuck’s Cossack Choir in a Czar’s wine cellar.” [http://fan.tcm.com/_Paramount-34live-action34-shorts-1935-1936/blog/2322790/66470.html?samlUserId=48429850] I’m not so sure about the Bunchuck (which sounds like a name we could make fun of all afternoon) but there was a Cossack Choir made up of Russian expatriates which was started in the Twenties by Serge Jaroff, who kept the group together for over half-a-century. In other words, White Russians who fled the country when the Reds took over. I suspect this may be the same group. The short still exists, but only in a nitrate copy (UCLA owns two).
Wanted – A Master features a homeless dog who needs a new master by 3 o’clock to avoid euthanasia. Now isn’t that a cheery subject? Needless to say, the mutt succeeds (this is Hollywood, after all). I dimly recall seeing this one years ago. Fortunately, if I don’t find a copy by 3, nobody is going to try and put me to sleep. I can take an afternoon nap just fine by myself. And keep that needle away from me!
Best Live Action (Two-Reeler):
MGM’s The Public Pays beat out Warner Bros.’ Double or Nothing and RKO’s Dummy Ache.
The Public Pays is all about extorting protection money from dairy farmers. Oh, the humanity! What will the kiddies do without their milk?!? The Public Pays is available on the DVD box set, The Clark Gable Signature Collection, as an extra. Odd, watching MGM try a gangster flick, even a short one.
Warner Bros. generally did that genre (and many others) with more verve and grit than MGM. Double or Nothing, on the other hand, is a comedy starring Phil Harris — and comedy was often a genre MGM did better than Warner Bros. (witness the Thin Man series, and the salvation of the careers of the Marx Bros. with A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races). As I’ve said before here, I remember Phil Harris best as the voice of Baloo the Bear from Disney’s The Jungle Book, but he was also the voice of Thomas O’Malley in The Aristocrats. Here, Harris is apparently spoofing MGM releases here, including Mutiny on the Bounty and Queen Christina, but I was unable to see the short. UCLA has no copy.
Here is Phil Harris:
Dummy Ache stars Edgar Kennedy, who was the big brute selling lemonade in Duck Soup when he bullies Harpo and Chico Marx. Lucille Ball has a bit part. I was unable to see it; UCLA has no copy either.
Here is the old “Slow Burn” himself:
You can see why I chose to ignore these, despite the fact I’d like to see Phil Harris and Edgar Kennedy, even in ephemera.
Finally, we come to the big one.
Ralph Dawson won for Anthony Adverse, over Edward Curtiss, Come and Get It; William S. Gray, The Great Ziegfeld; Barbara McLean, Lloyds of London; Conrad A. Nervig, A Tale of Two Cities; and Otto Meyer, Theodora Goes Wild.
Yes, I’ve seen them all. No, none of them really recommend themselves to anybody looking for noticeable editing. The Great Ziegfeld desperately needed cutting, by at least a half-an-hour. Anthony Adverse, the winner, is just a lump, trying to deal with a massive source novel, and I suspect the Oscar was for managing to get so much in as short a space as possible. The whole thing reminds me of Fibber McGee’s closet, without the humor. Come and Get It is a mess directed by both Howard Hawks and William Wyler, with rotund Edward Arnold and toothless Walter Brennan as…wait for it…romantic leads. Lloyds of London is mainly known today for making Tyrone Power famous — it’s a minor film, at best. A Tale of Two Cities has a great performance from Ronald Colman, and chilling ones from Blanche Yurka and Basil Rathbone, but weak ones from the romantic leads. The most lively film of the bunch, and the one with what appears to be the tightest editing, is the screwball comedy, Theodora Goes Wild, starring Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas (who would hit their peaks in the genre with The Awful Truth and Ninotchka, respectively).
On that basis alone — tautness and economy and persistence of appeal — I would argue Otto Meyer should have won the Oscar.
Here is a fun poster for the movie:
As for the editors, Ralph Dawson would go on to The Adventures of Robin Hood and Harvey, which are both perfectly paced and balanced examples of lean story-telling, so I suspect Dawson had considerable talent as an editor. Edward Curtiss started off as a barnstormer and wing-walker; Howard Hawks thought he would make a good editor, based on some suggestions made during filming; Curtiss went on to My Little Chickadee and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. William S. Gray died a few years after The Great Ziegfeld, which was his career height. Barbara McLean ran the head of the Twentieth Century-Fox editing department, an astonishing achievement for a woman in a male-dominated studio system (particularly at Fox, where Darryl F. Zanuck was known for his numerous affairs and sexual impositions — according to Joan Crawford, Zanuck had a solid gold casting of his own genitalia to act as bait…). As the head of that department, MacLean exerted as much control over the final look of the studio than almost anybody other than Zanuck himself. Conrad A. Nervig spent three decades at MGM, with his best work being The Bad and the Beautiful. Otto Meyer also did another favorite of mine, The More the Merrier. Meyer ended his career editing 125 episodes of Gunsmoke.
So there you have it — another nail in the coffin lid of my authorial and cinematic sins! We’ll get those suckers completely buried…eventually!