Political climates, community standards, and the evolving populations all influence comedy, as tastes and expectations change. The journey from slapstick to satire can be seen quite clearly in Kino’s impressive DVD collection of Paramount Shorts from 1929-1933. Entitled Cavalcade of Comedy, the 16 archival films found here celebrate farce, formula, and physical gags.
It’s mesmerizing to watch actors “inadvertently” set up for a brick in the face or a plank across the skull. In a trio of takes on homebuilding—The Plasterers (1929), Plastered (1930), and A Put Up Job (1931)—we see how sequences once performed in stage reviews underwent a metamorphosis with the advent of a camera. Unlike the Three Stooges, who meshed plots and pratfalls, the sole purpose of these bang and crash scenarios is to lay on the laughable violence, one noggin knock at a time.
Yet it’s the character bits that grab our attention. Jack Benny plays a destitute dandy in A Broadway Romeo (1931), attempting to woo a lost country girl with wonderful wickedness. Equally engaging is Eddie Cantor, whose 1929 short, Getting a Ticket, takes fame and its misfortunes to new humor heights. Lulu McConnell does a killer drunk routine as the chatterbox of The Introduction of Mrs. Gibbs, and the surreally cerebral Tom Howard gets two chances to rattle our minds, in The African Dodger (1930) and Breaking Even (1932).
The shorts also feature some less than thrilling elements. The comedy team of Smith and Dale (often mentioned as the inspiration for Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys) perform a dangerously derogatory take on “greedy” Jewish business owners in What Price, Pants?, complete with exaggerated accents, it is rather uncomfortable to watch. Lighthouse Love (1932) is similarly stereotypical and offensive. Set in “the Orient,” the short features jokey “Asian” names, lots of lampooned language, and old-school racism. Thankfully, these are the exceptions, not the rule. Individuals of color are referenced (as in The African Dodger) and even appear in dopey drag (a black man as a “mammy” maid in 1930’s Cleaning Up, featuring Chester Conklin and Mack Swain). But Kino does not include more minstrel-like mannerisms of the era.
Still, the collection includes gems, such as two shorts by George Burns and Gracie Allen, incredibly effective even 76 years later. Their jokes come fast and furious, their routines recalling the manic Marx Brothers style of anarchic irony. They even do a bit of self-referential riffing, as when they break the fourth wall and mention how easy it is to make a movie, in 1930’s Fit to Be Tied. As a hotel guest and a mixed-up gift shop clerk in 100% Service, the couple toss off so many wild one-liners that it’s almost impossible to keep up.
It’s the same with Bing Crosby, featured in a song-filled short entitled Sing, Bing, Sing (1933). The ostensible plot, about an elopement, gives way for a car chase, a pair of accident-prone detectives, and a man in a gorilla suit. The crooner’s great timing—with a lyric and a laugh line—wins us over in the end. Seeing him in his performance prime, it’s easy to see why Crosby was an early superstar.
The view is a little dimmer for a very young Milton Berle. Poppin’ the Cork does not feature him doing the sort of stand-up for which he became renowned. Rather, he plays a college cut-up debating the end of Prohibition who sings, dances, and romances, none of it very well. Thankfully, television proved Berle’s metier. As a movie star, he stunk.
So did the climate at the time these films were made. The Depression is visible in every one, clouding over everything. From a man who wants to kill himself after his stocks crash (1931’s It Might Be Worse) to an unemployed pair desperate for work (A Put Up Job), Cavalcade of Comedy provides a lesson in social setting as a subtext. The Depression serves as backdrop for pathos as well as pratfalls. The well-to-do become targets for gags and money becomes the basis for several swell routines. In fact, one reason this collection might not translate for a 2006 audience is that the Crash of 1929 now seems so distant.
Many will find these films ancient. Though pretty well preserved, they were never conceived as examples of “classic” comedy. They were ways to escape the drudgery of life and mock daily horrors in bitter, bankrupt times. A hundred years from now, when Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams are put through a similar amusement microscope, viewers will draw a similar conclusion. There is no more accurate comment on a culture than its entertainments. In this, The Cavalcade of Comedy seems a witty way-back machine.