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Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story (2002)
the beginning of the 20th century, in the infancy of the film medium, all movies
were short, most commonly limited to one reel--about ten minutes. Then pioneers like D.W.
Griffith started making films of what is now called "feature" length and shorter
films were relegated to the status of "added attractions" to the main bill. In
the 1940's, double features became the standard of film distribution, leaving little or no
room for the "added attractions." By the 1950's, the major studios had pretty
much given up on shorts. Today they are most often made by aspiring filmmakers on low
budgets, but their films are rarely seen in commercial theaters. (The advent of digital
video, which allows films to be shot on the smallest of budgets, may ring the final death
knell for the form.)
Turner Classic Movies, with its vast library of films, will present a
variety of short subjects in a series of weekly showcases, introduced by a new documentary
about the films, Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story. It's a rare
opportunity to look back at a part of Hollywood history that isn't often touched on, as
well as to see some of the films.
In one of the ironies of entertainment history, movies were once seen
as an extension of vaudeville and often drew on the stars of vaudeville, even as
the films ultimately won audiences away from the live performances. (Later, what little
was left of vaudeville migrated to television when TV developed a wide audience in the
1950's.) But many of the vaudeville acts have been preserved in shorts; clips of Al
Jolson performing "Red Red Robin" in blackface and precocious Baby Rose Marie
(much later, well known on television's The Dick Van Dyke Show) as a pre-teen,
scat singing sophisticate, are included.
Perhaps of greater interest to film buffs are the early original
film shorts that pioneered in the development and expansion of filmmaking techniques.
Comedy was king, of course, and Mack Sennett's series of Keystone Comedies propelled slapstick to new levels of hilarity. Often
filmed with mere outlines of a script, it was Sennett's editing skill that resulted in
perfect comic timing in the finished product. (He also experimented with film in color.)
Hal Roach was Sennett's successor in shorts history; his comedy was
more story-based than Sennett's slapstick and appealed to the growingly sophisticated
movie audience. Roach's films featured, among others, the humorist Will Rogers and Laurel
and Hardy; the latter's long-term character development provided the underpinning for the
levity of their pratfalls. In the 1930s, Hal Roach's Our Gang comedies (which seem today rather precious) provided
light-hearted relief to a country suffering from the Depression.
In Brooklyn, Warner Brothers produced a great many shorts featuring
vaudevillians, including dog acts and massed accordions; some of the the tap dancing
shorts were surely predecessors to Busby Berkeley's later extravaganzas--also from
Warner's. The shorts departments of the major studios became both training grounds and
proving grounds for the actors and directors of the day, including such stars as Judy
Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Lucille Ball.
Then there are the jazz shorts, stunningly photographed in moody, smoky
darkness, spots highlighting the musicians and dancers. There were sports shorts, a
"Crime Does Not Pay" series, and shorts based on the talents of John Nesbitt and
Robert Benchley. (Benchley's A Night at the Movies is as timely today as it was
The shorts constitute a huge and diverse body of work and, in trying to
be inclusive, Added Attractions spreads itself somewhat thin. The talking heads
interspersed with the clips are less than profound and there are glaring omissions (like
the pivotal March of Time series), presumably of films TCM doesn't own. But
anyone interested in the history of movies will get a useful primer on the shorts here,
and an eyeful of film arcana.
- Arthur Lazere