Parading Paramount's oldies
Videos reveal the Depression as a golden age of comedy
BOSTON — Compared with movies shown at the theater, videocassettes have many disadvantages, from small image size to lack of crystal-clear definition.
But the medium is gradually improving, courtesy of DVD and other new technologies. And even the old-fashioned videocassette has one huge advantage: It has turned neighborhood shops and online video distributors into instantly accessible film libraries, putting the legacy of world cinema at the fingertips of anyone who owns a VCR.
This is little short of miraculous for movie fans who grew up before video, relying on late-night TV and big-city revival theaters for access to old or obscure films. While most video outlets concentrate on recent Hollywood products, some companies have moved in the opposite direction, releasing hard-to-find material.
Kino Video is a sparkling example of this breed, filling its catalog with out-of-the-mainstream fare that might be solidly in the mainstream if more people could get a look at it. Among the most recent Kino releases is "Hollywood on Parade," a three-cassette series full of memories for older spectators and historic revelations for younger folks.
As indicated by its subtitle - "The Paramount Comedy Shorts: 1928-1941" - the series gleans its material from the output of a major studio that produced a wealth of memorable entertainment during the troubled years of the Depression and the buildup to World War II. Although this was a difficult period to live through, show business thrived, proving that diversions from the cares of the day are a necessary ingredient for a society's health.
Moviegoers weren't frittering away their time when they hustled off to see Jack Benny in "A Broadway Romeo," or Milton Berle in "Poppin' the Cork," or Robert Benchley in "The Sex Life of a Polyp," as frivolous as those titles may sound. They were finding the relief, relaxation, and laughter that grew more indispensable as social conditions grew more taxing. Hollywood recognized this need and provided a valuable public service, even as it consolidated its factory-like production system and accumulated the largest box-office profits in its history.
The most varied of the "Hollywood on Parade" cassettes is the volume called "Cavalcade of Comedy," featuring an impressive lineup of stars from the early 1930s. As the program notes point out, this was the era when movies were adjusting to their new "talkie" format, and canny studio chiefs were raiding Broadway for performers who knew how to entertain with their voices as well as their faces and bodies.
Several of the talents on view here - Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor - had gotten their start in vaudeville theaters and would go on to success in TV shows of the 1950s. The range and flexibility of their talents are smartly exemplified in the vignettes assembled by Kino, which run the gamut from the Yiddish humor of Smith & Dale's antic "What Price, Pants?" to the high-speed slapstick of Mack Sennett's wild "Cleaning Up."
A talkier kind of talkie dominates "Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin," a cassette celebrating the highly verbal humor of New York's sophisticated (and self-congratulatory) literary scene. Benchley is best, aiming satiric barbs at everything from pompous husbands to pretentious lecturers. Also on hand are Donald Ogden Stewart and the legendary Alexander Woollcott, who make up in wordplay what they lack in screen charisma.
Rounding out the series is "Studio Snapshots," a cassette featuring bogus "newsreels" made by Paramount to promote its stars. Everyone from Mary Pickford to Bela Lugosi takes a turn before the camera, posing and preening in "authentic" footage that's phony in the most delicious Hollywood manner. A trio of brief '30s musicals is also in the package.
All of which makes for a late-summer treat so refreshing that it might cause some viewers to do their next batch of moviegoing in the comfort of their own living rooms. Kino deserves congratulations for another rousing release.
*Kino can be found at www.kino.com.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society