The Major Comedy Short Film Studios of the Early Sound Era

Up until around the 1960s, a movie theater experience was much more diverse than today. Not only were audiences treated a feature film, but also a diverse lineup including newsreels, travelogues, two-reel comedies, cartoons, and a musical (what we would think of as a music video). In this three-part series I will be looking at the key studios in three different areas: live-action comedy shorts, animated cartoons and serials. Today I look at the live action shorts, which were commonly called two-reelers, averaging at around 15-20 minutes.

Comedy shorts were very popular in early days of cinema, and most of the major comedians of the silent era started out doing short films: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand. During the 1920s most of these key actors did the bulk of their work in features, and short films were often seen as mere appetizers to the main course of the features. Still, the top figures in short comedies were still household names, and often were used to get audiences to watch lesser B movies that played after the short. During the sound era, there were only a few key two-reel studios left. I will be looking at four of them: Mack Sennett, Educational Pictures, Hal Roach Studios and Columbia Pictures.

Mack Sennett

The Dentist (1932) HD - W.C. Fields - YouTube

Mack Sennett was the top producer of comedy during the silent era. He had a great eye for discovering talent: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Andy Clyde and Harry Langdon all made their names working for Sennett. Unfortunately, he could not keep talent, and they often left him soon after they gained fame. When the sound era began, his significance was largely gone. The top star at his studio during the talkie era was Andy Clyde, starring in shorts distributed by Educational (not to be confused with the films Educational were themselves making). He also hired two-big name talents to produce a series of shorts under him: Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields. The Bing Crosby two-reelers were popular enough that they ended up being distributed by a major studio: Paramount. W.C. Fields soon followed with four shorts that were not successful at the time, but have been highly regarded in the decades since. These still did not save the studio from bankruptcy. In 1933, the Mack Sennett studio closed for good.

Educational Pictures

Buster Keaton giving directions in One Run Elmer (1935 ...

Educational Pictures was founded in 1916 with the goal of making instructional videos for school students. But they found themselves a niche in comedy, and decided to make it their bread-and-butter. In the silent era they had famous comedians Al St. John, Lupino Lane and Lloyd Hamilton working for them. In the 1930s they mainly became sort of a graveyard for previously famous silent comedians who couldn’t get a job anywhere else including Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Andy Clyde. The films were distributed by 20th Century Fox. The studio’s work has a middle-ground reputation: it’s commonly accepted that Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon did their best sound work working for Educational, but still vastly inferior to their work in the silent era. In 1937 when Fox dropped their distribution of Educational’s shorts, they decided to drop out of the shorts department.

Hal Roach

Laurel and Hardy's “The Music Box” - Pop Off - Medium

In my opinion Hal Roach’s studio was the greatest two-reel comedy studio in history, and it’s not even a close competition. From 1915, when Hal Roach entered the comedy shorts field, to 1938, the films were produced with great quality. Rather than just relying on slapstick, there was an actual motivation and depth to the characters. Hal Roach had several talent during the prime of their careers. Harold Lloyd’s first starring comedies were with the Hal Roach studio. His first character was Willie Work, which I have not been able to found any footage of, so I’m not sure exactly what the character was like. He next played a Charlie Chaplin-clone called Lonesome Luke, before finding his greatest success as the Glasses character starting in 1917. In 1921, he moved into feature films and left the Hal Roach studio in 1923 to form his own production company. Roach was did not miss a beat; the enormously popular Our Gang comedies (probably more known by the name it went by on television: The Little Rascals) began shortly before, and the excellent Charley Chase comedies began shortly after Lloyd’s departure. In 1927 a chance pairing involving Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy produced well-regarded comedies, and the decision was made to permanently turn them into a team. A distribution with deal MGM, the biggest of all the major studios, also began that year. When the sound era began, most studios had trouble adjusting. Hal Roach hit success right off the bat. Laurel and Hardy turned out to be as great speaking as in slapstick, and Charley Chase was a talented singer who could now show off his skill. It was feared that the Our Gang children would have a problem remembering their lines, but these turned out to be moot with the comedies become more popular than ever. The only real failure was an unsuccessful partnership with Harry Langdon.

Hal Roach also had a great supporting cast: Thelma Todd, Anita Garvin, Mae Busch, and Jimmy Finlayson. Todd was popular enough to have her own starring series. Hal Roach wanted to create a female Laurel and Hardy team, so he termed her up with ZaSu Pitts. When Pitts left Hal Roach, she was then paired with Patsy Kelly until Thelma Todd’s controversial death in 1935. As they say, all great things come to an end and Hal Roach wanted to stop making shorts and move into features. Laurel and Hardy had a successful period making features for Roach, but the Our Gang kids were not so lucky. One feature film was produced: General Spanky. It was a box-office failure and Hal Roach ended up selling the series outright to MGM where it continued until 1944. The greatest set of short film series were no more.

Columbia Pictures

The Final Years of Curly (of Three Stooges Fame) | Mental Floss

Columbia was the only major studio to be a significant player in two-reel comedies (all of the other major studios merely distributed to independents). In 1934 Harry Cohn hired Jules White to head the shorts department, and from the time Hal Roach left the market in 1938 to when Columbia released their last two-reeler in 1959, they had a monopoly. Jules White’s style has commonly been criticized for featuring too much violence and slapstick without much of a plot. I would mostly disagree with the criticisms for a few reasons.

1. Columbia, being the only company still making two-reel comedies in great numbers gave a lot of comedians a place to work: Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Andy Clyde and Charley Chase all found work there when Hal Roach and Educational stopped making short films.
2. They didn’t have much money to work with and made the best of what they could with limited resources.
3. The films were highly entertaining, and even if the plots and gags were ridiculous they were still amusing.

The most important act at the studio was The Three Stooges. After leaving Ted Healy and MGM in 1934, they signed a contract with Columbia that lasted almost a quarter century. The slapstick violence fit them perfectly and was cartoonish in nature. During the 1950s movie theater attendance dropped dramatically due to the rise of television. The save costs several movie theaters dropped the shorts and and only went with features. With not much of a future left, Columbia stopped production on short comedies in 1957, but they produced enough that the last ones were released in 1959.

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