- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

Turner Classic Movies, perhaps inspired by the shortest month of the year, will devote Tuesday evenings in February to a survey of vintage short subjects.

The cable repertory channel enjoys custody of a vast Hollywood library, and most of the shorts come from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. inventories from the late 1920s through the late 1940s. Almost every familiar theatrical genre is covered except cartoons and trailers.

TCM has commissioned an in-house documentary survey, "Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story," written by Leonard Maltin and narrated by Chevy Chase, to provide perspective for the series. It will be shown twice next Tuesday, at 8 and 11 p.m. A third showing is scheduled for the final installment, Feb. 26, at 10 p.m. Breezy and informative, it should prove to be a useful combination of primer and sampler.

Programming extends into the wee hours of Wednesday mornings. Random or selective viewing probably works best for the category once known to moviegoers as "selected short subjects." Nevertheless, the festival promises to provide something a little different and edifying for those who find surfing the network on Tuesday evenings an exercise in pleasure-seeking futility.

Nine of the comedy shorts made by humorist Robert Benchley during his tenure at MGM in the late 1930s and early 1940s get the opening-night slot. Their 9:30 p.m. airing is sandwiched between telecasts of "Added Attractions."

The Benchley shorts may produce drowsiness if viewed all at once. Shorts of this vintage never were intended to replace features.

The initial "late show" segment, starting at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, will be devoted to nine of the so-called Dogville comedy shorts of the early 1930s, which manipulated canines through quarter-hour parodies of popular features. The titles kind of yip for themselves: "The Dogway Melody," "The Big Dog House," "Love Tails of Morocco," "Trader Hound," etc. If you remain too stupefied to sleep after encountering "Dogville," the next segment at 3 a.m. collects shorts of the sporting world, starting with a quintet of golf instruction classics with Bobby Jones as the host.

As Mr. Maltin points out in the text for "Added Attractions," every movie was a short when the medium began in the last decade of the 19th century. Early film reels rarely exceeded a minute or two and were devoted to impromptu, home-movie subject matter. At the outset, pioneers were uncertain whether film exhibition had much staying power as a novelty, let alone as a vehicle for sustained dramatic enactment.

The first-generation movie public proved more patient than expected. The short stuff seemed to whet appetites for longer stuff. One-reel and two-reel storytelling, with a reel standardized at about 10 minutes, became desirable and affordable in the decade or so before World War I. Prompted by the Italian spectacle "Cabiria" in 1913, the feature as we now understand it became inevitable, although major distributors in the United States resisted it. They trusted volume more than distinction, at least until D.W. Griffith made a national impact with "The Birth of a Nation."

Shorts remained a fertile testing ground and reliable format for comedians into the 1920s. "Added Attractions" salutes the Mack Sennett and Hal Roach studios and uses the latter's "Our Gang" series and Laurel and Hardy comedies to cover the transition to talking pictures at the end of the 1920s. This is more than generous in a way, since distant competitor American Movie Classics provides a regular showcase for "Our Gang" under its TV-syndication title, "The Little Rascals." AMC also shelters the Three Stooges on a regular basis, and the Stooges are prominently mentioned during "Added Attractions," in part because their producer, Jules White, got his start in Hollywood supervising the "Dogville" parodies.

Two programs scheduled for Feb. 12, "Before They Were Stars" at 8 p.m. and "Directors in the Making" at 10 p.m., illustrate the utility of shorts to test aspiring performers and filmmakers during Hollywood's industrial heyday. Spencer Tracy, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr., James Stewart and Betty Hutton are among the future stars recalled in vintage shorts. Perhaps the most famous title in the batch is "Every Sunday," the musical short in which Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin gave spirited singing auditions for MGM, which let the latter slip away to Universal.

The then-aspiring directors Fred Zinnemann and Jules Dassin on two-reelers and Jacques Tourneur and George Sidney on one-reelers include a survivor who fondly recalls an apprenticeship in the MGM shorts department, Mr. Sidney.

Screenwriter Robert Lees and director Joseph Newman also testify to the advantages of the system, which put experienced designers and camera crews to work on shorts when they weren't committed to features but minimized the pressure, since shorts had to be made quickly and had no major commercial expectations to fulfill.

Most of the subtopics are anticipated in "Added Attractions." These include the Benchley series, sports, jazz and big-band shorts, James Fitzpatrick travelogues (including vintage tours of Washington, New York City, Los Angeles, London and Paris), Academy Award-winning shorts and restored Technicolor shorts. Others are Hollywood promotional shorts, a Warner Bros. series devoted to historical subjects (the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt) and the famous MGM trio of "Crime Does Not Pay," Pete Smith's "Specialties" and John Nesbitt's "Passing Parade."

Occasionally, you suspect some changes intruded between the completion of "Added Attractions" and the booking of the festival. For example, the documentary singles out movie serials but doesn't mention Western shorts; the series doesn't revive any serials but does devote a segment to two-reel Westerns starring Robert Shayne, never a prominent Western star.

To see recollections from a handful of surviving performers whose youth is preserved in one excerpt or another is gratifying. They are Virginia Froos, Rose Marie, Toby Wing, Dorothy Miller and Phyllis Coates. The first three recall musical shorts of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Miss Miller was an MGM starlet during the 1940s, and Miss Coates the co-star of a Warners domestic comedy series of the late 1940s, "Joe McDoakes," that gets a festival program to itself.

Miss Coates probably is better known as Lois Lane in the original "Superman" TV series. She looks marvelous in this comeback appearance and gets to share an amusing anecdotal interlude with Richard L. Bare, who shot the "McDoakes" series before moving on to a prolific career of his own on television.

Evidently, they fell so madly in love during the early stage of the series that they eloped and remained married for a whirlwind seven months.

WHAT: Festival of movie shorts

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WHEN: Tuesday evenings and early Wednesday mornings throughout February

CONTENT: Selections of vintage movie short subjects, introduced next Tuesday at 8 p.m. by a documentary feature titled "Added Attractions"

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