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The Lion Roars—For Short Subjects

The Lion Roars—For Short Subjects

I can’t hide the fact that I am addicted to short subjects
of the 1930s and ‘40s. I even seek them out on Turner Classic Movies by tuning
in at 20 minutes before the hour, on the chance that one will turn up as filler
between feature films. Now Warner Archive has made my life a bit easier by
collecting 36 MGM one- and two-reelers in a three-disc DVD set called Classic Shorts from the Dream Factory Volume
2 (1929-1946)

To be honest, a lot of these films aren’t worthy of the
“classic” designation; many are mediocre and some are downright dreadful. But
most of them are charmingly odd, and that’s what draws me to them. Have you
ever seen a bandstand shaped like a giant waffle iron? You will if you watch Happily Buried (1939), a love story
about a man who believes in square waffles and a woman who prefers round ones.
(I’m not making this up.) Would you be curious to see a musical in which pairs
of shoes talk to one another? Try New
(1936), starring Arthur “Dagwood” Lake, with music and lyrics by the
team that later wrote Broadway’s Kismet.

There’s a fascinating sketch called The Rounder (1930) starring a young, sardonic Jack Benny. Gentlemen of Polish (1934) is an
intriguing patchwork short featuring vaudeville heroes Shaw and Lee that includes
leftover bits from MGM’s Hollywood Party

Your eyes will pop out when you see the lush, over-saturated
three-strip Technicolor in Gypsy Night
(1935), which also features some stop-motion puppet animation.

The ideas for these miniature musicals and comedies are
wide-ranging and often bizarre—like a musical dentist’s office staffed by
chorus girls, in Dancing on the Ceiling
(1937)—but that’s what keeps me coming back for more. There are even serious
topics like the writing of “La Marseillaise,” in Song of Revolt (1937), starring Leon Ames. You never know who’s
going to turn up in the cast roster, from up-and-comers like Virginia Grey and
Ann Rutherford to such welcome character actors and comedians as Billy Gilbert
and Benny Rubin.

The ones worth skipping are a handful of dreary vignettes
about classical composers directed by James A. FitzPatrick, the man responsible
for MGM’s long-running series of travelogues. Like those globe-trotting shorts,
these dramatic presentations are astonishingly inert.

There is one genuinely famous short in the collection: Every Sunday (1936), which served as a
joint audition for Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin (who’s even referred to in a
throwaway moment as Edna, her real name). And there’s one notable screen
credit: Buster Keaton is the director of an undistinguished musical short
called Streamlined Swing (1938), made
five years after he’d worn out his welcome as a performer at MGM.

Vast as this assortment may be, it’s still just the tip of the
iceberg. I hope there are more DVD sets on the way. (How about the Historical Mysteries?) In the meantime,
check this one out at

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