A Bijou Flashback: Forgotten Hollywood Treasures

 

Forgotten Treasures 1Where on television today can you find short subjects starring Betty Boop, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang or Flash Gordon?  Hollywood studios stopped producing short subjects altogether in the late 1950s as television became a household fixture, but in their heyday the shorts were the equivalent to what would become the sit-coms, variety shows, sports shows, cartoon series and news programs audiences could enjoy at home on the small screen.

Among our favorite theatrical shorts were the Hollywood behind-the-scenes newsreels produced during the 1930s, like The Star Reporter, Hollywood on Parade, Voice of Hollywood and Broadway Highlights. These little jewels foreshadowed today’s Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, American Idol and America’s Got Talent TV shows.

The Star Reporter newsreels were hosted by veteran sports commentator Ted Husing and served to introduce new and evolving talent, some going on to stardom. In one episode, nine-year old Bennie Bartlett sings his own original composition, and in another Ina Ray Hutton and Her All-Girl Orchestra let loose with some hot notes and hot moves, raising the roof until balloons descend to cover the orchestra in a grand finale.

One of the Star Reporter shorts featured Dorothy Lamour’s screen test, long considered lost until it surfaced in this entertaining Hollywood newsreel. The screen test proved a springboard for Lamour’s career and landed her the starring role in Paramount’s Jungle Princess (1936), opposite co-star Ray Milland. The marketing tagline was Her Exotic Beauty held all the allure of the tropic jungle! In spite of such corny dialogue as “You savage, untamed she-devil! I adore you!” the film made a lot of money for Paramount.

In her screen test Ms. Lamour sings a torch song that today would be considered politically incorrect in the extreme. As she lights up and smokes a cigarette she sings:

Love is like a cigarette.
You know you hold my heart
a glow between your fingertips.

And, just like a cigarette,
Love seemed to fade away
and leave behind ashes of regret.

Then with a flick of your fingertips,
it was easy for you to forget.
Oh love is like a cigarette.

Below, watch Ms. Lamour launch her career in this rarely-seen short from the Bijou cinematic time machine.

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The Voice of Hollywood celebrity newsreels were independently produced on a shoestring budget by Louis Lewyn for Tiffany Pictures. Each of the 26 shorts produced between 1930 and 1931 is a bizarre visual amalgamation of radio and film technologies. Each has a different celebrity host filmed talking to celebrities on the telephone or in the studio from fictitious Hollywood radio station S.T.A.R. The celebrities were often filmed paparazzi-style at a social event, sports event or movie premiere with footage then integrated into the newsreel.

These vintage treasures feature Hollywood and Broadway stars from the silent and early sound era, like Gary Cooper, Marie Dressler, Buster Keaton, Mack Sennett, Tom Mix, Thelma Todd, Johnny Mack Brown, Lupe Velez and novelty acts like Webber & Fields and Ukele Ike.

Mickey MaryIn one Voice of Hollywood, two original members of Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) series, Mary Kornman and Mickey Daniels, do a slapstick comedy routine wherein Mary proves she’s a young feminist ahead of her time. Tom Mix drops by and actress Lupe Velez sings a song that just happens to promote her latest MGM studio release Cuban Love Song (1931).

In another, a very young John Wayne makes a cameo appearance fresh from starring in The Big Trail (1930), which was the first 70 mm widescreen movie ever made.

Twenty-six Hollywood on Parade shorts were produced between 1932 and 1934 and have much in common with the more primitive Voice of Hollywood series. Louis Lewyn graduated from producing the “Voice” shorts for independent Tiffany Pictures to producing and directing the “Parade” series for major studio Paramount Pictures. Television did not yet exist, so there was no Tonight Show or Entertainment Tonight where studios could otherwise cinematically promote their new big-budget releases.

Lewyn could now access Hollywood’s grandest stars and biggest productions in creating his celebrity newsreels, including such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Cooper, Paulette Goddard, Mae West, Cary Grant, Rudy Vallee, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Durante, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Fay Wray, Fredric March, George Burns & Gracie Allen and countless others.

In one delightful Parade entry, Bonnie Poe, as everyone’s favorite vamp Betty Boop, visits a wax museum where she encounters Bela Lugosi as Dracula, who comes to life.

Rudy ValleeOne of our favorite Hollywood on Parades was inspired by Congress ratifying the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933. A nightclub setting on a Paramount soundstage is the locale for a mingling of celebrities and song. Cross-eyed bartender Ben Turpin is on hand to serve Jimmy Durante, Rudy Vallee and various other celebrities appearing in brief vignettes while sipping beer.

Durante needs to see a man about a dog, and his typical shtick is followed by the antics of Ted Healy and the original Three Stooges: Larry, Moe and Curly. Next, Rudy Vallee arrives to mix it up and sing with songwriters Harry Revel and Mack Gordon. Revel & Mack wrote the song “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” and Revel gives us a taste. The songwriters perform a medley of their famous music. To see this Hollywood on Parade short, click here.

Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin regards the Hollywood on Parade series to be the best of the inside-Hollywood celebrity newsreels. In his book “Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to The Three Stooges” he writes: “Every studio at one time or another produced behind-the-scenes shorts. The most successful were Columbia’s ‘Screen Snapshots,’ but the best were Paramount’s ‘Hollywood on Parade.’ Paramount’s shorts stand out from the others because they are the only ones that actually seemed to shoot good, fresh material, especially for the shorts, with their top stars.”

Paramount shifted focus from Hollywood to Broadway to deliver to audiences “Intimate News of the Gay White Way.” Adolph Zukor assumed the helm from Louis Lewyn for the Broadway Highlights pseudo-newsreel series that began as the Hollywood on Parade series ended. Famed sportscaster-turned-showbiz impresario Ted Husing once again hosts and narrates the continuing behind-the-scenes glimpses of pop culture icons with visits to cabarets and famous entertainment landmarks.

Eight editions of Highlights were produced during 1935 and 1936. The series kicked off in May 1935 with a stellar assembly of superstars, including Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, Earl Carroll, Gary Cooper, Jack Dempsey, Al Jolson, Beatrice Lillie, Otis Skinner, Sophie Tucker, Rudy Vallee, Paul Whiteman and Walter Winchell.

Broadway-Highlights

A perfect example of Broadway Highlights included a visit to CBS Radio Playhouse to witness a rehearsal of “Laugh with Ken Murray,” featuring a comedy routine with Eve Arden along with some swinging music from The Russ Morgan Band. Then a jaunt around the corner to the New York Winter Garden Theater to witness a tribute to the Schuberts on the 25th anniversary of the famous theater from a young Milton Berle, Bert Lahr, Phil Baker and other luminaries of the 1930s theater world. Then Ted Husing talks us across the George Washington Bridge to one of Broadway’s most popular summer night spots, Ben Martin’s Riviera. Highlights of the floor show included chorus girls, an incredible acrobatic dancer and some sensational moves from Spanish dancers Estelle & LeRoy.

A multitude of classic cartoons, short subjects and serials were last seen on the original Matinee at the Bijou series on PBS during the 1980s. Though not a prime-time show, Matinee was often rated among the top 10 shows on public television, besting such popular public television fare as Masterpiece Theater, Mystery, Frontline and Sneak Previews. Audiences loved the show and came back week after week for more, mostly for the short subjects.

Today we’ve looked at Hollywood celebrity newsreels produced during the 1930s at the outset of the sound era but there were many other notable examples released during the 1940s and 50s that we’ll save for another day. In watching these remarkable films we witness the development of American popular culture and visit a world that no longer exists.

Bob Campbell is co-creator and producer of the original PBS series Matinee at the Bijou. He is currently working to bring back the series in a sequel to be hosted by the magnificent Debbie Reynolds.

  • don snyder

    I agree with Bob Campbell completly. I have been in the theatre business since 1950. The short subjects in those days wrre sometimes better than the mian feature. Mr. Campbell didn’t mention what most people waited for week after week at the movies. Those wonderful serials from Republic, Columbia and Universal. And there was also a cartoon for added enjoyment. MGM had their
    Tom And Jerry’s, Paramount’s Popeye and Noveltoons, the Walt Disney cartoons distributed by RKO, and Fox’s Terrytoons starring Mighty Mouse and the Talking Magpies. Warner’s were the top of the bill when a Merrie Melodies cartoon hit the screen. Those were the days until Television ruined it all.
    But it is the two reelers that I miss the most.
    The Three Stooges, Candid microphone, Fitzpatrick Traveltalks, Pete Smith Specialties, Popular Science, the very popular RKO series with Edger Kennedy and Leon Errol and the unforgettable, March Of Time.
    The kids today are treated to Previews of coming attractions and the main feature. Thank goodness, some of these great shorts can be seen on DVD’s.
    One of my favorite stories that happened to me in 1949…..On the marqee at the drive-in, we always keep the same message at the bottom, “Also selected Shorts.” When we opened the great John Wayne movie, the marquee read, “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, plus Selected Shorts.”

    • Bruce Reber

      There was “Puppetoons” (animated puppets in a cartoon, hence the name) from George Pal, who created the special effects for “War Of The Worlds” (1953) and “The Time Machine” (1960). This was kind of a forerunner to Claymation.

  • Michael

    I love it when TCM shows these short features between movies. Probably my favorites are the “Pete Smith Specialty” one reelers. I do remember in the 1950′s the cartoons,newsreels,and short subjects more than I remember any particular movie. Sure got your money’s worth in those days.

    • Bruce Reber

      TCM also occasionally shows comedy shorts with Robert Benchley – those are very funny also! For those unfamiliar with Mr. Benchley, he co-starred in the Hitchcock movie “Foreign Correspondent” and several others.

  • Jon Ted Wynne

    The more we hear from film appreciators/historians like Mr. Campbell, the better. With the endless stream of junk being produced today, many film fans find solace in the gems of Hollywood’s Golden Age. When I see John Wayne in THE BIG TRAIL I get a shiver down my spine, knowing what was to come in his career. The birth of a legend. How many could forsee that? And Dorothy Lamour, one of the premier babes of yesteryear–wow! Thanks, Movies Unlimited, for posting this entertaining (and important) blog!

  • BRIAN

    Love Affair(1932)Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Mackaill.(One of HBs first roles as a leading man)

  • Marianne Richardson

    I was 12 when the Matinee at the Bijou was on PBS in the 1980s. I’d never heard of “shorts” or “newsreels,” and my father had to explain that this is how people saw the news of the day, that “going to the movies” was more than just one film, but a collection of shorts and cartoons and serials, too. I realize now that these film shorts are a fascinating glimpse of early 20th century America; I’m so glad TCM decided to run them between features (I love The March of Time). Matinee at the Bijou got me started in my love of classic films — Thank you Mr. Campbell!

  • Mark DuMond

    Great article full of insight and wisdom. The Golden Age of Hollywood was truly a time and place which will never be repeated. It helped to form America. Long live the movies!

  • Sherry McCullough

    Does anyone remember The Passing Parade shorts? I saw them on my local TV station when the early or late movie used to run a little short and they had to fill in the time. Sure wish someone would put them on DVD along with Pete Smith and some of the others.

  • Philip

    When I was a kid I watched a program on a local New York channel called “Reel Camp”. They showed all of the old film shorts like “Pete Smith Specialties”, “McCullah and Clark” and others that I can not remember. The program was on early in the morning around 1:00am. That was a great mis-spent summer watching the shorts into the early morning hours.

  • Bill Krakauer

    My movie going days go back to the early 30′s and I particularly remember the extremely funny Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly shorts. That great team seems to have been forgotten. I’d sure love to see them again.

  • Alan

    Great article! Just fyi – the “Our Gang” vets pictured are Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman.

  • Gregorian Chanter

    Note to Sherry McCullough: Turner Classic Movies runs Passing Parade shorts between movies every once in a while. Back when AMC was much more worth watching than now, they ran the Popular Science shorts. I really like the ones the focus on the “modern kitchen”. Also years ago, Cartoon Network used to run “Late Night Black and White”, where they ran many of the old Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. Alas, this program is long gone as well.

  • Gregorian Chanter

    Oops, this forum doesn’t show HTML (though what I wrote can be seen if you do a copy and paste to Notepad or whatever). TCM runs “Passing Parade” shorts. AMC used to run the “Popular Science” shorts.

  • Sameoldsong

    Actress who provided the voice over for Betty Boop actually got to meet bela lugosi.

    Her last appereance was in Rambling round radio row which was created right after this. which also featured some work from one of the 3 stooges hemp.

    • Bruce Reber

      Besides Bonnie Poe, Mae Questal (she did Scott Towel commericials on TV in the 70′s) also provided the voice for BB.

    • Bruce Reber

      That should be Shemp – hemp is a substance used to make rope.

  • Albert Paton

    I have an 8mm filmm black and white silent bought in 1960 called Hollywood or Bust starring Bud Abbot and Lou Costello approx 15mins with sub titles I would like to sell
    Any ideas

  • PhilG

    I would buy any – preferablh ALL – of these types of shorts and newsreels if any enterprising company would put them all out on DVD…

    • Randy

      Phil – there are some available from Movies Unlimited and a few of the other mail-order services. I have started to purchase them when I can find them. Just takes some searching and patience. I have noticed that a lot of them include awful stereotypes and other “politically incorrect” themes and language. This does not offend me but rather gives an authentic look into the times when the shorts were made.

  • diacad

    I think the most impressive Hollywood short subject was Frank Sinatra’s classic “The House I Live In” (1945). – a beautiful statement for religious and ethnic tolerance, Entertaining without being preachy. A more recent non-Hollywood short by Keegan Wilcox, “The Porcelain Unicorn” (2010), does much the same thing. They are both on youtube and worth seeing.

  • laustcawz

    There should be DVD compilations of these.

  • Bruce Reber

    When I went to the movies as a kid (mid 1960′s – early 1970′s) I remember the cartoons that were shown before the movie began, the previews (trailers) for coming attractions (usually 2 or 3), and sometimes there would be a brief ad for the refreshment/snack bar, urging everyone to hurry up and get their popcorn, candy and soda before the big show starts (some with a countdown-”Only two more minutes till showtime!) It was great to be young and a moviegoer back in the day!

    • Antone

      I was a couple of decades before you. I hate to be the one to tell you that you were short-changed. Our Saturday ended with two feature films, preceded by several cartoons, the Movietone News, one chapter of a multiple-episode serial, a comic essay by Pete Smith or Robert Benchley, a comedy short [usually 3 Stooges, Bowery Boys or Laurel & Hardy], a travelogue & multiple previews of coming attractions. After all that sitting, we would have rioted if they tried to sneak in a crummy commercial. P.S. I forgot the occasional Candid Camera or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

      • Bruce Reber

        Yes, it seems you did have it better – I guess I WAS shortchanged!

        • Antone

          The Saturday double feature with all the trimmings served as an inexpensive day care system. Many housewives went to work during the war and chose to continue after it ended. They could park their kids in the theater, do the weekly home chores, and know where the kids would be 5 or 6 hours later.