For today, I have another slew of short films to review. This time I’m tackling five of them at once, largely because a few of them are particularly short — though no less notable for that. There are two live-action comedies, two animated comedies, and one animated abstract piece. All but one are in black and white, and only one could truly be said to be a “talkie” — though one does have sound effects. Most are from the 1920s, but there’s one from 1913 and one from 1944.
- Fatty Joins the Force
- The Balloonatic
- Symphonie Diagonale
- Slick Sleuths
- The Case of the Screaming Bishop
Reviews shall be in chronological order. Read through, there’s apt to be something that’ll catch your interest.
In this Fatty Arbuckle film, Fatty and his girlfriend (Dot Farley) are walking along a park when they see a child drowning in the pond. Fatty reluctantly goes into the pond himself to rescue the child, and when the child is safe, they find out that she’s the daughter of the police commissioner. As a reward, Fatty is given a position on the force, only to have further problems ensue.
At only 13 minutes, Fatty Joins the Force is simple even for a short film, and it doesn’t generate a lot of laughs. It does have some moments, though, particular with the pratfalls from the surprisingly acrobatic Arbuckle. The additional humor generated from some misunderstandings along the way help make it a moderately entertaining short.
Buster Keaton co-directed this film with Edward F. Cline, and stars in it as an amusement park attendant who finds himself in a series of odd predicaments, starting with him accidentally going up on a hot air balloon (yes, “on”, not “in”). Though it’s this sequence that gives the short its name, the majority of the 23 minute short is actually what comes next, with Keaton’s attendant trying to survive in the woods and making a general nuisance of himself to a young woman who lives out there (played by Phyllis Haver). Keaton’s physical comedy is the highlight of the film, with a fun sense of absurdity in the situations adding to the overall effect. Each scene has a fair number of gags to laugh at, and the timing is always good. Haver gets some of the laughs as well, as her woodswoman isn’t significantly more competent than Keaton’s attendant. One weakness of the film, though, is in its editing, with occasional glitches in continuity (at least, in the version I found; it’s possible some original scenes are simply missing, given the age of the film).
Viking Eggeling’s 7-minute short is a truly bizarre little film. It’s an abstract film, animated, with drawings appearing that are meant to represent music. But it was made in 1924, which of course was the silent film era, and thus there is no accompanying music (at least, not without a performer in the theatre). So it becomes a peculiar little intellectual exercise: how can Eggeling describe music, using only pictures instead of sound? And black-and-white pictures, no less. The task takes the form of a series of lines and curves, drawn in parts and moving in different patterns. It’s impossible to be sure through viewing what music inspired Eggeling, but its nature as an orchestral piece is obvious. There are definite movements in the animation, certain pieces that repeat, and some drawings seem to represent different intruments than others.
Although strange, it’s an interesting little cartoon, and a clear forerunner to similar works by others, such as Disney’s Fantasia. Though it’s likely that it is of interest only to film buffs, as most people won’t have the patience for its abstract silent nature.
Slick Sleuths is a short cartoon featuring Bud Fisher’s characters Mutt and Jeff. Fisher himself co-directed the short along with Charles R. Bowers, and it was one of several dozen that were produced in the early-to-mid 1920s; Slick Sleuths was one of the ones produced during the final year of the run. I have never had the opportunity to read a Mutt and Jeff comic, though I was aware of its importance, and until now I didn’t know that any animated cartoons had been made from the property. It makes sense, though; as the first daily comic strip, it would have been ripe for adaptation. The cartoons were originally black-and-white and silent, but they were re-released during the 1930s, with Kromocolor and some sound effects added; this is the version that I watched.
The artwork looks great, especially in color; there’s a lot of personality in the appearances of the characters, even in minor side characters. The sound effects are sometimes strange, but generally work very well, adding to the comic timing. Because the short was written without speech, when the characters talk there’s a kind of warble; imagine the adults on Charlie Brown specials, only instead of a muted trumpet it’s a softened record scratch. There are no title cards to show what the characters are saying, and none are needed; it’s all clear from context. In the story, Mutt and Jeff are trying their hands at amateur detective work to gain a reward of $5000 (a princely sum in 1926) for the capture of the elusive Phantom, a criminal with apparent supernatural abilities. It’s a fun story, heavy on the comedy and just a dash of adventure to keep it interesting. It’s well worth tracking down, and if there’s a collection of these seven-minute shorts, I might have to see if I can find it. The one disappointment with this particular episode was that the ending was a bit of a cheat.
And one more seven-minute cartoon, this one a black-and-white talkie. This cartoon is from the Screen Gems Phantasies series, produced for Columbia Pictures. Much like the Mutt and Jeff cartoons I was unaware of this series, but they are apparently a series of a few dozen short cartoons, in the nature of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and similar productions from MGM, Disney, etc. It makes sense that Columbia would have had something as well, and I’m glad I stumbled across this example.
The Case of the Screaming Bishop is a parody of Sherlock Holmes, with some elements directly riffing on the pictures being produced at rival studio Universal at the time. Despite the name, there is no screaming bishop (the title is is apparently a parody of a Perry Mason title). Rather Hairlock Combs (John McLeish) and his assistant Dr. Gotsome are hired to investigate the theft of a dinosaur statue from a museum.
The short over-relies on repetition, with Combs relaying his catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Gotsome” approximately once a minute, and the thief repeatedly taunting Combs with the same clue to the skeleton’s whereabouts… which Combs is too daft to figure out despite it saying the location directly. Still, there’s some mild humor here to be found, and the animation itself is well done. Some background elements even have a sketch-like appearance, which is kind of nice. Actual animated components are simpler, but still have a nice clean style. The cartoon won’t bowl anybody over with its humor, but fans of theatrical shorts may want to check it out simply for the relative novelty of it, as the Phantasies series seems to be largely forgotten nowadays.