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Spills and Chills (1949)
Definitely lives up to its title... and only ten minutes long!
Time-Warner is finally, if slowly, releasing some of these "docu-shorts" that Robert Youngson made before his popular feature THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY. In the late forties and fifties, critics at the time routinely praised these above even the "March of Time" and Disney "True Life Adventures" and Oscar nominations were frequent. Now, that three titles have made it to DVD as "extras", it is easy to see what all of the fuss was about. They cull the very best newsreel clips, presented with enthusiastic narration, fast-paced editing and swirling orchestration that only a major studio could provide.
Think of these as Ken Burns TV shows sped up on caffeine. Even the opening titles pack a lot: SPILLS AND CHILLS rolls its credits over aerial shots of New York City shot from a daredevil's point of view. The fact that the footage is even older today (dating circa 1916 to mid '40s with the twenties emphasized) makes it all the more fascinating, since most modern viewers will be new to folks like Lillian Boyer, John "Jammie" Reynolds, Mildred Unger and many others who will leave your jaw dropped to the ground.
This title is definitely NOT for those afraid of heights, speed or extreme temperature. We have a very young Mildred riding the top of a balloon, Lillian performing trapeze stunts under a plane without a parachute, Paris bridge jumps, a prize fight high over Manhattan, jump-roping on a skyscraper scaffold, human "flies" scaling buildings and "teeter-tottering" chairs along rooftop edges. Some additional motorcycle and car crash scenes here (like the famous one crashing through a shed) may have inspired the comic gags with Gene Kelly early in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. This was an era when most Americans weren't at all terrified by death, the insurance agencies hadn't taken charge yet and the filmmakers had super strong stomachs watching through their lenses.
Desert Killer (1952)
The "killer" is just one big pussycat.
Five year old "injun" Little Sure Foot has trouble guarding his flock of sheep against a marauding mountain lion in the mountains of Arizona. His daddy passed away recently and mom is too busy trying to earn a meager living selling her beaded crafts to tourists. Using a roly-poly puppy as a "gift exchange", he gets help from his grown up friend Marvin Glenn and his teenage son Warner, professional puma patrol.
What results is a one-reel outing that closely resembles the couple "bring 'em back alive" shorts (also done by Warner Brothers, as well as Paramount) featuring Florida's Ross Allen roping bobcats in the Everglades. Then again, the Out West cougar seen here looks a trifle less ferocious (despite the dubbed African lion sounds) than those smaller Easterners, even if his prey comes from the sheep and cattle herds. As usual, he does what most felines do best: climb a tree to flee the hounds and chew off his ropes.
With hokey cowpoke narration by Art Gilmore (previously heard in Joe McDoakes comedies and other "Sports Parades"), you just know the kiddies in the movie audience were hardly frighten by the heart-stoppin' adventures here. (In fact, most of you will question why this actually got Oscar nominated.)
Won't spoil the ending, but let's just say that this was made by the same director as several fluffy Walt Disney pics, like STORMY, THE THOROUGHBRED WITH AN INFERIORITY COMPLEX and the Oscar winner THE WETBACK HOUND. He alternated between Disney and Warner Bros. during the early fifties, also doing for Warner a cute seal-and-girl story STRANGER IN THE LIGHTHOUSE and a less critter friendly, but another nominee two years later, BEAUTY AND THE BULL featuring bullfighter Bette Ford.
The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)
Over-the-top, but highly entertaining, Bell Science installment
The Bell Science TV specials that feature Frank Baxter as "Mr. Research" have certainly etched themselves in a great many Baby Boomer and Generation Xer minds, being a regular part of the US public (and private) school curriculum well into the 1980s. To the cinema enthusiast, they have plenty of interesting credits and can conveniently be split into two "phases". The first four were produced and directed by Frank Capra on a somewhat modest scale, with just an "imagination screen" where most of the action takes place, and are a trifle more preachy and "religious" in tone. The later four came from Warner Bros. (with its in-house animators and directors like Owen Crump) and, despite their more straight-forward and "secular" approach, boast over-the-top art direction and production sets that only a major Burbank studio can provide.
It is obvious which batch THE ALPHABET CONSPIRACY belongs to. Frank Baxter, the ever smiling bald host, takes homework-ridden Judy into a dream-like fantasy-land full of over-sized books and assorted props that the WB set department must have loved working on. Hans Conried provides high comedy as the Mad Hatter in a spoof of Lewis Carroll, as he attempts to destroy the alphabet and "words" in general. (Both he and Frank Baxter were veteran voices of "old time" radio: check out "CBS Radio Workshop: Joe Miller's Joke Book" from 11/4/56 for a half-hour program which sounds just like an "audio" Bell Science show.) What results is a history and study of human speech and dialect, starting with baby talk and including such novelty subjects as whistling calls in the Canary Islands. Great use of Warner's stock footage (from its many live-action short subjects in addition to outside sources) and funny animation from the Friz Freleng unit (done in between Bugs Bunny cartoons) adds to the light-hearted lecturing.
What makes all of these shows so endearing is Baxter's enthusiasm for the material he presents, as well as his attempts to "fit in" with the current generation. Case in point is his hilarious attempts to speak "beat jive" to Shorty Rogers, the jazzy "dig it" hip-cat. (We could easily picture him attempting hip-hop lingo had this been made in the eighties.) Most importantly, he never talks down to his audience, but "shares" with them the Big Bright Wonderful World he's exploring.
Fans of this series often have mixed opinions of THE ALPHABET CONSPIRACY, because it is the most over-produced of the bunch, with the material being a bit too "sugar-coated" and less "in-depth" than the others. Apparently there was some criticism back in 1959, since the following production THREAD OF LIFE was made in a much more low-key manner (with people on TV monitors conversing with Baxter). THAT one proved too "dry", so they returned to the Over-The-Top treatment (but with some moderation) in ABOUT TIME.
About Time (1962)
Last of the Frank Baxter Bell Science TV specials
All eight of the Bell Science shows featuring Frank Baxter are fun to watch today, despite some of the material being somewhat dated. (The shows reflect their age mostly when it comes to electronic technology. The computerized machines from the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras are often quite "prehistoric".) The four later installments, produced by Warner Brothers, are especially enjoyable on account of their outlandish sets and art direction. In this one, we take an imaginary visit to the "Planet Q" where the inhabitants are just like we humans and hold court with a king on his throne. The "plot" involves setting the "royal" clock and needing a "time" to start with. Conveniently, Frank Baxter is available with an observatory peeping out to Earth and is able to give a detailed description of what "time" is.
Subjects covered include a history of clocks starting with sticks-in-the-ground, sun dials, calenders, Galileo's first use of the pendulum in 1583, the use of quartz crystals and, in the 20th century, atomic energy for modern clocks. The seasons are briefly studied, along with how plants, snowshoe hares and hamsters use their own "clocks". Uranium properties aid paleontologists in "dating" fossils and studying the earth's age.
The best segments involve Einstein and his relativity principle. Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series in 1979-80 covered similar material in live-action (and considerably more detail), but the cartoon footage gets the point across quite well. Two twin brothers... one an astronaut traveling the speed of light and the other staying on Earth age 60 years differently, because time is different in outer space with different "laws" in effect.
Like all of the programs, there is a great finish. This time, the Big Bang theory is presented with delightful slushy orchestration and the all-too-familiar passage is borrowed from Ecclesiastes (later done by the Byrds in song). It is an appropriate ending to the very last Bell Science special (with Baxter starring), since the Warner-produced specials didn't delve into scripture like the earlier Frank Capra productions (such as OUR MR. SUN and HEMO THE MAGNIFICENT).
Warner-Vitaphone meets the avant garde
When "Jammin' The Blues" was released by Warner Bros. in 1944, it was recognized as a breakthrough in visual razzle-dazzle, nominated for an Oscar, later singled out by Leonald Maltin in his THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS, became a cult favorite among jazz film collectors and finally entered into the National Film Registry. Yet, as Warner starts unveiling its vast short subject collection gradually on DVD, including the Archive's 6-disc set of Melody Masters and Vitaphone Varieties (Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz & Swing), a treasure-trove of nuggets are being rediscovered... some of which may be one-reel "Citizen Kanes" aching for critical attention.
On one level, this short subject "dates" poorly: scenes of happy-but-lazy "negro life" in a rural "shanty" cabin outside of Savannah, Georgia with watermelon eatin', cotton pickin' and rockin' with Mammy on the front porch.
On another level, the look of the film and the art direction are years ahead of its time. In a curious way, it invites comparison to avant garde experiments of the late twenties like "Life and Death of 9143: a Hollywood Extra". Many camera angles are slanted with people popping out of the corners of the screen. Silhouettes and funhouse mirrors are utilized to eye-popping effect. Stylized "palm" trees make the human actors appear as if they are coverting in a toy Plasticville, while the city dance hall segment could pass for a seventies discotheque. Even the train is carefully constructed as "surreal". It is possible that this film was Warner-Vitaphone's response to the artsy musical shorts that William Cameron Menzies was releasing through United Artists at this time.
According to Roy Liebman's VITAPHONE FILMS, the studio was sued for using the music without permission. With this in mind, one of the title cards listing James P. Johnson was probably a "reissue" edit.
Above-average Pete Smith Specialty
The Pete Smith shorts were a staple of the MGM program for more than two decades and audiences eagerly anticipated a certain number of sub-series or series-within-a-series entries. Each movie-season (running from September to August), there were a few Technicolor "novelties" (usually a cooking demonstration or an athletic spectacular), a football review of last year's newsreel clips, a cute animal subject, three or more sports-reels featuring great stunts, a couple of Dave O'Brien pantomime slap-sticks of the "you can't win" mode and one or two "What's Your IQ?" quizzes. This title belongs to the last of these sub-series and is also called "What's Your IQ No. 16".
The whole concept of a quiz-reel sounds dry and boring on paper, but when presented on screen is quite enjoyable. That's because Pete Smith provides so much high comedy: measuring the weight of a piano by skunk and lion sizes and showing an offbeat news clip of a ship disaster that has NOTHING to do with the core subject of musical instruments. The audience participates in the multiple choice questions (this was during the heyday of "following the bouncing ball" sing-a-longs) and our witty narrator provides hilarious criticism for those of us who chose the wrong answer. For example, five weird words that Smith can't even pronounce correctly are tossed out as a which-is-an-instrument? question.
In-between the question and answer sessions are some Ed Sullivan-ish novelty acts, this time involving music. The best of these little acts is a pianist who plays blindfolded with a sheet over the keys. Others, like the blown-up glove "instrument" are strictly for laughs.
Sports Oddities (1949)
Pleasing docu-comedy of athletic stunts
Some of the Pete Smith shorts resemble Ed Sullivan TV shows with an assortment of jaw-dropping "acts" that bare little resemblance to each other. This is a great one-reeler, even if it has a "parts-are-greater-than-the-whole" vibe. Like all of Pete's sports-reels, there is plenty to entertain the less "sporty" crowd.
We open with some ice-skating stunts highlighted by a trio that incorporates flip-flop acrobatics, reminding me of the Ross sisters sch-tick in "Broadway Rhythm". In the most entertaining segment, Buddy Bowner demonstrates a variety of bowling tricks, giving new meaning to "gutter-balls" and even succeeds with a "square-ball". The surfing clips are a bit more conventional compared to the earlier stunts, though the scene with a two-year old toddler (press statement is "gah!") stands out. The high diving clowning act in the finale is strictly for laughs... goofy sound effects are added which are louder than Pete's narration. (The broken glass sound when the diver hits the water is a popular gag in many short subjects.)
Facing Your Danger (1946)
Excellent white rapids adventure, though likely more "breath-taking" in the forties than now
Occasionally shown on TCM and now available on the DVD for Bette Davis' DECEPTION, this one-reeler acquired by Warner Brothers in 1945 (and given spiffy narration by Knox Manning) makes impressive use of Grand Canyon scenery. The dangers of riding the Colorado River are pretty obvious and not to be viewed by the faint-of-heart. There's even a brief shot of a skeleton to add a grim touch of reality to the fun.
Although today's viewers may pass this off as a forties "home movie", the close-up footage of white water rapids certainly would look great on the big screen; the Oscar voters were impressed. It is interesting to compare this with some of the 1950s CinemaScope portraits of the Colorado, like the Disney featurette GRAND CANYON. Today, this type of adventure would probably be made with greater technical sophistication for the IMAX screen... and a bigger crew, a longer end-credit roll and none of the personal "touch" of a cameraman like Edwin E. Olsen.
Early information from 1946 periodicals suggest that this was planned as a "Technicolor Adventure" (a more fitting umbrella title), but it went into general release as one of the 160+ "Sports Parade" shorts, which Warner Bros.cranked out between 1940 and 1956. These were often less "sport" and more "human interest" and travelogue. Their key advantage over the competition (Paramount Sportlight, RKO Sportscope, Fox Sport Review and Columbia World Of Sports) was the consistent use of Technicolor (though 16mm "blown up" to 35 often looked quite grainy).
Romeo in Rhythm (1940)
Great Tex Avery cartoon... minus Tex Avery
Made a year or two before Avery's arrival at MGM, this Rudolf Ising production boasts some of the same frenetic energy one usually associates with the wartime cartoons to come. Despite not receiving on-screen credit, many key animators working here would get even wilder with Red Hot Riding Hood and Droopy. Also, in terms of animation "polish", this closely matches both PINOCCHIO and FANTASIA in opulence... both MGM and Disney were running neck 'n' neck at this time, prompting the Oscar voters to get confused. (Ising's earlier release, MILKY WAY, would steal Disney's award this year.)
The plot (if you could call it that) involves a pair of crows presenting a vaudeville "hot jazz" rendition of Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet", but constantly being interrupted by fellow avian thespians "putting on a show". One gag involves a spoof of last year's feature hit (Fox, not MGM) STANLEY AND LIVINGSTONE. Like other 'toon "crows", they speak in the Harlem "jive talk" that must have seamed foreign to the mostly "white" animators in Culver City. This makes this subtly stereotyped, but not any more "offensive" than... say... the crows that teach DUMBO and Timothy Mouse about flying in the Disney classic. Seeing Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on a "black face" minstrel show certainly raises more eyebrows. (The DVD release of this cartoon comes with a box set of their slightly dated musicals).
Hollywood Daredevils (1943)
Available with the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland DVD box set disc for GIRL CRAZY, this Pete Smith "human interest" docu-comedy covers the art of movie stunts. It isn't quite as impressive as Warner Bros. earlier SPILLS FOR THRILLS, which took a more serious presentation and was more "in-depth" in a Hollywood behind-the-scenes way. (This one is filmed by a beach.) Nonetheless, Smith's "oh shucks" narration is quite amusing, making this an above-average entry for this long running series.
Apart from a heart stopping scene with a vehicle crashing through a burning building and turning over in water to put out the flames (all presented with let's-not-get-too-serious jokes), there is a three part "running gag" involving a truck sporting a plane-propeller and wings that isn't trying to fly... but swim!... and can't quite make the ramp. The finale tops earlier clips of motorcycles leaping over each other with vehicles leaping from bridges with "you missed your ferry!" gag-lines.