Richard Barrios's A Song in the Dark for a detailed retelling of that fiasco), while others were little mini-musicals created from scratch.
See, for example, the two-color Tech Over the Counter, in which a hustling young go-getter turns his father's stodgy department store into a sort of daylight nightclub. (The picture here is of young Betty Grable, only 15 but already playing a married woman shopping for a baby. As you can see, it would take the coming of 3-strip Technicolor, and a little more maturity on her part, to do full justice to Betty's looks.)
A few of the shorts stretch the meaning of "musical" in the title of the collection. The Spectacle Maker (1934), for one, is a fairy tale parable about a maker of magic lenses; one makes people see only beauty, which makes him famous and beloved, while another makes them see only the truth, which gets him condemned for witchcraft (don't worry, all comes out well). Music is limited to some maypole dances and a simple ditty sung by little Cora Sue Collins as a princess.
The Spectacle Maker is noteworthy for two things besides the pretty color: (1) It was the first directorial effort of Australian transplant John Villiers Farrow, who would go on to marry Maureen O'Sullivan, direct such movies as Five Came Back, Wake Island, The Big Clock, Alias Nick Beal and Hondo, and father an actress daughter named Mia; and (2) the title role was played by Christian Rub, who would gain immortality as the voice and physical model for Gepetto in Walt Disney's Pinocchio (his appearance in this short may in fact have gotten him the job).
My favorite shorts in the whole collection are the color series produced by Louis Lewyn, invariably boasting "A Galaxy of Screen Stars" or words to that effect. My uncle (a film buff like me) says, "I always find these shorts interesting, though not necessarily good," and that pretty much nails it. Lewyn's modus operandi was to shoot these little 1930s showcases at the favorite playgrounds of the stars: the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and Lido Plunge spa ("Feminine Conditioning") at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel, or at Santa Barbara, Catalina Island, Palm Springs, etc. Then, I'm guessing, he would find stars who were between assignments and offer to put them up for a few days during shooting, in return for which they would do a little turn in front of the camera, or even just sit at a table and wave on cue. In this way, Lewyn would get a star-studded short in vivid (even garish) color, and his audience would get what seemed like a privileged glimpse of their screen idols at play.
In the first of these, 1934's Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove, emcee Leo Carillo (for once blessedly free of his "Ohhhh, Ceesco" accent) recites Don Blanding's poem "Hollywood":
"Bunk, junk and genius, amazingly blended...
Shoddy and cheap -- and astonishingly splendid."
I love that line "Bunk, junk and genius;" in fact, I briefly considered making it the name of this blog, before deciding to go with something more descriptive and less obscure.
Toby and Ida in their colorful western duds offer a hint to another surefire ingredient in Louis Lewyn's short subjects: beautiful women and plenty of them. Whether they were lining up for volleyball on the Lido's trucked-in sands...
...heralding a comic Andy Devine bullfight in Santa Barbara...
...clustering at the feet of comic Fuzzy Knight in Palm Springs...
...yo-ho-ho-ing with the Halloween pirates on Catalina Island...
...or parading in faux Chinese feathers in an even faux-er Chinese tea garden....
And tell the truth -- can you disagree?
Looking at these short peeks into Hollywood recreation, brightly painted for the Technicolor camera and carefully scrubbed into good clean fun for home consumption, I can't help wondering what the stars were thinking as they sat and smiled and nodded and waved at their "host" (Leo Carillo, Reginald Denny, Elissa Landi, Chester Morris, Lee Tracy, whomever), whose joshing introductions were no doubt shot at an entirely different time, maybe even on a different day. And what did movie colony insiders think when they saw the finished product at some real Hollywood party?
Did this shot of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott on Catalina draw knowing glances from their peers and co-workers the way it does from the gleeful gossips of today? There doesn't seem to be any such winking over a similar shot of Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell at the Cocoanut Grove. And how much less over another shot of Sir Guy Standing sharing a table with a twinkling Toby Wing (what did they find to talk about?).
From canned vaudeville to illustrated radio in twenty short years -- that's the arc of the theatrical movie short as presented in Classic Musical Shorts from the Dream Factory. The first Oscars for short subjects were awarded in 1931-32, and in retrospect we can see that their golden age wasn't long. By '48, even at lofty MGM, things had devolved to a deejay and his record collection; television and the antitrust breakup of the Hollywood monopoly were just around the bend to deliver the death blow to the short-spangled movie program. Warner Bros.' Joe McDoakes would morph into TV's George Jetson, and Pete Smith would wind up doing charcoal commercials.
The death spiral wasn't quick; it was almost as long as the the golden age itself. Walt Disney would long depend on animated shorts and his groundbreaking True Life Adventure and People and Places documentaries to fill out programs with his animated and live-action features, and Looney Tunes would limp into the 1960s, growing cheaper and more lackluster almost by the day. Over at Columbia, Moe Howard and Larry Fine would soldier doggedly on like George Blanda kicking extra points or Harold Stassen running for president, even as Third Stooges kept dropping dead beside them; but in 1959 even they, like the Disney True Life Adventures, would segue into features for good.
Did audiences sense the end as they sat in theaters, their eyes wandering to the shadow patterns on the curtains behind Martin Block's desk? I suppose not; right now always feels permanent at the time. But some far-seeing souls with long memories might have reflected that these shorts weren't nearly as much fun as they used to be. Could they have imagined that fifty, sixty years down the line the Academy would still be doling out Oscars for short subjects -- albeit to ones that almost nobody ever sees?