At the beginning of the 20th century, in the infancy of the film medium, all movies were short, most commonly limited to one reel–about ten minutes. Then pioneers like D.W. Griffith started making films of what is now called "feature" length and shorter films were relegated to the status of "added attractions" to the main bill. In the 1940’s, double features became the standard of film distribution, leaving little or no room for the "added attractions." By the 1950’s, the major studios had pretty much given up on shorts. Today they are most often made by aspiring filmmakers on low budgets, but their films are rarely seen in commercial theaters. (The advent of digital video, which allows films to be shot on the smallest of budgets, may ring the final death knell for the form.)
Turner Classic Movies, with its vast library of films, will present a variety of short subjects in a series of weekly showcases, introduced by a new documentary about the films, Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story. It’s a rare opportunity to look back at a part of Hollywood history that isn’t often touched on, as well as to see some of the films.
In one of the ironies of entertainment history, movies were once seen as an extension of vaudeville and often drew on the stars of vaudeville, even as the films ultimately won audiences away from the live performances. (Later, what little was left of vaudeville migrated to television when TV developed a wide audience in the 1950’s.) But many of the vaudeville acts have been preserved in shorts; clips of Al Jolson performing "Red Red Robin" in blackface and precocious Baby Rose Marie (much later, well known on television’s The Dick Van Dyke Show) as a pre-teen, scat singing sophisticate, are included.
Perhaps of greater interest to film buffsare the early original film shorts that pioneered in the development and expansion of filmmaking techniques. Comedy was king, of course, and Mack Sennett’s series of Keystone Comedies propelled slapstick to new levels of hilarity. Often filmed with mere outlines of a script, it was Sennett’s editing skill that resulted in perfect comic timing in the finished product. (He also experimented with film in color.)
Hal Roach was Sennett’s successor in shorts history; his comedy was more story-based than Sennett’s slapstick and appealed to the growingly sophisticated movie audience. Roach’s films featured, among others, the humorist Will Rogers and Laurel and Hardy; the latter’s long-term character development provided the underpinning for the levity of their pratfalls. In the 1930s, Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies(which seem today rather precious) provided light-hearted relief to a country suffering from the Depression.
In Brooklyn, Warner Brothers produced a great many shorts featuring vaudevillians, including dog acts and massed accordions; some of the the tap dancing shorts were surely predecessors to Busby Berkeley’s later extravaganzas–also from Warner’s. The shorts departments of the major studios became both training grounds and proving grounds for the actors and directors of the day, including such stars as Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Lucille Ball.
Then there are the jazz shorts, stunningly photographed in moody, smoky darkness, spots highlighting the musicians and dancers. There were sports shorts, a "Crime Does Not Pay" series, and shorts based on the talents of John Nesbitt and Robert Benchley. (Benchley’s A Night at the Movies is as timely today as it was back then.)
The shorts constitute a huge and diverse body of work and, in trying to be inclusive, Added Attractions spreads itself somewhat thin. The talking heads interspersed with the clips are less than profound and there are glaring omissions (like the pivotal March of Time series), presumably of films TCM doesn’t own. But anyone interested in the history of movies will get a useful primer on the shorts here, and an eyeful of film arcana.