2-Reel Comedies

From Raspberry World – Volume 1, Issue 4 (December 2006/January 2007) I recently came upon a quotation of the late Hal Roach, whose studio gave us the adventures of Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy, Our Gang, Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase, among others, as well as such stunning features as Of Mice and Men and the Topper series, to name just a few. The meat of Mr. Roach’s remarks were, that the funniest movies ever made were done in two reels, and he didn’t care who was in and/or making them.

Well. Film buffs, like you and me, we owe Hal Roach a terrific debt for his many contributions to the field – but frankly, I think he was talking through an aperture not noted for the issuance of pleasant sounds or smells. Buster Keaton, I feel, didn’t really blossom as an artist until he started opening up in features. And it’s far easier to get your paws on Chaplin’s features than his shorts. Neither the Marx Brothers nor Abbott & Costello ever made a two-reeler in their careers (thought the Marxes did put together a sample short, set in a talent agency).

On the other hand, the Three Stooges made (or starred in) almost nothing else, until Harry Cohn died; and it might have been age working against them, or the untimely demises of Curly and Shemp, but their features, while entertaining, ain’t a patch on the shorts.

An assertion of Roach’s with which I certainly agree, however, is that it would be an excellent idea if some enterprising soul were to bring back the two-reel comedy. Quick show of hands: how many out there have been regaled at considerable length about what movies used to be like by parents, grandparents, etc.? They laid down a quarter (or less depending on age) and got a cartoon, a two-reeler, a newsreel and a double feature. Now, all we get are commercials and coming attractions – for around 400 times the admission price – pfui.

There’s a certain contingent who cite sitcoms as the modern two-reel comedy. They have a point, at least as far as length, and in some cases, content. Some sitcoms achieve that level, however inconsistently – Perfect Strangers is an excellent example. In fact, in one episode, they pay a distinct homage to old maestros Laurel & Hardy.

The problem is, at their production schedules, it becomes difficult to sustain the quality of the original 2-reelers. When you have to write that fast, inventiveness suffers. Money isn’t the issue – the Stooges worked with whatever pocket money producer Harry Cohn happened to be carrying with him, and could have made half a dozen two-reelers for what was spent on their features. And let’s face it: a few more shorts would have been a far greater boon to their memory than Snow White and the Three Stooges.

The same might be said of Laurel & Hardy and their feature work, but their problem was the same thing that doomed Keaton’s features – creative control wrested from them by people who had no creative talent (and very little other talent). Even so, they made some wonderful feature films at the Roach Studios – Sons of the Desert (I believe the quintessential L&H film), Way Out West, Babes in Toyland, Blockheads, Our Relations (almost Shakespearean in its brilliance), Pack Up Your Troubles… Even so, funny as they are (and they are), they don’t match the intensity or hilarity of many of their shorts. Whether silent (Big Business, From Soup to Nuts, Early to Bed, Wrong Again, We Faw Down, and too many more to mention here) or sound (Going Bye-Bye, The Music Box, Come Clean, Their First Mistake, Thicker Than Water, Them Thar Hills and its follow-up, Tit for Tat), the audience does need, want or get a break. None of the foolishness about love interests or musical interludes, or other interludes of the “Thalberg system” – it worked for the Marx Brothers (properly managed, which it wasn’t after Thalberg’s untimely death), but it couldn’t for Stan and Ollie.

Why? Well – the Thalberg system included a period of disgrace followed by vindication and success. Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy sometimes came out ahead, sometimes (mostly) not, but though constantly at war with the world around them, it was a war with fate more than their fellow man. Oh, they certainly had their set-to’s with James Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Hall and a varied assortment of wives (some of whom were astonishingly shapely), but these were “lightning bolt” enemies, exceptions to their interaction with humanity at large. In the features, at the scripted low-point, everyone sneered at them. The Marxes often needed to be taken down a peg, not just for dramatic purposes, but to make them seem sufficiently human for us to be able to identify them – part of what enables the brothers’ characters is that they are outside, in some ways, above us mere mortals.

But Laurel and Hardy struggle to just break even with their audiences – we love them, but we already look down on and feel superior to them. With the Thalberg-prescribed low point, the only thing left is disdain, and who wants to identify with someone you hold in contempt?

Meanwhile, back at my subject, Stan and Ollie made a maximum of fourteen shorts a year, including their concurrently-produced foreign language versions, but excluding the occasional guest shot/cameo in other features. That’s over the course of a twelve-month period. The Stooges, at Columbia, only turned out eight shorts a year on average, fewer when Curly’s health problems really set in, when finishing the films during the production of which Shemp died or when dealing with Joe Besser.

Another advantage of two-reelers over sitcoms is scope. Sitcoms, in general, are limited to a few regular sets and maybe an occasional “fancy” set, while two-reelers have the same limitations as movies. Shorts can and have been set in the distant past and the far future, in palaces and caves – the only real limits to a two-reel comedy short are budget and production time. And in the latter case, they had nearly what a no-frills feature enjoys today – three to five weeks – if produced back-to-back. Granted, most were done faster than that, but there was time between to catch their breath and marshal their resources for the next picture.

I suppose, from the studio point of view, two-reel comedies aren’t cost effective, now, with skyrocketing budgets and distribution problems – with just the feature, after all, theaters can get more showings and so more dollars. But I sure wish movies could go back to being about entertainment. And I’m not sure there are any folks funny enough to sustain a series of two-reelers.

Which reminds me – what happened to all the great old comedy teams? Why don’t have any equivalent today?

Maybe that’s something we can look at in the future…


K.C. Locke

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