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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Vintage: Short Subjects

Before television existed, television was called "short subjects." We've talked many times about how, until the 1960s or so, you used to get a number of different short features before the main feature film when you went to the theater. Usually you'd get a newsreel, a cartoon, and a short, all before the main feature rolled. The shorts were most commonly documentaries, comedies, or musicals. Occasionally you'd get a socially-conscious drama. Up until the 1940s, you'd often get a chapter of an adventure serial, and you'd have to return each week for the next three months to catch the whole thing.

All of these forms have been supplanted by television. We've got news, cartoons, half-hour sitcoms, hour-long dramas, serialized television shows, after school specials, the works. Television even has movies, but that's the one thing the theaters still also deliver.

This vintage 1928 reference material sheds some light on just how much of an institution theatrical shorts used to be.

Short Subjects
First, let me set the stage. These pages are scanned, as always, from The Film Daily Yearbook, an annual almanac for the movie industry, published by The Film Daily, an industry magazine. The Yearbook is more or less the IMDb of its day. Besides the ads, articles, and editorials we've been featuring in this Vintage series, there are also exhaustive lists of films indexed by title, star, director, scenarist (writer), and cinematographer. There is a thick section that lists all movie theaters in the United States, including seat counts, and another section with the names, addresses, and phone numbers for the offices of every movie-related business in business.

This tiny little section compiles a list of all the short subjects released in late 1927 and early 1928. It's only three pages, but a quick glance tells you how compact it is. It isn't listing all the titles one by one. It's listing them by series. So, let's look at the first one: "Crackerjack Comedies," 26 episodes, 1 reel each. A reel is about ten minutes' worth of film, although projection speeds weren't constant in the silent era, so it might be 8 minutes or 12 minutes, depending on the projection. Anyway, the fact that there are 26 suggests that this particular series of short subjects was on a two week release cycle. Every two weeks, there would be another Crackerjack Comedy. It doesn't look like it was a serial, but it may well have had recurring actors and characters. Sounds a bit like television, doesn't it?

One thing to notice is just how many of these were about animals. Animal actors were pretty popular. Again, this speaks to the newness of the medium. Hey, animals are cute. Most people are interested in animals. But we've been inundated with things like Lassie, the Discovery Channel, and America's Funniest Home Videos. They're everywhere because they're cheap. Nothing's cheaper than plunking a dog in front of a camera and filming it chasing its tail. "Here is a funny animal!" is no longer a saleable tagline. We're going to get our fill of cute animals in the natural course of things.

But imagine that all you've got for prerecorded visual entertainment is a weekly excursion to the cinema. You've got a brand new medium that can bring you all kinds of amazing sights. Cute animals doing tricks is going to be right near the top of the list. They're funny, they're cute, and they're not yet overexposed. And they're particularly well-suited to short subjects. An animal will be hard pressed to carry a feature film (although Rin Tin Tin was actually the number one box office star in the world in 1926!), but ten minutes sounds just about right.

Short Subjects
This page has more of the same. Note how frequently the newsreels came out -- twice a week. Makes sense. I love some of the titles: "Standard Fat Men Comedies." "Newslaffs."

Note that a few on this page are "specials," just one episode each. I imagine these are in the minority purely for economic reasons. If you're going to get a writer and put together a camera crew and shoot 10 minutes, then start over from scratch for the next one, that's got to be much more expensive than hiring a crew for a batch of 12, or just keeping them on the job year-round.

A few of these recall previous discussion. The Felix the Cat cartoons are listed here, in the upper left. As we discussed in Episode 25, Felix the Cat was the biggest cartoon star in the 1920s. Also note, in the Pathe section, which lists the short comedies of Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, two of the great silent comedians discussed in this earlier Vintage post.

Note how many times the name "Roach" is mentioned in the titles of the shorts produced by MGM and also Pathe. Hal Roach was one of the biggest names in silent comedy. He wrote and directed some 150 shorts, but he's primarily known for producing. The IMDb has him down for 1140 producer credits, an astronomical sum, even accounting for most of them being short films.

He started out in 1915, producing with Harold Lloyd, and later he employed Harry Langdon, Will Rogers, ZaSu Pitts, and a number of other silent comic stars. In particular, he paired up Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, launched them to superstardom, and produced their work almost to the end of their careers. Roach also produced the "Our Gang" comedies, as listed on this scan, also known as the "Little Rascals."

His most recent credits? Producing a pair of TV movies in 1990.

Short Subjects
The items that catch my eye on this page: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was Walt Disney's first cartoon star. This was 1927, right when Oswald was beginning. Several episodes into the series, Universal took Oswald away from Disney and gave him to other animators, which prompted Disney to go off and create Mickey Mouse. More about this in Episode 25.

The "Mike and Ike--Stern Bros. Comedies" caught my eye, too. Mike and Ike candies were created in...1927! They're basically the same candies we know today, although all the spin-off flavors are more recent. They became popular movie theater snacks, and I can only assume that they sponsored this series of short films starring the Stern Bros., whoever they were.

In any case, a glance through this list of short subjects released over a period of one year hopefully conveys a good sense of just how plentiful and prevalent these things were. It really drives home just how much the movie theater used to deliver entertainment forms now exclusively the province of television.

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