Doing things alphabetically this time and restricting to releases dating after September 1928 (start of the 1928-29 season when sound was incorporated... gradually). I could tackled the pre-'28 films on a future date with a special thread all their own... but I wanted to keep this thread not too-too long. After all... Universal has either produced or distributed more short films than any other company during Hollywood's golden age. The numbers for the silent era are staggering, figuring about 4280-4300 released between 1912 and 1928. Fortunately, I do NOT need to blog these thanks to the dedicated contributors on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).
The silent Universal is well documented title by title (thanks in part to Richard E. Braff for McFarland Publishing), even if only a fraction are accessible today. A popular rumor that is probably not true but certainly sounds true suggests that some studio employees simply dumped countless rolls of film into the Pacific, assuming nothing without a soundtrack would ever be marketable. Nonetheless, it is the later product that is under-represented online and, hopefully, these posts will partly remedy the situation. When Michael G. Fitzgerald published his popular Universal Pictures: A Panoramic History In Words, Pictures and Filmographies in 1977, only the thirties and forties shorts were accounted for, with limited detail. Universal's product is undoubtedly the least recognized in print and very rarely shown today... unless it features Woody Woodpecker.
It is a toss up as to who gets the title of longest surviving film major, not counting the ol' Biograph facilities sometimes used for TV. Either Universal or Paramount is game for this, since both were more-or-less "launched" in the spring of 1912... depending on how you would interpret that. That is, Paramount's history books insist that "it all began" with Adolf Zukor's backing of Queen Elizabeth and his Famous Players Company, even though the name "Paramount" (and its mountain of stars logo) wasn't adopted until 1914 as the name of W.W. Hodkinson's distribution company (handling both Famous Players and Lasky feature films). Universal tends to start its birthday with the birth of Universal Manufacturing distribution in May 1912, even though it could easily use Paramount's logic and "start" with Carl Laemle's IMP company in 1909... or... even make itself younger by using the 1914 construction of its Burbank, California facilities and the release of its fourth feature film Damon and Pythias. (This was the first made AT the Universal we know today.) Movie studios, like actors and actresses, have no trouble fibbing about their age.
In any case, the first multi-reel feature film released under the Universal logo was Rainy's African Hunt. Yet, the company was slower at backing five-reel "epics" than its rivals, despite the fact that its second, Traffic In Souls, was a runaway smash in 1913. It took about three years before they reached Paramount's level of 40-60 per year. All the while, a huge mass of shorts accompanied the bill, at a rate of five or more titles per week.
Obviously, these were not all made at one place, but by many "mini studios" operating under the Universal fold. A basic rundown of the companies and series were updated here on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia..._.28pre-1928.29
There were also two silent newsreels full of human interest and travelogue footage: Screen Magazine (105 shorts from November 18, 1916-February 5, 1919) and New Screen Magazine (100 shorts from February 13, 1919 through January 5, 1921) before the official sound Universal Newspaper Newsreel began July 21, 1929, running through December 26, 1967. (http://www.archive.o...ersal_newsreels)
The sound era:
The "Universal Movietone" series, launched in 1928, marked the studio's first foray into talkies. By mid-1929, they started moving towards an all-sound program, but some of the western shorts like "The Pioneer Kid" were still filmed silent and available in both sound effects and silent versions. It took a while for some of the rural theaters to wire up and Universal frequently catered to those that the big-wig monopolists ignored in favor of the urban market. Universal had a limited number of theaters it owned and this was reflected in the character of its product. Other studios aimed for sophistication, while this company provided entertainment for Middle America. This was a top company for multi-chapter serials and the Saturday matinee market we now associate with childhood pre-television.
For his 21st birthday in April 1929, Carl Laemmle Jr. was put in charge by daddy and made good with All Quiet On the Western Front and the first wave of great horror features. He also made sure the sound shorts got a dramatic make-over. Western 2-reelers were definitely o-u-t, despite being a staple for two decades and always an annual cash-cow. The new aim, again, was to attract more urban audiences.
Augmenting the always reliable Slim Summerville, a new crop of comedy stars were conned away from giants Sennett, Roach and Educational. Lloyd Hamilton, Bert Roach, Daphne Pollard and Franklin Pangborn were all part of the two reel lineup for 1931. Warren Doane was put in charge of the more expensive productions after 1932 and Harry Edwards, Gus Meins, James W. Horne, Sam Newfield and even George Stevens added as directors.
Unfortunately, critics and audiences made unfavorable comparisons to the Sennetts and Roaches; the Pollard and Hamilton comedies in particular get chewed out for being "unoriginal" in contemporary reviews. Looking attractive in production values was not the same as being "funny". They did better with some multi-star vehicles and a later batch featuring Sterling Holloway (future voice-artist in many Disney cartoons) was more favorably viewed than the other star-vehicles, but only a few were reissued and shown on TV later. Surprisingly, the company threw in the towel after completing the 1934-35 season. What's more, they stayed clear from short comedies all together, using their B features instead as a springboard for future talent like Abbott & Costello. Their serials were better liked at the time and Flash Gordon was shown in many first run theaters, so most of the energy was focused here (that is, until International merged a decade later and changed things again). Also, there were animated cartoons providing enough of the laughs.
Once again, I'm pushing "live action" here, but Walter Lantz does deserve special mention since his cartoons are the primary Universal shorts seen today. Two very gorgeous DVD box sets of Woody Woodpecker & Friends were issued a few years back, competing very well indeed against the Looney Tune Golden Collections and Disney Treasures. They even included extensive liner notes and stellar restoration (including original United Artists title cards for the late '40s releases made when Lantz and Universal had a brief "separation"). The animation bearing his name was not quite in the same league as Walt Disney and wasn't even Hanna-Barbera TV standard during the lackluster later years, but he could back some grade A-material from time to time. Directorial talents included Alex Lovy, Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, Don Patterson, Tex Avery, Paul J. Smith, Jack Hannah and Sid Marcus... adapting quite well to their boss' genial nature after working for more controlling animation rivals.
Lantz had started animating for Hearst's studio back in 1916 as a struggling teenager and first hit his stride with the Fleischer Inkwell inspired "Dinky Doodles" for producer John Bray in the mid-twenties. After working in live-action comedies, he impressed Carl Laemmle enough to be put in charge of the newly formed Universal Cartoons in 1929, taking over Oswald the Rabbit (formerly a Walt Disney and Charles Mintz character). At the start of 1930, his staff produced a delightful 2-color Technicolor "crowning of Paul Whiteman" insert for The King of Jazz. The Oswalds of the thirties are not all that bad (for their time) as were his color "Cartunes" starting 1934. When Universal suffered financial troubles mid-decade, he persuaded the front office to allow him to independently co- produce, allowing greater freedom, but also forcing him to keep everything on a budget. (At least twice he had to shut-down temporarily to get enough funding, briefly in 1940 and for a year and a half in 1948-50.) Andy Panda arrived in 1939, followed the next year by Lantz's biggest star Woody Woodpecker. New 'toons were released as late as 1972, with Chilly Willy arriving in 1953 and the Beary Family in '62. (Less famous than Walter Lantz was Dave Fleischer's short-lived “Cartoon Melodies” series that succeeded the mostly live-action, but with animated inserts, “Sing & Be Happy” series and filled in a void during Lantz' two year separation from Universal.)
Universal was distributing sound cartoons before Burbank neighbor Warner Brothers took on Leon Schlesinger and the Harman-Ising team. It is interesting to compare the two companies' line-up in the early thirties, even though the other was a lot more prolific and got all of the praise thanks to its Brooklyn-based Vitaphone. Clearly, there was some friendly rivalry going on. In 1930, Universal responded to Warner-Vitaphone's signing Robert Ripley's "Believe It or Not" with John Hix's "Strange As It Seems", the first being shot in Multicolor. Like Paramount's "Pictorials", they were "screen magazines" with up to eight different segments... in this case, covering the eccentric and unusual, strange animals, interesting locales and peculiar hobbies and occupations. When Warner signed golf champ Bobby Jones for some comic sports-reels, Universal took on Babe Ruth. Inspector Carr was also one-upped by a short-lived adaptation of radio's popular The Shadow.
During the years 1932-39, first the team of William Rowland and Monte Brice, then
Milton Schwarzwald's Mentone and Nu-Atlas companies provided a variety of comedy vaudeville acts and mostly plotless musicals to both Universal and RKO's programs. All of these were shot in New York City. When Universal's comedy unit in California was halted, it leaned on this eastern product for a couple years. At their best, these showcased a number of interesting performers mostly forgotten today, but occasionally including some familiar faces like Smith & Dale and Bob Hope.
All film companies relied on travelogues and "human interest" docu-shorts to fill up their programs because these could be made at half the cost of a studio-made musical or comedy. Much of the footage could be shot on location silent and given voice-over and music later. When a company like Universal had to "economize", this became the preference for pre-feature "filler". They closely followed Fox Movietone's model by using their newsreel staff (and sometimes recycling their news footage) to provide a certain quota of one-reelers.
When Jerry Fairbanks left for Paramount (starting their "Popular Science"), his series "Strange As It Seams" was taken over by the Universal newsreel staff with Thomas Mead and Joseph O'Brien in charge and renamed for the '34 season "Stranger Than Fiction". It was accompanied by a mostly one-subject in-depth series "Going Places", narrated first by Fox commentator Lowell Thomas and later by Graham McNamee. Charles E. Ford was the key director-editor on many of these. A colorful character unafraid to get first-dibs on the Japanese invasion of China for the newsreel or assisting an expedition through the Amazon (for an independent feature Jacare), Ford maintained a unique, aggressive and often offbeat style with the company's docu-reels. The Oscar nominated Camera Thrills was his. Ironically, shortly before his passing in 1942, the two series titles changed to "Person-oddities" and "Variety Views". The latter title was maintained through the fifties.
After Milton Schwarzwald stopped providing New York product, entertainment shorts were re-started at Burbank with just one key genre: the big band short... or, as later billed, "Name Band Musicals". Direction was done over the years by Ralph Staub, Larry Ceballos, Reginald Le Borg, Josef Berne, Jean Yarbrough, Lewis D. Collins and Will Cowan. A few, like the late forties musical westerns featuring country star Tex Williams, incorporated a storyline, but the majority were just straightforward musical performances skillfully edited together with as little "lull" between numbers as possible. For the modern viewer, these are a treasure trove of jazz personalities and singers: Count Basie, Nat "King" Cole, the Ink Spots, Les Brown, Lawrence Welk, Woody Herman and Spade Cooley, just to name a few. There was even an attempt to tap a younger market in the fifties with a little R&B and two even had the novelty of 3-D. The bare bones approach of just filming the performance with limited improvising was different than the contemporaries like Warner's "Melody Masters", which incorporated arty camera angles and special effects. Positively, these kept the performances "pure" for the fan, but negatively could make for some mighty tedious viewing when seen as in mass.
These lasted through 1957 and were the solo entertainment shorts on the program apart from a rare "special". Everything else was sugar-coated education. Thomas Mead operated as the primary producer for both the newsreel and the one-reelers after co-producer O'Brien's death in '45 for more than two decades, with Edward Bartsch as editor from the mid-forties through the sixties and Arthur Cohen (a.k.a. Michael Feldman and Phil Foster and a future Laverne & Shirley star) being the most prolific of several director-writers. In short, stability was the name of the game. The "Variety Views" continued a consistent, if predictable, run which covered mostly travelogues (the most engaging being the "Brooklyn Goes To" series), sports outings with a special eye for young viewers and an annual quota of critter subjects.
During the declining years of short subjects, a number of producer-directors provided material for more than one studio. Universal-International shared John A. Haeseler and his bear cub and chimp reels with Paramount, while Hamilton Wright also contributed European and South American scenics for Warner and RKO. All of this made many shorts of the 1950s hard to distinguish by studio and U-I unfortunately lacked the Three Stooges, Joe McDoakes, Pete Smith or any specific "in-house specialty" apart from its Name Bands.
Ever economical, you can practically count the entire number of pre-fifties full-color shorts with just two hands, but once the studio started its own "Color Parade", it certainly made up for lost time. By 1954, they were partnering with Carl Dudley and other producers on wide-screen travelogues in Vistarama and CinemaScope, mostly the former (cheaper and grainier) process. Eastmancolor was used more than Technicolor and the pictorial quality varied considerably from title to title. Regardless, these later shorts were generally well received by the trade papers.
Meanwhile, Thomas Mead continued producing black and white newsreels through 1967, by which time his staff had been reduced to only ten and much material came from outside sources. Color television officially killed the newsreel completely, but it took a bit longer for it to destroy the full-color theatrical. Norman Gluck, who worked on and off with Universal, took charge of managing the 1960s product, which were primarily travelogues, but with occasional jazz performance 2-reelers as well. The simple fact that the company continued releasing up to ten shorts (often high quality by this stage) long after its rivals ceased to is quite remarkable. In fact, it was probably the only studio besides Disney who was still producing most of its own rather than just distributing for the independents. By the late sixties, another key producer-director, William Burch, headed the non-theatrical branch Universal maintained; even though the company stopped releasing shorts theatrically by 1972, they continued making plenty of instructional material for businesses and schools. (Added a few later shorts to this list, but it is far from complete... along with some of their United World Films stretching backward to the forties, initially released on 16mm and sometimes later in 35mm for theatrical distribution.)
Although the studio seldom received Oscar nominations, there was still a certain consistency in quality over the decades and most that do make it online on YouTube and elsewhere are quite entertaining regardless of the economics of their production. It is sad that the company isn't tapping into what they have sitting in their vaults. Hardly any have been reissued for VHS and DVD, probably on the assumption that today's consumers would have zero interest. Some of us movie buffs would prefer to judge that for ourselves.