Once again, I am providing two movie shorties companies for the price of one. Last time I gave you three: http://forums.tcm.com/index.php?/topic/96727-a-shortie-checklist-rko-and-path%C3%A9-and-fbo/
Like that forum thread, I will list these by SERIES, then chronologically.
The ONLY connection these two companies have is that one distributed the other company's product between January 1933 and September 1938. Everybody here is already familiar with Fox and 20thCentury Fox and, yes, I have an “intro” prepared below. Yet first... let us look at Educational Pictures, shall we? This is one of the great underrated, but highly prolific shorties producers (with quite a few features as well) of the 1920s and '30s.
Educational Pictures, as its name implies, started out making or distributing documentaries. Today it is more famous for its NON-educational stuff, namely its one and two reeled comedy shorts. Launched in 1915 and supervised by Earle W. Hammons, the company billed itself later, with the familiar Aladdin's lamp logo, as "the Spice of the Program". When you compare their product with some of the competition, which was often time-filler material, they pretty much lived up to that. However, it is also fair to say that their product, especially their sound films which survived a notorious 1937 vault fire, was wildly inconsistent. When they were good, they rocked the house down. When they were bad, they could be quite painful to sit through.
1920 was a key year for the company. The market for documentaries was unstable, but comedy shorts were booming in popularity. One producer distributing for them, C.L. Chester, launched a series with a chimp named Snooky. In June, they began distributing the 2-reelers of Al Christie, who (at that time) rivaled Hal Roach for the coveted #2 spot under Mack Sennett as top comedy shorts producer. Christie had successfully been distributing his product independently since leaving Universal (at their Nestor and L-KO Kompany facilities) in 1916, but their joining with Educational proved beneficial to both. Christie's pre-Educational comedies need their own separate list, so I left them out of this one for the time being. In 1927, Paramount persuaded Christie to join them for an even better deal (and that is covered on my list for that studio). Christie would return to Educational by heading their New York comedy facilities in the thirties.
With Al Christie as its "backbone" and top bread-earner, the in house Educational comedy was officially launched with Lloyd Hamilton (coming from Fox) as their first star. The Hamilton comedies gradually refined their style to a peak of perfection in the mid to late twenties; surviving titles can hold their own against the best of Roach and Sennett even if he's hardly a household name today. Of course, much of a comedy's success depended upon the star involved: Al St. John, Lupino Lane, Monty (Monte) Collins, Lige Conley, Jimmie Adams and Johnny Arthur all did some of their very best (and not so best) work for top producer Jack White and others releasing through Hammons & company.
The studio even backed the great Mack Sennett himself between his contracts with Pathé (ending 1928) and Paramount (beginning 1932) and, later still, utilized his services as a director at their California facilities. It was partly due to Sennett's success with sound in 1928 that the other Educational producers had little trouble tackling the new technology.
During the thirties, the bulk of studio-oriented short subjects made in the United States were split between California and New York City. Educational made good use of Long Island's Astoria (also used and previously controlled by Paramount), with Al Christie returning as a top producer. With plenty of product coming from both sides, E. W. Hammons kept his new distributor Fox (later 20th Century Fox) well stocked. It is often easy to distinguish between filmed-in-Los Angeles and NYC titles. One type had more outdoor scenes and stronger visual appeal, while the other was claustrophobic (indoors mostly) and more dialogue-driven. Even when the NYC product looked cheap, it did not have cheap talent: Joe Cook, Tom Howard, Bert Lahr, Danny Kaye, June Allyson, the Ritz Brothers and many others (with Bob Hope and Milton Berle also doing one each). It has often been said they got their stars either “on their way up” or “on their way down”. Buster Keaton fell into the latter bracket, but his 2-reelers for the company were among its very best, if a letdown to his silent masterpieces.
Educational films of the educational sort continued to flourish along side the comedies and new mini-musicals. In the twenties, these included the many "scenics" backed by Robert C. Bruce (famous later for his Technicolor work for Paramount) and Walter F utter's "Curiosities". Later they were given a most appropriate umbrella title of "Treasure Chests". There is little question that this company boasted the best docu-product in the business, garnishing a few Oscar nominations and encouraging British producers like Alexander Korda (who backed The Private Life of Gannets) to utilize their services on this side of the Atlantic. Two particular specialties were the color travelogue (predating FitzPatrick's Traveltalks at MGM by a few years if done in the more primitive 2-color system Multicolor) and the nature-reel, with the brothers Stacey & Howard Woodard documenting a variety of insects, mammals and sea critters in their popular "Battle for Life".
The focus here is on live action shorts, but I did include the full run of "Hodge Podge" one reelers from the Lyman H. Howe Films Company, the name being posthumous. These had both live-action footage stretching back some years and animated title sequences. Some like The Wandering Toy (1928) were even 70% animated, but after adapting to sound, they had less animation and more live-action even though the clay animation work was particularly impressive in the early '30s entries.
E.W. Hammon's interest in fully animated cartoons began in 1917 with a Helena Smith Dayton project for the SS Film Company, which is sadly lost today but is famous as another pioneering piece of claymation. The following two years saw a cluster of "Katzenjammer Kids" and "Happy Hooligan" produced by John Terry (initially for Hearst's company) and animated by future feature director Gregory La Cava. Subsequent cartoon series include Julian Ollendorf's "Sketchografs" (1922), Herbert Dawley's "Tony Sarg Almanac" (also '22), Earl Hurd's "Pen & Ink Vaudeville" and "Bobby Bumps" (1924-25), John Coleman Terry's Judge's "Crossword Puzzles" (1924-25), Sherwood-Wadsworth "Life Cartoon Comedies" (1926-27) and, by 1927, some part live-action and stop-motion comedies made by Charles Bowers. Without a doubt, Educational's most famous acquisitions were the 1925-28 run of Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer's "Felix the Cat" and Paul Terry's "Terrytoons", launched in 1930 and later taken over to 20th Century Fox.
When 20th Century Fox did not renew their contract with Educational in 1938, the company merged with Grand National, a company James Cagney used during his bitter time away from Warner Brothers. Despite big ambitions, this move proved a disaster; the few features did not overcome their costs. A backlog of surviving titles were eventually auctioned off, with Astor Pictures reissuing the Mack Sennett/Bing Crosby 2-reelers quite successfully in the forties. Many surviving films are currently in public domain and some DVD companies like Kino have tried restoring the product for modern viewers.
Now... a quick overview of Fox's live action "shorties"
During the teens and twenties, William Fox's company maintained a pretty consistent run of one and two-reelers running less than 25 minutes, all supporting its features with Theda Bara, William Farnum and Tom Mix (who also did a few shorts) up through Janet Gaynor in Sunrise and the early talkies. Fox produced his first hour-long feature, Life's Shop Window, in 1914 and also distributed the 1918-23 animated cartoons of Mutt & Jeff (credited to Budd Fisher but animated by the Raoul Barré and Charles Bowers' studio).
Sadly, a vault fire in 1937 (a bad year for film preservation) took its toll and, today, probably only one in ten silent shorts survive. What makes the situation even more distressing is that the overall quality of those that do is quite high. Ex-Mack Sennett director Henry Lehrman worked on many of the earliest comedy 2-reelers of the teens and, thanks to his notorious masochistic streak, helped inaugurate Fox's unique style: a combination of glossy production values and sadistic violence that sometimes made the later Three Stooges appear tranquilized by comparison. Sometimes the sets were even more impressive than the features they supported; a simple comedy starring chimps, Grief In Bagdad, almost "apes" the picture it parodies, Douglas Fairbank's The Thief Of Bagdad. Apart from chimps and some top human stars like Lloyd Hamilton and Ford Sterling, a bunch of furry stars populated quite a few of these, including lions and kangaroos. Meanwhile, a steady stream of "Fox Varieties" featuring travelogue and human interest material supplemented the program.
In 1929, Fox set his sights on merging with Loews/MGM, a company that already had a wealth of "shorties" on its program thanks partly to Hal Roach. This did not pan out as he had planned and ultimately his financial ambitions (combined with an auto accident and the stock market crash) doomed him. (He left his company in April 1930.) At this time, the company dropped its shorts apart from its newsreel.
Two years previously, Fox became the second bigwig (following the Warner Brothers) to hop onto the Talkie bandwagon with the sound-on-film Theodore Case and Earl Sponable process. Some of the Fox Movietone Newsreels (which began as Fox News in October 1919) started using the new process to document Charles Lindbergh's flight in 1927. Also using the “Movietone” process were a batch of mini-musicals and mini-comedies to compete with the vast Warner Brothers-Vitaphone catalog. Among them were the first Robert Benchley and Clark & McCullough comedies, which still hold up quite well today, entertainment-wise. Unfortunately, Fox's big move into all talking and all singing one-reelers didn't last very long. Hardly any new shorties were released between mid 1929 to early '31.
Predating the cinéma vérité movement of the sixties were the thirties Movietone's "Magic Carpet" travelogues, which differed from the contemporary MGM "Traveltalks", RKO "Vagabond Adventures" and Warner-Vitaphone E.M. Newman shorts in their rather limited use of narration and strong emphasis on “you are there” sound bytes. They remained a staple of the Fox program through the war years, by which time many were also in color. They also set the stage for a basically all-educational program which later included the delightful omnibus "Adventures Of The Newsreel Cameraman", followed by the mostly Technicolor "Movietone Adventures". For comedy there was Lew Lehr’s "Dribble Puss Parade", another spin-off from the newsreel (his various humorous segments there began in 1933). It vaguely resembled the Pete Smith Specialties at MGM but without as much polish. Cartoon fans will recognize his "monkeys is za qwaziest peoples" line... parodied often in Warners' Looney Tunes.
By January 1933, the company was also distributing the short comedies and docu-reel "Treasure Chests" from Educational Pictures. For the next five years (through Fox's merge with 20th Century), two reelers featuring Bert Lahr, Buster Keaton and others augmented the Shirley Temple, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda spectaculars. Speaking of Shirley, she made her cinematic debut in Educational comedies; those infamously awful and rather questionable "Baby Burlesques". The quality of Educational's product was wildly hit and miss, boasting both the very best and all-time worst in short subject "extras".
Co-produced by Educational were Paul Terry's "Terrytoons" (even though they won't get discussed here since I'm focused on the "live action shorts"). When Fox dumped Educational in 1938, they kept the New York (New Rochelle) based animation studio and forced the grade-B producer Terry (who dubbed Walt Disney as "the paté of the business" and himself "the chicken s**t") to start producing some of his 'toons (rather belatedly) in Technicolor. With the arrival of Mighty (Super) Mouse in 1942, followed by Heckle & Jeckle, 20th Century Fox promptly stop complaining about the sometimes poor production values and catered to theater owner demand to keep-them-coming. Fox continued releasing the cartoons very successfully even after the animation shop closed in 1968, with Sad Cat and Possible Possum featured in the later years.
1942 was the year Fox took over the "March of Time" series from RKO. Unfortunately, the studio couldn't figure out what to do with this prize possession, since Fox Movietone already was churning out docu-reels left and right. While RKO placed these two-reel featurettes in all the first run theaters, Fox was a bit more chaotic and less enthusiastic in its distribution. When the market for these types of films shrunk after television, it officially ended in 1951. The initial producer Louis de Rochemont first made his name with Movietone shorts like the "Magic Carpets"; within a year after rejoining Fox, he began pioneering the "on location" style with Fox's feature films such as The House on 92nd Street.
The early fifties marked a dry spell for Fox shorts production; an exception being an Oscar winning, but short-lived, color series featuring famous paintings on display. Then CinemaScope arrive to give a big boost. After trying out the wide-screen format on some Alfred Newman orchestra performances (trotting stereophonic sound), it was off to the four corners of the world to document all of the sights in glorious 'scope. Although other studios like Warner frequently put more oomph into their wide-screen travelogues, Fox still made great use of their technology and cranked out more than anybody else, even as late as 1964. A few “specials” straggled along with the continuing Fox features in more recent years.
My resources are all covered on my previous blogs: BoxOffice Magazine (scans available online for a while, but a bit harder to access in recent years), Film Daily and Motion Picture Herald Magazine back issues (both found on the Internet Archive), with the IMDb.com site have all been a great help. (I had added many Warner shorties to that latter site.) Equally important are the Library of Congress copyright listings Motion Pictures 1912-1939 (1951), Motion Pictures 1940-1949 (1953), Motion Pictures 1950-1959 (1960) and Motion Pictures 1960-1969 (1971). Also Edwin M. Bradley’s The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-1931 (McFarland & Company, 2005).