My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

January 9, 2024: AmericanStudying Columbia Pictures: The Three Stooges and Friends

[January 10th marks the 100th anniversary of the renaming, rebranding, and relaunch of Columbia Pictures, one of the foundational and most iconic American film studios. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Columbia’s many film innovations over its first few decades, leading up to a special weekend tribute to one of our preeminent 21st century FilmStudiers!]

On why the Stooges were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Columbia comedy.

I wrote about The Three Stooges, both their particular brand of comedy and their reflection of Vaudeville and slapstick influences on American popular culture more broadly, in this post comparing them to the Marx Brothers. I’d ask you to check that one out before coming back for some further thoughts on the Stooges and Columbia comedies.

Welcome back! As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Columbia was signing Vaudeville acts and producing short-subject comedy films with them even before the studio got that new name and famous rebranded logo in 1924. So it wasn’t a surprise when studio co-founder Harry Cohn insisted in the early 1930s that they sign one of the era’s biggest Vaudeville acts, The Three Stooges, who had been performing since 1925 and were ready to take the next step (although they did so without their original frontman Ted Healy, who signed with MGM instead). Between their 1934 signing and the end of their contract in late 1957 (although the studio continued releasing shorts for another year and a half after that), the Stooges made 190 comedy shorts for Columbia, for a striking average of nearly 8 films a year. For those of us who grew up with the Stooges constantly on TV, extending their presence and legacy far beyond the end of their run, it was due precisely to the sheer quantity of these shorts, a critical mass which benefitted both the act and the studio to be sure.

But here’s the thing about Columbia shorts on TV—it wasn’t just the Stooges! By 1958 Columbia had a total of 529 produced comedy shorts (also known as two-reelers), and 400 of them were sold to television networks between 1958 and 1961 alone. The studio also employed the legendary Buster Keaton to make such comedy shorts, as well as other noteworthy comics of the period such as Charley Chase, Andy Clyde, and Hugh Herbert. (For a lot more info, I can’t recommend highly enough the Columbia Shorts Department website to pages on which those hyperlinks also take you.) The pipeline to TV ensured that these shorts and the performers who starred in them would cross over to yet another medium and new audiences in the process, and had a lot to do with their staying power on the cultural landscape. But it’s worth being clear that when these short films were made, it was with no expectation of TV sales (or in many cases knowledge of TV as a medium yet)—these were simply a mainstay of the studio, and of the Hollywood film system overall in the 1930s and 40s. That’s a largely overlooked (at least by this AmericanStudier) element of mid-20th century American pop culture that the Stooges and friends can help us better remember.

Next Columbia context tomorrow,


No comments:

Post a Comment