Vitaphone, literally from the Latin for "living" and "sound", made a specialty of producing short subjects with sound, even before the famous partial talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released. That's right, Vitaphone, using phonograph recordings synced up with the image, released sound shorts over a year before The Jazz Singer was even released. Shorts weren't always meant to be mini-feature films either. There were no plots or characters, just jokes and singing, recording the acts of some of the era's finest Vaudeville performers.
Two of the performers were George Burns and Gracie Allen, the husband and wife team that delighted audiences for years on stage and screen. Burns was the straight man and Allen delivered the punchlines. In Lambchops (1929), the two wander onto the set looking under tables and chairs, and behind curtains, until George points to the camera and says, "There they are," implying it was the audience they were looking for all along. That's all the setup you get. After that, it's nothing but jokes and a little music before the camera fades out. And that's all people were looking for, the chance to see famous stage performers doing their act onstage. Only now, you could see it in your own hometown.
That goes for other performers too, like The Foy Family whose short, Chips off the Old Block, starts out with a song, launches into absurdist joke telling and finishes up with more music and dancing. Actually, it's more like exciting jumping about. There was little one would call structured about these shorts today but back then, these talented performers were taking years of routines and editing it all down to ten minutes that would play at the local movie house.
One short, The Revelers, featuring The Revelers singing away for three songs, was produced before The Jazz Singer and must have been quite something for audiences at the time. Even so, it's interesting how one can see the evolution in just a short amount of time from the this short and the ones that soon followed. Here, The Revelers, sitting and standing, stay in the same place and don't even speak to the audience. The film starts rolling, they sing, the film stops. It wasn't about cinematic style, it wasn't about the performers themselves.
One thing's for sure: music and comedy was front and center in the early days of sound. Jimmy Conlin and Myrtle Glass, in Sharps and Flats (1928), mix music and comedy even more astutely than Burns and Allen. Then there's Jack Born and Elmer Lawrence, doing the same in The Country Gentlemen (1928). Joe Frisco, in The Happy Hottentots(1930), sings and dances and makes a few jokes, too. And, of course, Eddie White, combines song and dance and jokes as well in I Thank You (1928). But one performer was different and while all the great talent listed above is worth seeing, one in particular did not focus on song and dance. Or even jokes. One of them, Chaz Chase, focused on something else: Eating.
The 1928 short, The Unique Comedian, features Chaz Chase doing what he did best: eating anything and everything. Chaz eats parts of his shirt. Chaz eats plants. And Chaz eats fire. Lots of fire. Chaz Chase made a career out of lighting matches and swallowing them lit. The grand finale usually involved lighting an entire book of matches and popping them in his mouth. How long can one sustain a career doing that? Well, Chase's last comedic appearance was on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983. That's how long.
The Vitaphone shorts are a must see for anyone with a curiosity about early sound entertainment. They give one a rare glimpse into what Vaudeville routines were like, albeit probably a lot more cleaned up than many routines were before reaching the screen. They give one a look into the past and, thanks to being completely unadorned with cinematic style, give a wonderfully accurate approximation of what it must have been like to see these great acts on the stage.
Casts: Lambchops: Directed by Murray Roth. Starring Gracie Allen and George Burns. Chips of the Old Block Directed by Brian Foy. Starring Eddie, Charlie, Irving, Madeline, Mary, and Richard Foy. Sharps and Flats Starring Jimmy Conlin and Myrtle Glass. The Revelers Starring Franklyn Baur, Frank Black, Wilfred Glenn, Lewis James, Elliot Shaw. The Country Gentlemen Directed by Murray Roth. Starring Jack Born and Elmer Lawrence. Chaz Chase: The Unique Comedian Directed by Murray Roth. Starring Chaz Chase. I Thank You Starring Eddie White. The Happy Hottentots Directed by Brian Foy Starring Joe Frisco
by Greg Ferrara