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TV Preview: Special takes a look at Hollywood shorts

Sunday, February 03, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Movie shorts - those five-to-20-minute newsreels, travelogues, comedy sketches, musicals and cliffhangers that used to play in theaters before the main attraction - are now mostly relegated to the recesses of Hollywood history.

But even there they haven't been chronicled to any great extent. It's the reason film historian and "Entertainment Tonight" mainstay Leonard Maltin wrote a now out-of-print book about movie shorts in 1971 ("The Great Movie Shorts"). And it's the reason he wrote the new 90-minute documentary "Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story," premiering at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Turner Classic Movies.

TV Preview
"Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story"
When:8 p.m. Tuesday on TCM
Narrator: Chevy Chase

Walter Cronkite, Gregory Hines, Sid Caesar and Tim Conway offer commentary on the influence shorts had on Hollywood. Many of their observations echo the sentiments of Maltin.

"When I was a kid, the first things I saw on TV that turned me on to all of this were 'Laurel and Hardy' and 'The Little Rascals' and 'The Three Stooges,'" Maltin said in an interview from his Los Angeles home. "I didn't know they were old. My parents were the ones who said they saw them when they went to the movies when they were young. That only piqued my curiosity all the more."

Sociologically, newsreels and travelogues provide a "mirror of the times," Maltin said. But it's the comedy shorts people remember most.

"They were the showcase for such great, great talents," he said. "These are among the giants of movie history, and the short was in many ways their best outlet."

In addition to premiering "Added Attractions," TCM will show many of the shorts featured during February, including Robert Benchley shorts (9:30 p.m. Tuesday) and MGM's "Dogville" shorts that spoof movies with canines in the title roles (12:30 a.m. Wednesday).

In their heyday, shorts were sometimes a bigger draw than the featured film.

"Mickey Mouse got major billing on marquees," Maltin said. "When his shorts were new, people went to see the new Mickey Mouse cartoons and the feature film would be almost incidental. The same was definitely true of 'Laurel and Hardy.' They had an enormous following."

Giving the short shrift to movie shorts began with the advent of television.

"The two-reel comedy evolved into the situation comedy on TV," Maltin said. "And the serials became shows like 'Superman.' Almost at every turn you could find an example of TV co-opting the shorts."

The rise of television conspired with other events to kill the shorts. The government forced movie studios to divest themselves of theaters and outlawed block booking, which previously forced theater owners to take a whole season's worth of MGM films, not just films on a case-by-case basis.

"When you booked a block of MGM films, you took the 'Tom & Jerry' cartoon that came with it," Maltin said. When block booking died, shorts hung on for a while but eventually died off.

Now they're rare. Disney's "Monsters Inc." came with a short attached in front of it called "For the Birds," which Maltin called "just as good a film as 'Monsters Inc.'"

Getting shorts back into theaters involves not only a change in thinking in Hollywood, but also among moviegoers.

"When AMC Theaters brought back Looney Tunes 10 years ago, I sat in a couple theaters where people groaned when they came on. Those people should have had ejection buttons on their seats, but they were just not used to it," Maltin said. "They came to see a movie and then were like, 'What's this thing?'

"I can remember seeing the tail end of short subjects when I was growing up, and when you saw a good one, you remembered it," he said. "I think if a clever or provocative short were to be shown in movie theaters today, people would be very pleased to see it, but they have to get into the rhythm of it."

Shorts are still made in film schools, they're shown at film festivals, and they still receive Academy Awards, but most people never get to see them - except on the Internet.

"In one sense, shorts have always been a proving ground for talent on both sides of the camera," Maltin said. "In the old studio system, it was a little more regimented. In later years, people like Roman Polanski got their starts in short films. [George] Lucas' first film was a student short film."

For students, shorts are pragmatic: They're cheaper to make and can be exhibited on the Internet to a worldwide audience.

"The difference, I suppose, is almost anyone who makes a short today sees it as a springboard for bigger and better things," Maltin said. "In the old days, shorts existed solely for their own sake."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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