- Introduction: Beyond Vitaphone: The Early Sound Short
One thing about shorts: When they're good, like the little girl in the book, they're very good, but when they're bad - whooey."Thoughts on Shorts", Exhibitors Herald-World (22 February 1930): 27.
The perception of the short subject's low standing within the hierarchy of American commercial film production almost goes without saying, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the years following sound's advent. The silent era could at least boast a number of enduring achievements within the short-subject realm: the one- and two-reel masterpieces of the great slapstick artists; the first "moving picture newspapers", or newsreels; action-packed serials starring Pearl White and Ruth Roland - all of which continued to be produced long after the feature film's emergence as the industry's chief commodity. But when the sound-era equivalent would seem to be, say, the violent knockabout of Columbia's long-running Three Stooges shorts (1934-1959) or Flash Gordon's serialized adventures on the planet Mongo (1936) - well, for some, "whooey" might seem the appropriate response.
Not, of course, that early sound-era shorts have been entirely overlooked in the existing scholarship. Warner Bros.' pioneering sound-on-disc Vitaphone shorts loom large in conventional histories of the coming of sound, as do Walt Disney's early experiments with sound-image relations in cartoons like Steamboat Willie (1928). There is also, in the existing scholarship, a familiar defense of the short subject during this period, one that defers to their important role within the "balanced program" concept of the era's exhibition practices. Short subjects, this line of argument goes, had value not only as a necessary "buffer" to the feature presentation, but also in ensuring the diversity of appeals necessary to sustain a mass audience. Travelogues, cartoons, slapstick, and sing-alongs all constituted just a fraction of the many and varied genres of short subjects during this period, to say nothing of the more outré examples featuring, for example, talking dogs (MGM's "Dogville" comedies, 1929-1931), golf instruction (Vitaphone's "How I Play Golf, by Bobby Jones" shorts, 1931-1932), and glee club recitals (Educational's "Spirit of the Campus" series, 1932-1933), among many others. So even if the feature was disappointing, audiences might still have found something to enjoy in, say, the spectacle of all-dog casts performing genre burlesques, as in The Dogway Melody (1931).
Still, none of this quite gets us to the specific historicity of the short subject qua short subject; that is, the changing parameters - industrial, economic, textual, cultural - that shaped short-format filmmaking during this period. Conventional film histories still fail to treat early sound shorts as much more than experimental steps on a teleological path toward feature-length talkies. Meanwhile, the "balanced program" framework only explains the continued presence of shorts on exhibition schedules; it does not, in itself, secure any further analysis beyond the obvious fact of the short subject's heterogeneity. (Which is why, no doubt, most film history textbooks are content simply to summarize the various genres of short-subject production during this period.) In the spirit of provocation, then, let me begin this special issue of Film History dedicated to the early sound short with a bolder gambit: namely, that innovations and transformations within the short subject were among the crucial capstones of the classic studio [End Page 247] system's consolidation at the end of the 1920s; that, in fact, Hollywood's "grand design" - as a set of business practices organized around the production and distribution of classical sound film, both as textual form and as viewing experience - is inconceivable outside of developments in the short-subject field. 1 At least three assertions can be made under this rubric, as follows:
First, the short subject vouchsafed the standardization of film exhibition and spectatorship at the beginning of the sound era. A major component of the "evening's entertainment" ideal of 1920s theater programming had been the inclusion of live prologues and presentation acts; yet sound short subjects would make the practice largely obsolete. The very raison d'être of Warner Bros.' pioneering Vitaphone shorts - which initially...