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Vintage Film Shorts Are Long on Laughs

November 12, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Be prepared to laugh yourself silly watching Kino on Video's yukfest, "Hollywood on Parade: The Paramount Comedy Shorts: 1928-1941" ($25 each).

The three-volume set includes 25 deliciously funny shorts made by Paramount--from the advent of sound until 1941. Among the stars featured are Robert Benchley, Milton Berle, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, and Jack Benny.

"Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin" pays homage to the great American satirist, as well as to Donald Ogden Stewart and Alexander Woollcott, who all graced the Hotel Algonquin's legendary literary round table in New York in the 1920s and '30s.

Benchley made his first screen appearance in 1928 re-creating his famous "Treasurer's Report," which he had first performed live in 1922. Equally witty is the 1928 Benchley short "The Sex Life of a Polyp," in which he gives a lecture to a women's group. "The Witness," from 1941, is the rarest short in this anthology. In this comedy, Benchley turns the tables on government inquisitors who are trying to ferret out Communists.

Stewart, who wrote the screenplay for "The Philadelphia Story" and was later blacklisted, stars in two amusing 1929 shorts, "Traffic Regulations" and "Humorous Flights."

Acerbic New Yorker columnist Woollcott, who was later satirized in the Kaufman and Hart Broadway hit "The Man Who Came to Dinner," headlines the clever 1934 farce "Mr. W's Little Game." Woollcott plays a stuffy nightclub patron who stumps a young woman and a snobby waiter (Leo G. Carroll) with a simple word game.

"Studio Snapshots" consists of a series of rarely seen shorts that were produced by Paramount to promote its galaxy of stars. These "newsreels" offered candid glimpses of favorite stars both on and off the screen. Gary Cooper is seen having breakfast at his home with a chimp; Tallulah Bankhead sings "It Had to Be That Way"; Bela Lugosi pops up as Dracula; Buster Keaton pilots a yacht; and even a young Gloria Stuart of "Titanic" fame appears in a short featuring a group of starlets.

Also included on the tape is the 1933 musical comedy "Sing, Bing, Sing!," starring a young Bing Crosby; "Star Reporter in Hollywood," a 1937 short featuring performances by the Sons of the Pioneers, Louis Prima, the Boswell Sisters and Yasha Bunchuk & His Choir; and "Poppin' the Cork," a 1933 comedy starring the 25-year-old Milton Berle.

"Cavalcade of Comedy" spotlights vaudeville stars Paramount recruited from the New York stage. Included on the tape are 1930's amusing "Fit to Be Tied," with Burns and Allen; the 1929 Eddie Cantor short "Getting a Ticket"; and 1931's "A Broadway Romeo" with a pre-39-year-old Jack Benny. Perhaps the most interesting short is "What Price, Pants?," from 1931, which stars the legendary Yiddish comedy team Smith & Dale. The duo became the inspiration for Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys."

To order the videos, call (800) 562-3330.

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Universal Home Video has just released "Death Takes a Holiday" ($15), the 1934 classic fantasy that served as an inspiration for Brad Pitt's latest, "Meet Joe Black," which opens Friday. Though "Death" is a bit creaky, the romantic drama still casts a magical spell. Fredric March stars as the Grim Reaper, who appears in human form to find out why people fear him. Evelyn Venable plays the woman with whom he falls in love.

Also new from Universal is the slap-happy slapstick comedy "Murder He Says" ($15), from 1945. Fred MacMurray and Marjorie Main star.

Joan Fontaine and the sexless sex symbol Arturo de Cordova headline the so-so 1944 romance "Frenchman's Creek" ($15), based on Daphne Du Maurier's far superior novel.

Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor headline "A Gathering of Eagles," ($15), a serviceable 1963 remake of "Twelve O'Clock High."

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