Tuesday, July 17, 2018


One of the old tricks of budget labels is to find material that a famous artist recorded for some small label before becoming famous, slap a few of those tracks onto an LP with the artist’s name prominently featured, and then pump it up to album length with filler from some non-famous artist the label already had the rights to (or could acquire for next to nothing). The Beatles albums on MGM and Atco were like this, with 4 Beatles tracks backing Tony Sheridan, and 8 tracks by others. For a real laugh, why not try Googling the albums ORBITING WITH ROY ORBISON AND BRISTOW HOOPER or SOUL AS SUNG BY OTIS REDDING AND LITTLE JOE CURTIS (see pics), both of which are classics (or anti-classics) of that genre.

Something like that was also done in the film world from time to time. There was a low-budget crime film made at PRC circa 1940-41 called PAPER BULLETS starring Jack LaRue, which had the young Alan Ladd in a small role. A few years after Ladd became a huge star with THIS GUN FOR HIRE, Eagle-Lion took the film, placed Ladd’s name above the title, and re-released it as GANGS, INC. And anyone who’s ever seen the 1936 Weiss family serial THE CLUTCHING HAND has seen an awkwardly inserted title card on a few chapters which reads STARRING JON HALL. Presumably, these prints came from the late 30’s after Hall was a star at Universal. When he made the serial, he was certainly NOT the star of it….in fact, he’d not even changed his name to Jon Hall yet….he was still Charles Locher, and was billed on the cast list as such! I’ve always loved this kind of playful deception—rather than being outraged by it, I admire the daring of the con, and often you get to see or hear some obscure material you would not find normally.

Astor Pictures was a small, marginal film distribution company which specialized in reissues of once-popular films which still had appeal on some level. Old horror films and things such as the East Side Kids features were re-issued by Astor. They were in business from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. They also released some original material, low-budget all-Black cast films, shot-in-16mm westerns starring Sunset Carson, etc. The company morphed into an art-film distributor in its final days of the early 60’s, releasing such foreign classics as LA DOLCE VITA and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. During their 40’s heyday, though, they were kind of like the film equivalent to a budget label. With legendary exploitation film-maker BUD POLLARD (THE HORROR, GIRLS FOR SALE, THE BLACK KING, Louis Jordan’s BEWARE) on board at Astor, they came up with the brilliant idea of taking Danny Kaye’s comedy shorts at Educational Pictures, which Astor had the rights to at that time, and editing them together into a kind of “feature” that would STAR Danny Kaye (meaning, his name could be put on the theater marquee and bring in the customers). That created the “feature” THE BIRTH OF A STAR. I’m not sure if that’s in circulation—no one on the IMDB has actually seen it. When that worked, they came up with the idea of editing together parts of Bing Crosby’s comedy musical shorts made by Mack Sennett at Educational Pictures in 1931-32, after Crosby had been in the Paul Whiteman film KING OF JAZZ (1930) but before he truly broke as a national star via radio. The four Educational Pictures shorts (which do survive—Grapevine Video was offering them at one time, and they are perhaps better appreciated in their original context than sliced and diced into a “feature”) were I SURRENDER DEAR, ONE MORE CHANCE, BILLBOARD GIRL, and DREAM HOUSE. They are all quite entertaining, and Bing’s self-effacing, self-deprecating, amiable persona really began with these shorts. Gary Giddins, in the first volume of his projected multi-volume biography of Crosby (the second volume will be out later this year), gives a lot of credit to Sennett (who is still much under-rated….especially his later work) for figuring out how to “market” Crosby as a film character who had to carry his own film shorts. Crosby’s charm and excellent comic timing, as well as his bordering-on-hip but still dreamy vocalizing, are very much in evidence in the early Sennett shorts. We love Educational Pictures shorts here at BTC and always have….if we could, we’d erect a shrine to such forgotten Educational Pictures stars who had their own series of comedy shorts such as TOM PATRICOLA AND BUSTER WEST, TOM HOWARD AND GEORGE SHELTON (later finding fame with the It Pays To Be Ignorant radio show), JEFFERSON MACHAMER (and his “Gags and Gals”), and TIM AND IRENE (Ryan). Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon also did great work at Educational. (EDITOR'S NOTE---and what about JOE COOK!)

If you’ve ever wondered what Bud Pollard looked and sounded like, you’re in luck….he actually narrates/hosts the film, reading his lines off cue cards, thus looking left of the camera for a while, right of the camera for a while, etc. The gimmick here is that on some level the film is passed off as a “biography” of Bing. This is possible because the shorts have plots about a character who is up and coming, trying different jobs, trying to make it as an entertainer, etc. As the characters he plays are essentially his public persona, this almost works. The title, of course, is meant to echo the successful ROAD pictures that Crosby did with Bob Hope. Astor specialized in small-town and neighborhood theaters which could charitably be called “third-run” houses. Now they could feature a film with a ROAD TO title which starred Bing Crosby and for a modest rental fee. Anyone who was a super-Crosby fan would probably be happy to see these shorts (there was no TV or internet to re-run them back then), once they got over the sting of not getting a Hope and Crosby film. Believe it or not, in addition to Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, Astor went to that well another time by cobbling together some pre-stardom 1930’s shorts from BETTY GRABLE, and then passed that off as a feature called HOLLYWOOD BOUND—as with the Kaye feature, that does not seem to be in circulation either, unfortunately.

Thus like both the best budget-label products or exploitation-film scams, THE ROAD TO HOLLYWOOD was both an outrageous rip-off AND totally entertaining and worth the price of admission….once you got over being taken!

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