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1930s Dragnet and Twilight Zone Twists

Like a lot of classic movie fans, I’m a sucker for the world of short subjects. All the major studios had a short subjects department back in the day, mostly from the 1930s up to the mid 1950s. Short subjects were either 10-20 minutes long, and would run before the feature film. The most famous entity to come from Short Subjects would be The Three Stooges. With an average under 20 minute running time, studios soon found their back catalog of theatrical shorts were perfect fodder to offer to syndicated television. 

There were many varieties to the world of short subjects, ongoing series such as The Stooges and the other most well known group, The Little Rascals (originally known as Our Gang), there were mini musicals, and fact of life type docu-shorts, travelogs in vibrant Technicolor to show a wartime audiences the beauty of far away destinations. Many short subjects were only known to the most ardent of film buffs, till numerous ones from the MGM and WB library began to appear on Turner Classic Movies to fill gaps of airtime between films. 

As a result, many long forgotten short subject series have become known again to legions of film buffs--many of whom have been hoping for years to get their hands on DVD sets of the various series. One series that was a 12 year staple was MGM's “Crime Does Not Pay,” which ran from 1935-1947. The series recently had its first ever complete release with a six disc DVD collection from Warner Archive that collects all 50 shorts in the series. It’s interesting watching the series waver between the era of the gangster picture, to the era of Film Noir. 

The majority of the shorts in the series open with the audience being addressed by “The MGM Crime Reporter” who informs them how happy he is to be able to share another case history with them. It’s a bit preposterous to think that a major motion picture studio would have an on staff “crime reporter,” and it’s even more goofy when there’s a run where the actor playing the crime reporter changes in every short. The shorts department at MGM served as a training and testing ground for new talent, both behind the camera and in front. You can see a few future MGM stars show up in the occasional short. 

It’s not quite clear if the origin of these shorts was to counteract the glamorizing of gangsters happening in the media of the day or Warner Brothers own bread and butter gangster flicks, but if there’s an overall moral link to each short it’s that if you’re vaguely connected with crime, death is coming. Short Subjects weren’t as regulated as feature films, and the Crime Does Not Pay series often takes dark and morbid turns in the last few minutes. A short with a female convict suddenly tells us “Her true punishment is knowing she’ll never see her child. A child that will never know of her murderer father and convict mother.” Uh, what? Not at any other point in the short was this information revealed. 

The dialogue in the films are a hoot, particularly in the earlier entries. The second short in the series has a cop saying--and I’m paraphrasing here as I don’t remember the line exactly--”That’s right, Johnny. You’re gonna get the chair. The hot seat. You’re gonna fry!” Followed by Johnny saying “Not me, copper! I’ll turn state’s evidence!” There is a dip in quality as the war years of WW2 start, and the films turn more towards vague propaganda than gangster action--the crime reporter begins to be phased out of the series as well. 

The shorts are really quite entertaining to watch, but I’ll say they’re not for everyone, only those whose love of old Hollywood is deep enough binge watching short subjects is your jam. I don’t think your teenage children would be down for a night of 1930s gangster action. Unless they are, in which case they must have a Robert Osborne bobble head in their bedroom. But this classic move nut/film preservationist loves that this is a thing you can get. Good looking transfer of crazy shorts that us nutty film lovers just have to have sitting on our shelves so we can learn about milk scams and alibi cons anytime we want. Tis truly a golden age to be a film nut. So many titles to watch, such little time.


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