Old movies and lifelong learning

Sometimes I think that the best learning sneaks up on you, particularly when you’re a few decades removed from college.

Here’s the scenario:

  • After I completed the 50-Movie Westerns pack and watched the movies on Disc 10 of the Hollywood Legends set, since I like alternating discs between two sets, I chose the Comedy Classics set to start next.
  • The first disc is a set of five collections of shorts. Four are themed (Our Gang, Stan Laurel, Keystone Cops, Fatty Arbuckle–which I’ll start watching today). One is not: It’s three shorts that seem to have nothing in common other than being two-reelers.
  • The first two shorts in that non-cluster were a trifle bemusing. One was a Chesterfield-sponsored “mystery” that had nearly five dozen stars and was done mostly to raise money for a TB sanatorium. One was apparently a very early talkie, where the amusement seemed to come as much from well-synchronized sound effects as anything else.
  • Then I got to the third one: La Cucaracha–and I’m deliberately not providing an IMDB link, because that would spoil the story. It was (it is) fairly enjoyable if not terribly comic, with a slight but workable plot, a couple of good music and dance numbers, some reasonable humor–and mostly a LOT of color, aided by its Mexican cantina setting with the costumes of the dancers, etc. “Technicolor” also shows up three times in the credits, in interesting ways.
  • I’ve long since learned to write my review before going to IMDB, modifying it later if necessary. In this case, I wrote, “I’d guess that this short was done partly as an early demonstration of three-strip Technicolor, since it has so much color and specifically has a range of colors that didn’t really work in two-strip Technicolor.” I thought that it was partly demo because of the prominence of the Technicolor-related credits and because it seemed to have awfully strong production values for a two-reeler.
  • Sure enough, when I looked it up on IMDB, I found that it was the very first live-action three-strip Technicolor film, and even won an Oscar (for best comedy short, which I suppose is possible, but this sounds more like a misplaced technical achievement Oscar). And, fortunately, the color was very well-preserved even in this public-domain version.

Now here’s the thing. (“Get to the point, will you?” I’m getting there.) A year ago, I would never have surmised that this must be very early three-strip Technicolor–and I might not even have known there were both three-strip and two-strip Technicolor processes.

But in watching the very old movies, including one or two that supposedly had color but didn’t in the version I watched as well as one that had a distinctly limited color palette, and in checking out IMDB and other sources about the movies, I learned some things about early color moviemaking–not intentionally, but through absorption.

I’ll never be a film historian or a great critic, but I’d learned enough to make a reasonable, and correct, supposition. That’s lifelong learning–maybe small, but satisfying.

Here’s to more of it, as occasions arise.

(I’m now also acutely aware that “Our Gang” did not describe one cast of characters, with or without the “Little Rascals” modifier. And that I find the 1936 “Spanky era” group a lot more interesting than the 1932 “Jackie Cooper era” group… And that Stan Laurel on his own in silent short subjects may be an acquired taste.)

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