Some people look at Biffle and Shooster and say, “Why?”
Others look at Biffle and Shooster and say, “Why not?”
The legend goes that they were a vaudeville team who attained a measure of fame in the 1920s, working in Katz’s Kreplach Kapers. They were fairly typical entertainers of the era: song-and-dance men who functioned as straight man and comic. Biffle did impressions, and Shooster played the guitar and ukulele. When sound came in, they, like many other performers of the era, trouped out to Brooklyn and made a couple of Vitaphone one-reelers. But they led to nothing, and the boys returned to the stage.
Enter Sam Weinberg. A millionaire realtor (and a fiercely proud and liberal Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant), he was a fan and thought it would be fun to get into “the pitcher biz.” He signed them in 1933 to a three-year contract to star in four two-reel comedies a year. The duo headed out to the coast, and he hired the best free-lance people he could afford to make the shorts.
The boys were kind of comedy shape-shifters, emulating whatever other team fit the scenario: the Stooges in one film, Laurel & Hardy in another, and so on. On the one hand, this kept their films distinctive and non-repetitive (even if the gags weren’t, especially in the ones written by legendary joke recycler Clyde Bruckman), but on the other, not having concrete identities kept them from making a bigger impact. Still, their films were remarkable for what they were able to get away with—Weinberg didn’t fear the Hays office; movies were just a lark for him, so threatening to put him out of business carried no weight—thus he was able to lace the shorts with ethnic humor at a time when the major studios were shunning Jewish characters and themes to placate Hays’ right-hand man, the notoriously anti-Semitic Joseph Breen.
At the end of the three years, with business declining, Weinberg signed them for another year, but the budgets were slashed. A fifth and final year followed, with the shorts extended to three reels in the hope they would prove attractive to exhibitors playing longer films as single features. It didn’t help, and in 1938, they all amicably went their separate ways. The boys continued to work in film sporadically, and kept busy in night clubs and later on early TV variety shows, but their moment in the sun had set.
So why should anyone care about Biffle and Shooster? Don’t we have enough comedy teams from that era already? Not necessarily. Freed from major studio constraints, they had the opportunity to try things other comics couldn’t. The veteran talent behind the camera also relished the relative freedom; as long as they came in on schedule and budget, nobody cared if, say, an actor’s break-up stayed in the final film, or if a Yiddish profanity snuck past the less-than-worldly Breen, or if a black butler actually talked back to a white police detective. And some surprisingly big names would pop in for a couple of days to let down their hair and act silly (Weinberg had sold many homes to stars and remained friendly with them).
Sadly, none of Biffle and Shooster’s films have survived. And so Michael Schlesinger, at great personal expense, has taken it upon himself to refilm them exactly as they were done in the 1930s. And some of his latest efforts will screen at the Egyptian on August 16th at 3:00, followed by a cast and crew discussion. When asked why he would go to all this trouble to resurrect by proxy a comedy team that never really hit it big in the first place, he simply replied—
Michael Schlesinger is a trustee of the American Cinematheque, retired movie-studio weasel, scrappy independent film producer, and is clearly, utterly insane.