To watch this more-than-three-hour collection of 16 Paramount short subjects is to be transported to vaudeville heaven. These priceless performances were produced between 1929 and 1933. Comedy was to Paramount what musicals were to MGM, and who better to usher in a new era of talking pictures than audience-tested stage entertainers? The studio recruited New York's finest. Among the headliners on this bill are George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Bing Crosby, and Milton Berle. The shorts themselves are mostly just filmed records of these established acts, much as if you watched them from your center aisle seat at the Palace Theatre. The jokes, unlike fine wine, have not aged well ("Prosperity is just around the crooner," Bing Crosby offers in "Sing, Bing, Sing"). But several of these shorts offer revelatory early glimpses at these future show-business legends. "A Broadway Romeo" (1931) presents a cockier Jack Benny than audiences would come to know and love. Burns & Allen reveal a surrealist streak in "100% Service" (1931), which climaxes with a parade of would-be takers (including a man with a horse!) for a woman's invitation to join her for honeymoon bridge. Comedy Cavalcade also rescues from obscurity such faded former stars as dialect comedians Smith & Dale ("What Price, Pants?"), who were the inspiration for Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. The timeless slapstick of "The Plasterers" (1929) with Charles O'Donnell & Jack Blair, "Plastered" (1930) with Willie West & McGinty, and "A Put Up Job" (1931) with Karl Dane and George K. Arthur, fares better than the more dialogue-driven shorts. Taken together, this is a precious time capsule from a bygone era when comedy was just beginning to finds its voice in the movies. —Donald Liebenson


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