Long thought to be lost (and in some quarters even thought to have never existed),  "The Stolen Jools" was an all-star short comedy shot in 1931 by the National Vaudeville Artists (NVA) as part of their "relief work" for the American Tuberculosis Society. It stars...everybody, more or less, in a sincerely puzzling tale of Norma Shearer's jewels having been stolen and the quasi-investigation that follows--though that makes it sound like there is something resembling a plot line which I assure you there isn't. Really it is just an excuse to get all of the big Hollywood stars of the day on screen--sometimes for mere seconds--in blackout sketches designed to aid a good cause. The film was then shown in theaters across the country, accompanied by a live speaker from the NVA asking for donations to help cure tuberculosis. Since the film has nothing to do with anything medical, it's hard to compute quite how this convinced audience members--at the pit of the depression--to part with a few bucks (nickels? pennies?) to cure a disease that at that time didn't seem to be anywhere near being stamped out. Perhaps the dizzying presence of so many stars--Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Dix, Wallace Beery, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Joan Crawford, Jack Oakie and tons of others--all thrown together in a film that makes no sense and runs under twenty minutes was meant to daze and confuse the audience who, grateful that it was over, would pay for the privelege of not seeing it again. (In this way "The Stolen Jools" is a bit like the old joke about giving the sax player on the subway ten dollars--to not play.) Indeed, watching "The Stolen Jools" is reminiscent of nothing quite so much as the nightmare you might have after channel surfing through a bunch of old movies while eating a large cheese and pepperoni pizza (with plenty of cheap beer) at two am. One minute Wallace Beery is there, the next Laurel and Hardy, the next Loretta Young...all of them having little to do but being somehow connected.

Actually, I'm being hard on the poor thing. "The Stolen Jools" is certainly worth watching--primarily as an artifact of its time, as a piece of Hollywood archeology if you will. And it's plotlessness is no big deal--it's a sketch comedy one way or the other. What's curious to me, though, are the jokes that no longer make sense. A good many of the blackouts end on lines that are clearly timed to be punchlines--and which, in their day, might well have provoked belly laughs--but which now simply seem like premature fade-outs before the actual punchline has landed. In this sense, the film reminds me of a joke book that a friend of mine once gave me that dates from 1904. While there were certain old jokes in the book that still made sense, I was surprised at the number of jokes that merely seemed incoherent--as if translated (lamely) from another language. Humor, it turns out, does have an expiration date. A goodly amount of "The Stolen Jools" serves as ample proof of this fact.

Since both vaudeville and tuberculosis have, for the most part, disappeared from American life, the film raises a number of enigmatic questions none of which, I'm sorry to say, I can answer; why, for instance, was the NVA particularly interested in tuberculosis? Was the disease particularly prevalent among vaudevillians? Was tuberculosis suspected to be linked to the generally poor conditions the performers lived and worked in? And how about all that asbestos they were regularly exposed to in the theaters in which they toiled?

Also curious is the fact that the film was made "in association with Chesterfield Cigarettes". This is particularly intriguing as it's hard, at this distance, to know truly how much people knew about the connection between cigarettes and lung disease. I know the prevailing wisdom is that "people didn't know smoking was bad for them" but a cursory glance at any period magazine's cigarette advertising disproves this assumption--many cigarette ads claimed that their product was "easier on the throat" or less "cough-filled" than a rival cigarette, so it's clear that at the time the film was made there was some sort of recognition in the air about smokings harmfulness. If that's the case, was Chesterfield's participation in the making of "The Stolen Jools" an early, guilty sop intended to show "concern" on Chesterfield's part about their poisonous (and highly profitable) product? If so, this pre-dates big tobacco's recent efforts at "educating" youth about smoking by a cool seventy or so years...and gives truth to the adage that, as far as con-games go, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

"The Stolen Jools" was rediscovered in 1972 in Britain, where it had been released in 1932 as "The Slippery Pearls," one of the Masquers Club comedy series for RKO. Subsequently a U.S. print was discovered (not sure by whom or how) and eventually the film's true title, origin and purpose were at last known. Look out for some very interesting (and brief) tid-bits: a view of a studio lot (RKO perhaps?) with Richard Dix leaving a soundstage; Joan Crawford camping it up with Billy Haines--who seems absolutely one-hundred percent comfortable being totally out of the closet; Norma Shearer (to the right) looking a good deal dishier than she did after marrying Thalberg and becoming MGM's reigning "ice-queen"; a fine glimpse of the great Wheeler and Woolsey; a quite funny section with Gene Palette, Skeets Gallagher and Stu Erwin as newsmen--featuring Gary Cooper; and strangest of all Barbara Stanwyck and her then husband, vaudeville star Frank Fay--a ghost of the gay white way if ever there was one--in a truly weird bit in which Stanwyck recites poem she wrote...and is then, per Fay's request, taken outside and shot (!). Fay was a notoriously evil drunk who was intensely disliked by all of Hollywood--Stanwyck shook him fairly early on, after he threw their adopted baby into the swimming pool in a drunken rage. Many years later, after two decades of obscurity, Fay starred on Broadway in the original production of "Harvey" and once again earned everyone's enmity by associating himself--per his newly reclaimed celebrity--with a fascistic "America First" group. One of the jokes around Hollywood (recounted in Milton Berle's autobiography) at the time "The Stolen Jools" was made was: "Who's got the biggest prick in town?" Answer: "Mrs. Frank Fay."

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