Few studios did more to overhaul the short-subject industry than Warner Bros. Not only did the company spearhead the talkie revolution in the fall of 1926 with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc technology, but it also came to define a new and influential style of “presentation” sound shorts featuring Broadway-style variety stars and musical performers. Music from the leading big band orchestras; monologues and two-acts by big-time vaudevillians; comic and dramatic playlets; and a wide assortment of novelty performers – these would become the preferred performance types, setting a template that was followed by other short-subject producers moving into sound.
Once the initial waves caused by the transition had been weathered, however, short-subject production at the major studios settled back into something like its accustomed form, even at Warners. In 1931, Vitaphone unit supervisor Bryan Foy was replaced by Sam Sax, under whose supervision the short-subject division returned to generically defined film series, including the slapstick Big V Comedies line (1932-1935), which boasted such knockabout talents as Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Daphne Pollard, and even Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, in his return to the screen. Even this, however, was not enough to stem the slapstick short’s ongoing marginalization: the Big V series ended in 1935, and slapstick’s legacy would be taken up in animated form in Leon Schlesinger’s celebrated Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons, for which Warners’ studio-era shorts are now best remembered.
NOTE: Figures for the 1926-1931 seasons represent short films known to be produced during this period, rather than released. Warners did not initially operate with a release-date model for its Vitaphone shorts but rather allowed exhibitors to book from an ever-expanding catalog of short-subject reels.