A Year in Shorts Day 254: "So This is Harris"
There are many reasons an Oscar win can baffle you. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of the winner going to something so truly, horrendously awful that you can’t imagine how it even got nominated, let alone received enough votes to win. Think Crash winning Best Picture. Other times it’s the opposite, with the win going to something so unbelievably deserving that you assumed the Academy could never be that cool. Think Parasite winning Best Picture. And sometimes a film is just an obscure or random choice that you’re surprised the Academy even heard of it, let alone gave it an Oscar. Imagine an alternate universe in which David Cronenberg’s Crash won Best Picture. But most of the time, a baffling Oscar win is the one that goes to a film which isn’t particularly great, terrible or offbeat, but simply mediocre. Such is the case of the 1933 short, So This Is Harris!
I should note that, while So This Is Harris is generally listed as having won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, that isn't strictly true. The Shorts categories took a few years to get to where they are today. In the first few years, the live action shorts were divided into two separate categories- Comedy and Novelty; So This Is Harris won in the former. This distinction would continue up to the 9th Academy Awards, when those two categories were replaced with three categories- Color, One-Reel and Two-Reel. The award for Best Short Film, Color only lasted two years, presumably after someone realized that color shorts ALSO had either one or two reel, and it's not like Academy Awards grow on trees. While the creation of the Best Documentary Short category would change the types of films nominated for Live Action Short a bit, the separation of One-Reel and Two-Reel shorts continued all the way through the 50s, finally becoming one category for the 30th Academy Awards. This is presumably due to there being less of a market for short films (especially live action shorts) in those days, a trend which (unfortunately) continues to the present. Under normal circumstances I never point any of this out because it's a little confusing, unwieldly and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone but me. But it's more interesting to talk about than today's short, so here we are.
As for the short itself- well it's perfectly fine I guess. Directed by Mark Sandrich, it tells the story of Walter Catlett (played by Walter Catlett), a man who can't stand the music of bandleader Phil Harris (played by Phil Harris). After a series of musical performances, strange sections of rhyming dialogue and farcical mix-ups which should be funnier than they are, Walter learns to respect the music of Harris as well as to not cheat on his wife (played by Helen Collins). It's complicated. The whole thing is a pretty light-hearted goofy comedy mixed with a shameless ego stroke for its title character, but it's harmless enough. Or it would be if it were only five to ten minutes long. But for whatever reason, this film is nearly a half hour long, which is just ridiculous! I have no idea what films So This Is Harris was played before, but hopefully it wasn't a good one. Oh sure, if you watched this before films like She Done Him Wrong or Cavalvade (that year's Best Picture winner) it wouldn't be too bad. But could you imagine having to sit through this before a good movie like 42nd Street or something like that? It's almost as bad as what those of us who saw Coco in theaters had to sit through!
Perhaps I'd be more generous towards this film if it featured someone a little more exciting than Phil Harris. After all, there is a lot in this film that I would normally enjoy. All the wacky misunderstandings that make up whatever passes for a plot in this picture, for instance. Well in a Fred Astaire musical or an episode of Frasier, I'd absolutely love it. This whole film has that specific sense of humor that makes comedies from the 1930s so much fun to watch. And while the bizarre interludes of rhyming dialogue or random musical numbers are a bit strange, those are the sorts of eccentricities I often admire in a film. But when it's all in service of Phil Harris, of all people, it just gets a little frustrating. Now if this film were called So This is Calloway, THAT would be something I could get behind.
So This Is Harris is certainly far from the worst short we've covered. It's directed with no small amount of flair by Sandrich. And while its Black characters could never be considered "progressive", they're not racist caricatures either, and that's certainly something. Plus, thanks to being a Pre-Code film, there's a musical number at the halfway point which might be the horniest thing I've ever seen, which seems to be important to a lot of people these days. It's a pretty middle-of-the-road picture, although I guess there are worse things to be. But those worse things are certainly a lot more fun to talk about.
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