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Comedy Torture Chamber: Smoked Hams (1934)



The experience of being in an audience watching an abysmal comedy is uniquely breath-taking. For the uninitiated, it can also be anxiety-inducing. Confronted with the laugh-less movie, you might start looking for something—anything—to laugh at just to break the uncomfortable silence. Maybe things get funnier if you just start laughing? That’s a bad idea, people will think you’re a moron for finding the movie amusing. You look around and start to wonder if anybody else is enjoying themselves—maybe they’re just not laugh-out-loud types? No, you just heard someone let out a low sigh. Perhaps you can find some other aspect of the film to appreciate—not really, the lighting is flat, and the set is like something out of dinner theater. The twenty minutes of “zaniness” seem to stretch into an eternity. The unease mounts with each successive “wacky” musical cue. You let out an audible groan. Hopefully the film will break, and the projectionist won't bother to show the rest. You’ve experienced more giddiness watching Tarkovsky. Nothing is funny and you may never laugh again.


It doesn’t have to be this way.


The trick to enjoying a bad comedy is to realize that it's all a state of mind. You have a choice in this comedy torture chamber: either be a slave or be a master. As a master, the discomfort in the audience becomes an integral part of the show. I’ve long harbored this desire to gather an audience with a program entitled “Unheralded Comedy Classics: Side-Splitters from the Golden Age” and then proceed to unspool the most leaden 1930s two-reelers I could possibly come up with. The worst of Educational, Hal Roach’s rush jobs, Moran and Mack, etc. It would be fun…for me!


Shemp Howard vitaphone smoked hams
Does Smoked Hams beat a poke in the eye? That is the question.

To that end, I’ve done a little digging to come up with contenders for my “comedy” program and stumbled upon some reviews of the 1934 Vitaphone short Smoked Hams in Motion Picture Herald’s “What the Picture Did for Me” column.


  • “A two reel comedy that’s pathetic. Put extra insurance on yourself before playing this one. It’s the worst attempt of a comedy I’ve ever seen.” –Harland Rankin, Plaza Theatre, Tilbury, Ontario, Canada

  • “This is very poor entertainment of the slapstick variety. You will benefit by not playing this one. I am rather surprised that Vitaphone should produce such shorts as this and hope others will be much better.” –J.J. Medford, Orpheum Theatre, Oxford, N.C.

  • “We bought some advertising on this and people looking at the gaudy one-sheet and set of features thought “Smoked Hams” would be worth seeing, so did we, till we saw it. It is poor, one of the poorest two-reelers we have shown in months.” –F.R. Rayburn, Arcade Theatre, Newell, S.D.

  • “It’s just as well they labeled this a comedy. You could never guess by looking at it that it was supposed to be funny.” –M.R. Harrington, Avalon Theatre, Clatskanie, Ore.


And lastly but not leastly:


  • “The poorest comedy that Vitaphone has ever made. Nuf sed.” –J.R. Patterson, Majestic Theatre, Fort Mill, S.C.

Lest we assume Smoked Hams was simply unappreciated in its time, we turn our attention to the more modern vox populi of film criticism, IMDb reviews:


  • User boblipton writes, “…this one doesn’t work at all.”

  • User bkoganbing’s review is entitled, “The tePainfully unfunnyman of Pollard and Howard,” which demonstrates just how discombobulated they were by the proceedings.

  • User planktonrules calls it, “A mind-boggingly bad film.”

  • User tadpole-596-918256 was laser-focused with a continuity error in which a raw cabbage fired from a cannon somehow splatters in the face of some audience members.

  • User damnedcat777 went the wisenheimer route: “A hidden gem that deserves to be held aloft with our specie’s [sic] greatest accomplishments: the pyramids of Giza, The Wizard of Oz, and … this cinematic work of genius.”


Shemp Howard Daphne Pollard Vitaphone Smoked Hams
Howard & Pollard reading reviews of Smoked Hams.

As a totally sane, emotionally stable, and, most importantly, completely objective appreciator of movies, I can confirm that Smoked Hams is not good. But how bad is it?


Well, all the elements are there: committed performances by Shemp Howard and Daphne Pollard, a couple solid supporters in Lionel Stander and Harry Shannon, a perfectly acceptable backstage scenario, and even a nifty supporting novelty act, the Jolly Bakers. The problem is that none of the gags amuse and not a single joke lands.


The scenario is in three acts. The first concerns a vaudeville act (Howard & Pollard) preparing their routine in their shabby apartment. The gags involve a suit of armor as a makeshift stove, a Shakespearean neighbor with a supply of butter, and a landlord with a strict no-cooking policy.


Credit where credit is due: “Gee, I wish we had some buttah, I’m tired of eating eggs fried in cold cream,” is a pretty good line and delivered well by Ms. Pollard.


lionel stander smoke hams
Mr. Ivanitch (Lionel Stander) is irritated by Smoked Hams.

The second act has the vaudevillians forcing their way into big producer Mr. Ivanitch’s (Stander) office. Ivanitch, of course, is irritated by the duo, who in the process of pitching their act destroy the office. However, being a Russki, Mr. Ivanitch appreciates the act’s finish, which involves firing a cannon.


When they wheel the cannon in, I like Lionel Stander’s reaction, “Vat es dis, a revolution?”


Act three is Howard & Pollard’s “Yankee Doodle Revue,” where the duo performs their Civil War pageant to an unamused audience.


Apart from the brief glimpses we get of the Jolly Bakers, this act is the hardest to endure. I have to admit that IMDb reviewer is right. It is distracting how the cannon-fired cabbage is pure mush.


Smoked Hams is alright. It’s not going to transform anyone into a lover of two-reeler comedies, but it lacks that excruciating essence needed to be a part of the comedy torture chamber.


The search continues…


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5 Comments


What a smart--and very well written--piece. It makes the unbearable sound like a must-see!

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Hey, thanks!

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Well, let's not forget the exhibitors aren't always right. Go back and look up their reviews of "The Fatal Glass of Beer."


Any such festival should include the twin titans of terror: "Cuckoo on a Choo-Choo," almost universally condemned as the worst Stooges short, and the unspeakable "Down the Hatch," starring the equally horrifying Harry Mimmo. I hear that in Alabama they used it in place of the gas chamber until it was ruled "cruel and unusual punishment."

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Thank you for the suggestions! I feel like I need to get acquainted with this "horrifying" Mr. Mimmo.

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I felt the same way watching SKIDOO with four other audience members. When it was finally over*, only three of us were left. As we exited the theatre, I avoided any eye contact.


*Actually, the ending of SKIDOO was the best part. Harry Nilsson singing the closing credits was excellent.

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