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Joe McDoakes is the protagonist of a series of 63 black and white live action comedy one-reel short subjects released between 1942 and 1956. The Joe McDoakes shorts are also known as the Behind the Eight Ball series (for the large eight ball Joe appeared behind in the opening credits) or the So You Want... series (as most of the films were titled). The character's name comes from "Joe Doakes," which was then a popular American slang term for the average man.
The entire series was produced and directed by Richard Bare (d/b/a Richard L. Bare Productions) and distributed by Warner Bros. under their Vitaphone brand. George O'Hanlon, who would later provide the voice of George Jetson, starred as Joe McDoakes. These one-reel shorts were co-written by Bare and O'Hanlon, although Bare usually received sole screen credit as writer. Art Gilmore, through 1948, served as the narrator of Joe's humorous efforts to accomplish the activity that was the focus of the short. Gordon Hollingshead, who won five Academy Awards for producing other short subjects for Warner Bros., was also credited as a producer on the series until his death in 1952, although his role on this series was primarily as liaison between the studio and the director.
The series began with So You Want to Give Up Smoking, made as a project by Bare to teach his students at the University of Southern California the fundamentals of making a movie. It was picked up by Warner Bros. for $2500 and became the first of a series of short subjects. Only one more short was produced before World War II caused the series to be suspended, but production resumed in 1945 with So You Think You're Allergic.
These first three shorts were filmed silent, with narration added in post-production, in the manner of the popular Pete Smith shorts, made at MGM from 1931 to 1955. They also resembled the Smith shorts in that they addressed actual, everyday problems (giving up smoking, caring for the eyes, coping with allergies) in an instructional but humorous way.
In 1946 the series began using live sound recording, and the addition of dialogue gave the films a new dimension. Now the action was being played strictly for laughs, with many familiar character actors adding to the fun. Fritz Feld, Ralph Sanford, Philip Van Zandt, Fred Kelsey, and Leo White made frequent appearances; semi-regulars were Clifton Young and later Del Moore as Joe's loudmouthed pal Homer, Rodney Bell as dumb-bell "helper" Marvin, and Ted Stanhope as an all-purpose authority figure (desk clerk, salesman, businessman, etc.). Many of the shorts are domestic comedies, with "the original hard-luck kid" McDoakes insisting on carrying a project through, with often disastrous consequences. So You Want to Build a Model Railroad has Joe so engrossed in the hobby that it overruns his entire apartment; So You Want to Be a Cowboy has Joe going to a movie, and creating a disturbance when he envisions himself as a cowboy hero; So You're Going on a Vacation has Joe struggling with a camping outfit.
Warner contract player Jane Harker co-starred as Joe's wife, Alice, in eight comedies, beginning with So You Want to Play the Horses in 1946 and ending with So You Want to Build a House in 1948. Phyllis Coates would start her screen career by taking up the role of Alice later that year in So You Want to Be in Politics. Coates had married producer/director Bare that same year. The working relationship between Coates and Bare would survive their divorce. Coates gave up the role to play Lois Lane in the first season of Adventures of Superman. Former singing star Jane Frazee took up the role beginning in 1954 with So You Want to Be Your Own Boss, but Coates returned to the role in 1956, and played the part in the final installment So Your Wife Wants to Work. Harker, Coates, and Frazee each displayed a fine sense of comedy as Joe's long-suffering mate. While the Alice character would appear in most of the shorts, the actress playing her would not be billed, and unless the story required Joe to be married, not only would Alice not appear, but Joe could even be a bachelor again, as there was no continuity between installments.
Star O'Hanlon and director Bare shared the same crazy sense of humor, which ran all through the series. So You Want to Be a Detective kids the daylights out of the detective mystery Lady in the Lake; the action is in the first person, with the camera representing Art Gilmore (taking a more active role in the story than usual), who is presumably tagging along with Joe. In So You Want to Be in Pictures, McDoakes is listening to a record that is providing an acting lesson, and when the telephone rings the record tells him to answer it. Later in that same short, McDoakes is hired to serve as a stunt double at a movie studio. The job turns out to be a George O'Hanlon comedy (the clapboard identifies it as So You Want to Hold Your Wife), and Joe takes a pie in the face from Jane Harker! So You Want to Know Your Relatives turns into a wicked satire of This Is Your Life, with Joe as the reluctant recipient. Joe occasionally punctuates the end of a scene by looking straight into the camera to speak to (or commiserate with) the movie audience.
The series hit its stride in the late 1940s, gaining three consecutive Academy Award nominations in the category of Short Subjects, one-reel for So You Want to Be in Pictures, So You Want to Be on the Radio, and So You Think You're Not Guilty. for 1947, 1948, and 1949. For most of the series's run, the McDoakes shorts were the only live-action comedies offered in the 10-minute length, making them handy for theater owners to include in their programs. The series ran until 1956, when the demise of the studio system brought an end to the production of short subjects by Warner Bros. and the other Hollywood studios.
Note: Appearance credits for non-billed actors may be incomplete or incorrect due to inaccurate sources.
Warner Bros. has released the entire series of 63 shorts in the DVD-R format, as The Joe McDoakes Collection. Individual shorts can also be found as extras on DVDs of classic Warner Bros. films of the period: