"Academy Leaders," premiering tonight at 9 on Channel 22 and 26, appears to be a capital idea for a revival series. The series consists of 10 installments in which host Norman Corwin will introduce a total of 34 short films, all of which have received Academy Awards nominations and several of which also won Oscars.
In an exemplary commentary, Corwin defines the purpose of the series -- to provide a new showcase for exceptional short films, which are usually neglected in the theatrical market -- and introduces each selection with just enough information and comment to sharpen one's interest.
Best known as a radio dramatist and screenwriter, Corwin has also chaired the Academy's documentary awards committee for the past 14 years. Documentary films were first honored in 1942 and split into short and feature categories two years later. Short films entered the Oscar competition much earlier, with the awards for 1931-32.
"Academy Leaders" begins with "Overture," a 1965 Hungarian film documenting the embryonic growth of a chick through time-lapse X-ray photography. It sets a standard of impressive playfulness that is maintained by the subsequent selections, a live-action comedy compilation called "Spills and Chills" and the splendid animated films "Great" and "The Bead Game."
Beethoven's Egmont Overture supplies an effective, if facetious, musical accompainment of the life process miraculously spied upon in the first picture. Although this form of photography no longer seems as startling as it once did, the images it captures remain awesome. The more majestic sights in "Overture" include shots of a tiny heart pumping lustily away inside a still wispy, indistinct form, blood rushing like spring freshets through arteries and tributary veins, a head whose bulging, dark-rimmed eye outlines suggest an early science-fiction illustrator's conception of a Martian, and an eerily moving angle of a quivering little limb that seems to be reaching out for something to grasp.
"Spills and Chills" is a 10-minute recollection of daredevils, human flies and stunt artists assembled in 1949 by Robert Youngson, a producer of shorts at Warners who went on to do entertaining feature compilations like "The Golden Age of Comedy," "When Comedy Was King" and "The Great Chase." Some of the material in "Spills and Chills" has been recycled frequently but it's still a lively survey. Repetition cannot stale certain death-defying feats, like Lillian Boyer's insouciant performances on a rope ladder dangling from the wing of a biplane.
"Great," the Oscar-winning animated film of 1975, is the extravagantly amusing brainstorm of Great Britian's Bob Godfrey. A memorial tribute to the career of the great Victorian inventor and engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose prodigious achievements included the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway, the film contrives to catalogue his accomplishments while incorporating a satirical musical burlesque of the Victorian period.
A good deal of the burlesque might be fairly described as silly or sophomoric -- for example, Victoria and Albert are caricatured at play with a rubber duckie in the royal tubbie. Nevertheless, the jests seem witty and effective in this uninhibited context.
"The Bead Game," made for the National Film Board of Canada by Ishu Patel, was a 1977 nominee for best animation. It grew out of a course in animation Patel taught to Eskimo pupils. The process to evolution is traced through stop-motion animation, beginning with a single bead and progressing through more and more complex, intricately constructed life forms. It's a beautifully conceived and executed picture.
The lineup in the second installment isn't as strong. The charm of "One-Eyed Men Are Kings," a heavyhanded French comic short that won an Oscar in 1974, has always eluded me. Its presence weighs down the second program, which begins in a slow mood anyway with Denis Sanders' plain-spoken, affecting "Time Out of War."
The third program, consisting of the African wildlife documentary "The End of the Game" and the animated films "Monsieur Pointu" and "Hunger," appears capable of restoring the initial zest. It seems inevitable that the quality of the programs will vary. But just about everyone who samples the opening installment of "Academy Leaders" should find himself in agreement with Corwin's parting comment: "It would be a pity to let such films gather dust in the vaults."