(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)
At times, you have to cut Pardon Us even more slack than you do for Laurel & Hardy’s later Twentieth Century-Fox films. Stan Laurel went on record several times as having regretted the inevitable move from short subjects to feature films, and if Laurel & Hardy had remained at the Pardon Us level for the rest of their careers, the jump to feature-length would have remained tragic indeed.
Pardon Us puts Stan and Ollie behind bars as a result of them having been caught making bootleg liquor (the movie came before the lift on Prohibition, of course). It’s a pretty bad sign when a movie starts out with Stan and Ollie — who are usual reverent towards, if not downright fearful of, the law and its power — nonchalantly trying to break the law just to earn a quick buck.
Once Stan and Ollie get put into prison, the movie becomes merely a collection of set pieces — The Boys deal with a menacing con (Walter Long), The Boys muck up a prison-school session, etc. But the set pieces lack the charm of the similar approach taken by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (also frequently set in a prison); instead, they meander even more than some of L&H’s lesser short subjects, to the point where The Boys are all but shrugging their shoulders at the paucity of the gags.
There are also some protracted scenes where The Boys briefly escape from prison and hide out at a plantation by wearing blackface. While the tone of these scenes isn’t as hostile as, say, similar scenes in Buster Keaton’s films, the scenes probably won’t convert any African-American viewers to the L&H camp. (The best part of this section of the film is that it allows for one of Ollie’s always-delightful vocals, as he sings “Lazy Moon.”)
The only part of the movie that really catches fire is its finale, when Stan and Ollie inadvertently stop a prison riot. Up to this point, the entire movie has been overwhelmed by its sheer scale. (The movie came about to start with because Hal Roach wanted to use an elaborate prison set constructed for an M-G-M feature.) The hilarity of the movie’s climax comes from these two little guys overpowering a huge legion of prisoners who basically want to throttle them. It’s a pity the entire movie couldn’t have made fun of its own elaborateness in such a manner.
Pardon Us has been described as episodic, but even the episodes of later L&H flights of fancy such as Block-Heads have more charm and humor to them. As befits the film’s prison setting, at times the entire movie seems to be attached to a ball-and-chain.