Laurel & Hardy in THE HOOSE-GOW (1929) – Prisoners of cliche

Hoosegow

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Most of The Hoose-Gow is prime Laurel & Hardy, which is all the more depressing when it succumbs to a food fight at the finish. Maybe generations of endless broadcasts of Three Stooges shorts have inured me to the comedic glories of food being hurled. But Laurel & Hardy rarely relied on this kind of thing for laughs, instead generating most of their laughter from their characters. So the rare occasions when they resort to this method (e.g., Battle of the Century) stick out like sore thumbs.

The movie begins with Stan and Ollie being taken to jail as the result of a raid that they swear they were “only watching.” Ollie has been given two apples by a fellow con — when one of the apples is thrown over a wall, it will be a signal for an escape plan to take place. Of course, Ollie’s overconfidence and Stan’s dim-wittedness threaten to ruin the plan, but in spite of themselves, they manage to escape — until the warden (Tiny Sandford) blasts them with his shotgun and they return, properly chastened and buckshotted (in their behinds).

Stan and Ollie are then subjected to hard labor — the hardest part of which is that Stan’s pick-axe keeps getting caught in Ollie’s prison coat. When the dinner bell rings, the boys cannot find a seat. One of the convicts points to an empty table, and Stan and Ollie treat themselves to it, unaware that it is reserved for the warden. After they are ejected, a cook tells them to chop some wood — the more wood they chop, the more food they get. Stan brandishes a small twig in triumph, but Ollie aims for bigger game–a huge tree to be chopped down–not realizing that a prison guard (Charlie Hall) is stationed at the top of the tree.

L&H biographer Charles Barr says that the French and Italian versions of The Hoose-Gow end here, but that this is where the American version “takes off.” Unfortunately, it’s a set-up for the food-throwing climax. The governor (James Finlayson!) visits the jail grounds, and unbeknownst to him, Stan’s ubiquitous pick-axe ends up in the radiator of the governor’s limousine, causing a geyser-like leak. A fellow convict advises them to plug the hole with rice to stop the gusher. At first it seems like a good idea; the gusher stops. But as the governor prepares to depart, cooked rice spurts from the radiator. The warden, guessing the culprits, calls Stan over and pushes him into a pile of the spurted rice, thus starting a tremendous food fight.

This is all meant to be hilarious, of course. But unlike the team’s usual tit-for-tat sequences, where each set-to is carefully justified by the previous one, this seems little more than a by-the-book set-up for a slapstick climax. Somebody gets hit with rice, an on-looker laughs, and then surprise! the on-looker gets it, too. Compare this with the pants-ripping climax of L&H’s silent short You’re Darn Tootin’, where the hostilities begin with just two people and spread, with glorious inevitability, to everyone unfortunate enough to get sucked into the melee.

Lastly, the governor and his group prepare to drive away but back into a paint truck, splattering white paint into this limo’s back seat — and onto Stan and Ollie, who were hiding there. Stan and Ollie stand quietly in resignation while the governor glares at them. Just how many indignities to Stan and Ollie have to spark before they get thrown into maximum security, anyway?

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