WE FAW DOWN (1928) and SONS OF THE DESERT (1934) – All about Stan and Ollie’s gun-toting wives

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Dec. 29 happens to be a dual anniversary for Laurel & Hardy releases: one of their silent shorts, and one of their most popular talking features. However, being the contrarian that I am, I find this double-feature to be the perfect opportunity to discuss why I find Laurel & Hardy’s view of the female gender so relentlessly nasty, and therefore, not especially laughter-inducing.

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We Faw Down is like a sitcom gone sour. Stan and Ollie’s wives start out hostile and suspicious, and they go downhill from there. Stan and Ollie are innocently caught in nasty circumstances, yet far from being terrified, they seem strangely nonchalant about the whole thing, as if they want to get caught.

There might be some potential for (very misogynist) comedy here, but the hostility of the situation kills every possibility. As Ollie’s suspicious wife, Vivien Oakland (later to make a kinder impression in L&H’s Scram! and Way Out West) has a sneer that could seemingly melt the celluloid that preserves it. When Stan and Ollie find themselves (innocently enough) in the apartment of some women other than their wives, they’re unusually unconcerned about being two married men sitting around some women’s apartment in bathrobes. Then there’s the climax, where Ollie tries to bluff his way through his wayward afternoon, his wife’s smothering gaze defeating him at every turn. And when Ollie admits defeat in his lie, Stan uncharacteristically laughs his head off at Ollie’s plight. He seems to be rehearsing for a similarly out-of-character laugh jag in the later Great Guns.

The movie is most celebrated for its closing gag, where Ollie’s wife blasts at him with a shotgun and numerous men, hearing the shots, jump out of windows in varying states of undress. Generations of L&H fans and biographers have never noted how one of L&H’s most celebrated gags has little to actually do with L&H, and a lot to do with a poisonously cynical view of marriage.

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Given the unrelieved hostility of the wives in Sons of the Desert, and Stan and Ollie’s actions which take their cues from such nastiness, it’s hard not to read this movie as reverse misogyny as well. The movie’s premise is that the boys’ lodge (which supplies the movie’s title) is having its annual convention in Chicago, and all members are required to attend. Stan immediately starts to puddle up when he considers how his wife will react to this news, but Ollie only spouts the kind of “king of the castle” malarkey that Ralph Kramden would spew so continuously decades later on “The Honeymooners“: “I go places and do things,” declares Ollie, “and then I tell my wife!” The remainder of the movie takes great pains to show that, if Ollie does indeed go places and do things, telling his wife about them is the last thing he wants to do.

Mrs. Hardy (Mae Busch) barely tolerates Stan’s presence in their apartment, a sign of worse things to come. When Ollie tries to tell his wife that he will be attending the Chicago convention, he endures a lot of crockery on his head courtesy of Mrs. Hardy. After Stan witnesses this outburst, it’s his turn to play bantam rooster, telling Ollie (in a quite out-of-character speech) what a fool he is to endure such behavior. He is about to tell Ollie what he’d say to put Mrs. Laurel in her place, when lo and behold, Mrs. Laurel (Dorothy Christie) appears — shotgun in hand, having just come back from a day of hunting(!). Stan melts under his wife’s glare, tucks his tail between his legs, and heads on home (to the apartment next door).

In what appears to be a creation of one of situation comedy’s more enduring cliches, the boys then contrive to have a fake doctor (actually it’s a real doctor, albeit a vet) examine Ollie and tell Mrs. Hardy that Ollie needs a cruise to Honolulu to calm his nerves — and of course, Stan needs to go with him. The ruse actually works. Unfortunately, the wives then hear news that the cruise ship which Stan and Ollie were supposed to have boarded has sunk. Strangely enough, this scene allows the wives their only moment of affection, as they anxiously await news of the ship’s survivors. To take their minds off their worries, they go to see a movie, which is prefaced by a newsreel showing none other than Stan and Ollie clowning at the Chicago convention. The wives’ grief quickly turns into what, in male terms, would be deemed a p***ing contest, as Mrs. L. and Mrs. H. determine whose husband is the bigger liar.

Through contrivances as yawn-inspiring as anything in L&H’s later Fox movies, the boys end up in their pajamas, in the rain, accompanied by a policeman. The wives sit the boys down and ask them for their account of what really happened. They manage to contrive a tale only a couple of child-minded adults could concoct (they made it home before the rescue ship arrived, by ship-hiking), until Mrs. Laurel corners Stan once and for all. Stan tearfully acknowledges the truth and goes next door with his shotgun-wielding wife to face what looks like his final fate.

Mrs. Laurel won’t be shooting any game tonight, though — she’s happy that she got the best of Mrs. Hardy, and she rewards Stan with chocolates and cigarettes. Stan hears a commotion next door and goes to investigate, finding Ollie crouching from another round of crockery.

For all of the wonderful comedy that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy brought to cinema, and at the risk of sounding like a member of the PC police, I think the anti-female stance of Laurel & Hardy’s movies should at least be re-examined, if not downright deplored.

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Popeye and Olive Oyl in WILD ELEPHINKS (1933) – Far-out in the jungle

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This cartoon begins on as surreal a note as you’ll ever find in these things. Popeye and Olive Oyl are adrift amid a raging sea on a very precarious raft. Far from concerned, Popeye is belting out his theme song and also belting any huge fish that happens his way. Olive is helpfully holding out open sardine cans to catch the fishes’ remains. Gilligan and the Skipper could have really used this pair on their three-hour tour.

The duo come ashore at a beast-filled jungle that seems a warm-up for the monsters they encounter in the later color cartoon Sindbad the Sailor. While Popeye is at work escaping from the grasp of an elephant, an ape makes off with Olive, King Kong-style. Two chimps see Popeye subduing the ape and send out an all-points bulletin for the other jungle creatures to hurry in and menace Popeye and Olive. Just to seal the deal, Olive breaks out the spinach and feeds it to Popeye, and in return she gets a lot of instant fur coats from the carcasses Popeye makes of the jungle creatures.

The cartoon is laced with non-stop, hallucinatory imagery. When viewers think of the Fleischers’ wacko, strangely colorful black-and-white cartoons, it’s delightful stuff like this that sets the template for it.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon:  CanCanCanCan

Popeye and Olive Oyl in NIX ON HYPNOTRICKS (1941) – A hypnotic cartoon

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Prof. I. Stare, Hypnotist (“10 Cents a Trance”) needs a human subject upon whom to work his wiles. So he flips through the phone book and picks none other than Olive Oyl, who is currently getting a cut-rate wooing from Popeye. The prof hypnotizes Olive over the phone and almost gets her in his grip before Popeye saves the day.

This is pretty much a re-tread of A Dream Walking, but a most delightful re-tread it is, with Olive once again traipsing high above New York City, oblivious to her fate. Lots of perfectly executed gags as Popeye tries to rescue his “victim of circum-trances” from the evil “hypnotisk.” In the end, as in the earlier cartoon, Popeye rescues Olive and gets a good whuppin’ from Olive for his trouble.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon:  CanCanCanCanHalf

Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy in WE AIM TO PLEASE (1934) – Onions are beautiful things

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Popeye and Olive Oyl open a diner by doing a charming rendition of the title song. Then Popeye moves the entire restaurant down the block when Olive decides to change locations.

Unfortunately, the new location brings in all sorts of riff-raff. Wimpy offers to gladly pay on Tuesday for a hamburger and a pickle today (I saw that one coming a mile away). Then Bluto tries to mooch a meal, and Popeye tears up most of the restaurant getting back at Bluto (saw that one coming, too).

Apparently Popeye ends up selling out to Bluto, because everyone reverses their roles a year-and-a-half later in the cafe-themed What – No Spinach? (1936). Didn’t see that one coming.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCanHalf

Laurel & Hardy in ON THE LOOSE (1931) – A memorable cameo

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

On the Loose is a short subject starring Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts — who, if we are to believe film historians, were meant to be the female Laurel & Hardy. I’ve seen only two of their shorts (and one with Patsy Kelly replacing Pitts as Todd’s partner), but it seems to me that L&H lifted even the most mundane plots out of the doldrums by sheer dint of personality, whereas Todd and Pitts/Kelly were relegated to sitcom-type plots that played a lot on familiar female stereotypes. (Watch how quickly this short gets Todd down to her undies in the name of plot development.)

The labored story revolves around Todd and Pitts’ flashbacks to yet another of their dates with men who regard going to Coney Island as an “original” idea for a date. At movie’s end, the duo have decided to settle for a quiet Saturday afternoon at home, when who should appear at their door but Stan and Ollie. Guess where they want to take the girls. Just guess.

Other than L&H’s lively cameo, about the only other chuckles come from L&H veterans Charlie Hall and Billy (here billed as “William”) Gilbert. Otherwise, the amusement-park bits are pretty much retreads of similar scenes in L&H’s early silent short Sugar Daddies.

Thelma Todd, before dying in 1936 of a speculated murder that has never been proven, gave ample support to comics such as L&H (in their first talkie, Unaccustomed as We Are) and The Marx Brothers (memorably earning Groucho’s leers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers). But she seems better as comic support; here in a starring role, it takes Laurel & Hardy to get a full-fledged laugh for the movie.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in I’M IN THE ARMY NOW (1936) – A strange recruitment poster

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Given that early-era Popeye cartoons rarely show our military man in the military, this cartoon’s title promises far more than it delivers. Here’s where the Popeye “cheater” cartoons really start to live up to their name.

Popeye and Bluto are (all together now) rivals for Olive’s affection. The trio happen to pass an Army recruiting office, where Olive tells The Boys that she just loves: (a) a strong man, (b) a romantic man, (c) a man in uniform, or (d) all of the above. You’d be forgiven for answering d since Olive’s allegiances change like most people change their socks, but for the purposes of this cartoon, the answer is c.

Popeye and Bluto should be wary of the recruiting officer, since his outfit resembles that of the Kaiser. Instead, The Boys try to impress the officer with tales of their exploits, which means they pull out old photos that come to life with their old cartoons. (Two green recruits come in with their own movie clips as a resume. If I was the officer, I’d be more impressed with that than anything else.)

The clips are from the earlier cartoons Blow Me Down!, Shoein’ Hosses, Choose Yer ‘Weppins’, and King of the Mardi Gras. Popeye wins the contest (hope that didn’t spoil the climax for you). In an ambiguous finish, Popeye emerges through the wall “wearing” the uniform from the recruiting poster, and that seems to be enough to satisfy Olive (at least until World War II).

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanHalf