R.I.P., Leonard Nimoy

IMHO, this was Star Trek‘s finest moment ever. So long, Mr. Spock.

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Laurel & Hardy in THE FIXER UPPERS (1935) – Another nice mess # 2,912

Fixeruppers

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound)

It’s inevitably the more looked-down-upon Laurel & Hardy shorts that yield the nicest surprises. “A fairly pedestrian little picture,” sniffs Randy Skretvedt about The Fixer Uppers in his book on the team. But while this is hardly a reputation-cementing flicker on the lines of Big Business or The Music Box, it has some funnier-than-usual dialogue for an L&H picture, and it yields a fair amount of laughs.

Stan and Ollie are greeting-card salesmen, a job they carry out as competently as they do most of their vocations. (Ollie’s dignified reading of the card’s couplets is almost the high point of the movie. I won’t spoil the punchlines by quoting them here. If you’re curious, check out the greeting-card section at the Way Out West on-line Tent; most of them are posted there and can actually be E-mailed to very indiscriminate friends.)

Stan and Ollie’s first customer is Mae Busch, which ought to send up warning flags right there. It turns out she feels neglected by her husband and wants to involve Stan and Ollie in a scheme to make him jealous and rekindle their romance. (She wants to use Stan and Ollie in a ruse to make her husband jealous? Warning Flag No. 2.) Her lessons in passionate kissing (particularly with the usually asexual Stan) are another highlight of the movie.

Pierre, the irate husband (Charles Middleton, later to give The Boys a hard time at the Foreign Legion in The Flying Deuces) catches Ollie and the woman in what used to quaintly be called “a compromising position,” and the scheme works too well — he challenges Ollie to a duel at midnight and exchanges cards with him (Ollie’s is a greeting card, of course).

Ollie drowns his sorrows in beer until Stan, in another of his rare bright moments, points out that Pierre can’t possibly find Ollie if he runs away. After Ollie chastizes Stan for not pointing this out sooner and saving him some grief, he phones Pierre to tell him off. Stan adds for good measure, “Say, listen, if you had a face like mine, you’d punch me right in the nose, and I’m just the fella that can do it!” Stan and Ollie celebrate by getting snockered and passing out. Some helpful cops find Pierre’s card on Ollie, assume that the card bears Ollie’s home address, and are kind enough to deliver Stan and Ollie to Pierre’s home and tuck them into bed so that Pierre can discover them there.

Pierre’s wife tells Ollie to play dead when Pierre shoots him — the gun is full of blanks. Ollie does his dropping-dead fall with his usual flourish, and all appears to be well, until Pierre tells his wife that he now will chop the body into little pieces. Stan and Ollie hastily beat it out of the apartment. Ollie hides in a trash can; Stan later knocks on the can to give Ollie the all-clear, but Ollie has unfortunately been taken out with the trash by the local sanitation department (at midnight??).

Jackie Gleason once said there are three stages in a comedian’s career. The first stage is when the audience can’t predict what the comedian will do; second is when the audience can predict it but enjoys the predictability; and third is when the comedian is so predictable that the audience is turned off. The Fixer Uppers finds Laurel & Hardy firmly lodged in Stage 2 — no great surprises in the act, perhaps, but still great fun to watch.

TWICE TWO (1933) – Two Laurels and Hardys, but not twice the fun

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The gimmick in Twice Two — and a very gimmicky gimmick it is — is that Laurel & Hardy play not only Stan and Ollie, but also their own sisters, each of whom is married to the other’s friend. (Considering the exasperation that Stan continually brings to Ollie, one wonders why either he would want to marry Stan’s sister or Ollie’s sister would want to marry Stan, but let it pass.)

The split-screen effects (by Roy Seawright, Hal Roach’s F/X man) are seamless. But the novelty of, essentially, two Stans and two Ollies wears thin very quickly. Whereas in Brats and Our Relations, Laurel and Hardy’s dual roles are more enjoyable due to superior characterization and gags, here L&H are content to play broadly female versions of their usual personas.

Naturally, the “women’s” voices are dubbed, too: Carol Tevis for Mrs. Hardy, and May Wallace for Mrs. Laurel. Wallace sounds plausibly like Ollie raised a few octaves, but Tevis’ voice just gets on the nerves. After a while, one identifies with Mrs. Laurel’s fervent desire to smack Mrs. Hardy upside the head.

The movie’s funniest moments owe nothing to the double-gimmickry. Stan steals the show just by bollixing up a simple ice-cream order, or trying to tuck a napkin under his chin while his wife (Hardy) glowers at him.

Probably due to the necessary dubbing, the movie feels less improvised and more earthbound than L&H’s usual lot. Despite its comedic intent, Twice Two fails to double one’s pleasure simply by “doubling” its cast.

Laurel & Hardy in THE FINISHING TOUCH (1928) – Comedy carpentry

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Anyone who saw Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business in 1929 wouldn’t have been surprised at how adeptly L&H could denude a house. In The Finishing Touch (1928), they try to build a house and can hardly even get it started.

This short subject is not counted as one of their greatest, but it’s full of delightful little touches. The byplay between Stan, Ollie, the local hospital nurse (Dorothy Coburn) who demands quiet, and the poor cop on the beat (Edgar Kennedy) who is forced to make Stan and Ollie acquiesce to the nurse’s wishes. The expert pantomime of Stan Laurel just about every time the camera is on only him. Ollie, trying to carry a load of nails in his mouth and of course swallowing them every time. And the first appearance of the L&H paradoxical proverb, “If you must make a noise, make it quietly.”

The film’s ending was initially to have shown L&H’s truck driving straight through the house, leaving a huge hole through it. But the house collapsed inward before the truck had a chance to plow all the way through. But it’s quite appropriate the way it is, considering that most of Stan and Ollie’s plans collapse upon themselves.

Charlie Chaplin in MODERN TIMES (1936) – The end of an era

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Modern Times has a special place in my heart, because it was the first Charlie Chaplin movie I saw in an actual theater (when it was re-released in 1972). On top of that, despite its overall theme (the effects of the Great Depression), I find it a very bright, cheery movie. It’s as though even the bleak themes of the story (the Tramp’s nervous breakdown, the gamin’s losing her sisters to the state, etc.) aren’t enough to tamp down the happiness of which the Tramp convinces himself at movie’s end.

In his review of Modern Times, ’30s movie critic Otis Ferguson cynically stated that the movie was such a series of set-pieces that it could easily have been chopped into a series of two-reelers titled The Waiter, The Prisoner, and so forth. One could make a case for that, but even so, what delightful set pieces! In just his first few minutes on-screen, Chaplin, as a put-upon factory worker, bursts forth with more manic energy (as actor) and vivid imagination (as writer/director) than ought to be expected of him by this time in his career (he was 46 when the movie was released). The bit with the nut-tightening (everything that looks like two bolts eventually gets his attention, which causes trouble for a couple of buxom women), the scene with the automatic food-feeder, the Tramp getting caught in the factory’s cog workings – any of these scenes alone would be regarded as a classic in any other comic’s movie career.

It’s also interesting to see the compromise that Chaplin made at this point between silent and sound movies. The movie does use talking figures, but only as necessary – a voice on the radio, the factory’s boss on a Big-Brother-like TV screen (How prescient was that in 1936?), and a delightful bit involving nothing but the Tramp and a prim minister’s wife sipping tea on empty stomachs. Long after Buster Keaton had been used up and spat out by the Big Studio system, he spoke of making movies where his comic lead character, or others on screen, wouldn’t speak any more than necessary. Here, Chaplin showed how seamlessly this could have been done if silent movies had continued. (One of the biggest treats for Chaplin fans of the time was hearing his voice on-screen for the first time, when the Tramp does a nonsense number as a singing waiter. There would be many critics who would wish that had been the last time Chaplin had spoken in a movie.)

With its themes of unemployment and strikes, it’s also obvious that Chaplin had Something to Say here, which has been another sore point among his critics who think he should only be funny. But I’d say that Chaplin’s points are subtle and worth making: The lovely opening shot, where a flock of sheep metamorphose into a crowd of factory workers heading for work; the bit where a red flag falls off a construction truck, and the Tramp, trying to get the truck driver’s attention with it, inadvertently leads a crowd of hostile strikers. And you can’t help but identify with the Tramp’s look of puzzlement when he’s told he’ll be going on strike after only a single day back at work.

The other major actor in the movie is Paulette Goddard (soon to become Mrs. Charles Chaplin) as the streetwise gamin who eventually partners with the Tramp. Visually, the camera loves her, but she tends to overdo her part a little. Luckily, the storyline gives her to us in very small doses until she meets the Tramp, so she’s not hard to take. (It gets a little worse in The Great Dictator, especially with sound.)

Perhaps never before or since has such a bitter social statement gone down so smoothly in a movie. Modern Times is a truly worthy farewell to Chaplin’s silent career.

”At the end he [the Tramp] and his yearnings must go down that road again. As they do, in Modern Times, they take silent film with them.” – Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

WRONG AGAIN (1929) – Laurel & Hardy bet on the wrong horse

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According to director Leo McCarey, Wrong Again was inspired when McCarey was at a visit to his dentist’s office and saw a copy of the famous Blue Boy painting while sitting in the dentist’s chair. All dental procedures should be so inspiring.

Stan and Ollie are stable boys for a horse named Blue Boy. They overhear that a $5,000 reward is being offered for the return of Blue Boy to its wealthy owner. Guess which art-illiterate men try to return a horse to a mansion.

This inspires a wealth of endless gags, from the simple eloquence of Ollie’s explanation that rich people think in a manner “just the opposite” of “normal” folks (like Stan and Ollie), to the elaborate shenanigans that ensue when The Boys are instructed to put Blue Boy on top of the rich man’s piano. In all of the noted L&H biographies, little noted is Oliver Hardy’s Herculean physical output in the name of comedy here; at one point, he literally bears the weight of a horse, a piano, and Stan on his back. In a movie made nowadays we’d scoff and say it’s all done with computer imagery; back then, moviegoers must have been astounded when they weren’t laughing themselves silly.