Laurel & Hardy in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL (1936) – An operetta that misses a few high notes

TheBohemianGirl

The general consensus among Laurel & Hardy fans (and, in their lifetimes, among L&H themselves) was that adding comic opera to L&H revitalized their comedy. If so, it had a steroid effect — initially strengthening their work (at least according to fans of Fra Diavolo), but eventually bloating their work and accentuating its weaknesses.

Take The Bohemian Girl‘s famous set-piece, where Stan is trying to bottle wine, can’t think of what to do with the wine hose once a bottle is full, and repeatedly sticks the hose in his mouth. I agree with generations of L&H fans who regard this as a masterpiece of Laurel pantomime. Funny thing is, Laurel the editor doesn’t trust Laurel the performer. Laurel as editor obviously worried that the scene was too “stagey,” so he kept intercutting the scene (and ruining its tempo) with the same stupid shots of the wine vat getting lower and lower. Yeah, we get the idea, already. Couldn’t he have left well enough alone?

As for the movie proper, even its most vocal fans find something annoying in it. Laurel and Hardy are gypsies; Mae Busch is Hardy’s wife, and as John Brennan pointedly observes at the website Laurel and Hardy Central, Busch is unusually mean (even for an L&H spouse) for no other reason than that it’s expected of her. She verbally berates Ollie, who meekly accepts it; she flaunts her affair with a fellow gypsy in Ollie’s face; when she and the gypsy steal a count’s daughter named Arline (Our Gang‘s Darla Hood), she brazenly passes the girl off as Ollie’s child (the conception of which Ollie is understandably confused about); and then she hoodwinks both Stan and Ollie before running off for good with the gypsy. Such unrelenting nastiness seems more appropriate for a David Mamet play than an L&H comedy.

Then there’s the girl. When played by Darla Hood, she’s charming and blessedly unaffected. But when she grows up to be a young woman (Jacqueline Wells, who was also Walter Long’s unwilling bride in Any Old Port), she’s too precious for words. She infinitely sings “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” and Laurel the editor again editorializes, cutting in cutesy close-ups of a beaming Ollie. Far more appropriate is Stan’s reaction — he quits trying to puzzle out the song and instead eats his and Ollie’s breakfast.

Then there’s the climax, where Stan, Ollie, and Arline are arrested. Stan and Ollie are tortured, and Arline is about to be beaten when her countess origins are discovered and she is spared. As L&H author Charles Barr points out, Arline “sits smugly in her ancestral home, incurious about [Stan and Ollie’s] fate.” In another of Laurel’s beloved “freak endings,” the torturing results in Stan being abnormally squashed and Ollie being elongated, which might be halfway funny if not for the lingering close-ups of Stan and Ollie tearfully staring at each other.

As with even middling L&H, there’s enough genuine comedy — the wine-bottling scene, Stan and Ollie as pickpockets — to make at least one viewing worthwhile. But it’s probably no coincidence that this was Laurel and Hardy’s last (and probably least) foray into comic opera.

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