(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Far from the piece of perfection most Laurel & Hardy historians would have you believe it is, Jitterbugs is a very mixed bag. Its anti-L&H elements include:
* some atypical L&H disguises and impersonations, which were evidently such a hit that screenwriter Scott Darling (of whom it was once said that he “had but a single story to tell”) felt compelled to repeat the gimmick in subsequent L&H screenplays.
* The Musical Numbers Nobody Cares About, all performed by 20th Century-Fox ingenue Vivian Blaine, who receives co-star billing with L&H. (This seemed to be the big studios’ way of putting iconoclastic comedy stars in their places. Two years earlier, overbaked singer Tony Martin got equal billing with The Marx Brothers in The Big Store.)
* The once-in-a-lifetime sight of Ollie in a zoot suit, declaring, “Come on, hep cats! We’re going to spread a load of jam!” (The movie presents this moment absolutely straight, though it seems primed for a sidelong glance at Stan followed by, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”)
And yet, just when you’re about to give on this mishmash, a worthwhile Stan-and-Ollie moment comes through. (Stan: “Y’know, Ollie, I was just thinking.” Ollie: “About what?” Stan: “Nothing, I was just thinking.”) Much like the movie’s climax, where Stan and Ollie try to escape from Fox’s standard-issue movie gangsters, Jitterbugs shows our beloved Stan and Ollie trying to wriggle free from an assembly-line script assembled by studio personnel who had not a clue about L&H comedy. Unlike some other L&H/Fox debacles (The Dancing Masters, anyone?), here the batting average is high enough to enjoy the movie.
The movie’s opening scene shows more promise than we eventually have a right to expect. Stan and Ollie’s car, with a wagon in tow, has sputtered to a stop in the middle of the desert. Naturally, this becomes Stan’s fault. Stan says “I’m sorry” to Ollie, and one wouldn’t think this to be much of a gag, much less a running one. Yet every time Stan apologizes to Ollie for the rest of the movie, it elicits a laugh, as though Stan could overcome his every gargantuan blunder by being as contrite as a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar.
Another surprisingly funny gag has Ollie taking a break, sitting on the desert-heated bumper of his car, and jumping up in pain, not realizing that the car’s Ford logo has been branded on his behind. Stan looks through a telescope, sees Ollie’s burnished bottom, and mistakes it for a passing truck.
Stan sees a nearby gas station through his telescope, and Ollie orders him to get behind the wagon and push. After a few moments, Stan returns to the front seat, and Ollie absentmindedly tells Stan how well he’s pushing. It turns out that Stan has commandeered a mule for the occasion, prompting Ollie to comment that “a mule is just as good as a donkey” for the task at hand. Stan does an Ollie-like double-take when he realizes what Ollie is implying — a gag which amply demonstrates that, even in this late, studio-directed stage in their careers, L&H could wring nice variations on their familiar characters.
The movie’s L&H flights of fancy crash-land abruptly with the introduction of Fox leading man Bob Bailey, whose chinlessly grinning con man was evidently supposed to set female moviegoers to swooning but elicits only eye-rolling apathy among L&H buffs. With all the finesse of a kindergartener, con artist Chester Wright (Bailey) convinces Stan and Ollie that he has “The Little Wonder Gasoline Pill,” able to convert ordinary water into much-needed wartime fuel. Conveniently, while L&H’s backs are turned, Wright pulls out a can of real gasoline — which he has been carrying in his truck while driving through the desert (!!). He pours the gas into L&H’s water canteen, and convinces our heroes of the product’s authenticity. They agree to promote the pill during their performance in the next town.
Stan and Ollie’s big-band playing has been criticized by most L&H buffs, in that most of the music is performed by mechanical hands, so that the scene’s comedy comes from a gimmick and not from L&H themselves. One can almost believe, though, that if L&H were going to be a big-band smash, it would be with this kind of crazy band. Like most of this movie’s most promising elements, though, the band is never referred to again after this scene.
Wright tries to pull off his chicanery with Stan and Ollie’s help, but eventually the ruse is exposed and Wright quickly steers L&H out of town. Halfway down the road, Wright realizes that he left town with a young woman’s purse and he must go back to return it. (Yep, a con man who tries to pull off an elemental ruse has enough scruples to return a stranger’s purse.) Conveniently enough, the purse’s owner, Susan Cowan (Vivian Blaine), has hitched a ride on L&H’s wagon, which clears the way for some dreary repartee between the romantic leads. It seems that, besides her purse, Susan is upset because her parents have been swindled by some local con men. Wright recognizes the men from a newspaper clipping Susan shows him, and he vows to help make things right. (Nothing like trusting a con man to seek justice against other con men. Where are Ollie’s camera looks when we need them?)
Wright heads for New Orleans and enters the con men’s hotel with an unusual entourage. Ollie, in a Southern costume including a hat almost as wide as he is, introduces himself as “Colonel Watterson Bixby of Leaping Frog, Amarillo County, Texas”; Stan is his personal factotum. Babe Hardy cited this movie as one of his all-time favorites, no doubt because he got a chance to display his Southern heritage to the hilt. It’s a stretch to believe that Ollie could or would ham it up this much (his previous dress-up in Another Fine Mess is far less flowery), but on its own terms, the impersonation is a beaut.
Col. Bixby and his troupe come across two con artists, Henry and Dorcas (Robert Emmett Keane and Lee Patrick) and work a scheme to have the colonel meet Dorcas in her suite. Unfortunately, Stan makes it to the suite first, and Dorcas, thinking that he is the colonel, tries to seduce him instead. Dorcas pours Stan a potent drink that knocks his hat off, and causes him to understate, “You know, that’s a bit of all right.”
Ollie enters the room, causing Stan to hide under Dorcas’s bed while Ollie carries on with Dorcas. (This plot twist is meant to hint at boudoir farce, but what would Ollie do if he caught Stan under the bed — kill him for making time with his woman?) After a charming scene of Southern gallantry, Henry enters the room and tries to blackmail Ollie, who then “reveals” himself as a Southern sheriff and locks Henry and Dorcas in the closet. Since they’re never heard from again in the movie, one assumes Henry and Dorcas entered a fifth dimension where they find those band instruments of Stan and Ollie’s. The scene has a nice capper, as Stan emerges from under the bed, only to be yanked back by a wayward bedspring.
After Vivian Blaine does two elaborate musical numbers (which, in best big-studio style, supplies her with six dancers to supplement her simple audition), we get back to The Ever-Expanding Plotline. Malcolm Bennett (Douglas Fowley, one of the more believable L&H/Fox gangsters), the man who fleeced Susan’s mother, needs backing for a show he’s producing. For no compelling reason other than another excuse for dress-up, Chester gets Stan to pose as “Aunt Emily,” a wealthy childhood sweetheart of Col. Bixby’s. This does yield a funny scene where Ollie shows Stan how to walk like a lady. (Somebody ought to have Stan and Ollie do some funny stuff like this in character.) It also inspires one of L&H’s infrequent but surprising double-entendres, as Stan blurts out at one point, “I feel so gay!”
Stan and Ollie eventually get the money back and return it to Chester, but the head gangster realizes he’s been had and holds Stan and Ollie hostage in the riverboat where the nightclub production takes place. The gangster who keeps watch on Stan and Ollie has been told to add more coal to the boat’s boilers, and he is too gallant to ask a “woman” (Stan) to do the work, so Ollie must shovel the coals. This inspires a couple of nice sight-gags, not to mention Ollie’s reaction at not getting to lord it over Stan for a change.
Stan and Ollie use one of their gas pills to get the gangster out of the way (funny how a worthless pill conveniently causes a villain to inflate like a zeppelin), and they make for the dance floor, knocking out many of the gangsters with their wild dancing. The showboat accidentally breaks loose from the shore and heads out to sea as Stan and Ollie try to navigate it. (They can’t drive a car through the desert, but an out-of-control showboat is no problem for them.)
The police and Chester arrive on the scene, and Susan yells at Chester for leaving with her mother’s money. But wouldn’t you know it, con man Chester deserted Susan only because he had to deliver the money to Susan’s mother himself — he even has a receipt from Mom! (This is the most scrupulous, itemizing con man you’ll ever see in a movie.) They embrace, and as Stan and Ollie sneak up on Chester from behind, Susan shoos them away before they can do any more damage.
Stan takes off and throws down his “Aunt Emily” wig in disgust, just in time for the gangsters to see him and give chase to Stan and Ollie. In a weak attempt at a boffo ending, Stan and Ollie jump overboard to escape the gangsters, and Ollie declares, “We’re going down for the third time!” This seems less of a reference to the plot at hand than to L&H’s work at Fox; after Great Guns and A-Haunting We Will Go, this lame ending does seem like an attempt by Fox to kill Stan and Ollie’s beloved characterizations for a third time.
Jitterbugs offers enough laughs, even with Stan and Ollie’s numerous out-of-character moments, to warrant inclusion on any L&H must-see list. (Some of the L&H/Roach movies have their wayward moments, too.) But with Fox’s obliviousness to what Laurel & Hardy instinctively knew about their characters, one gets the impression that Fox was all too eager to use L&H’s star power to spread a load of something, and it wasn’t jam.