Laurel & Hardy in SLIPPING WIVES (1927) – Hal Roach Presents Priscilla Dean

SlippingWives2

Ironically, Duck Soup, the first movie that showed Laurel & Hardy as a bonafide team, was followed by Slipping Wives, another one of those Pathe alternate-universe numbers. The first anomaly is the opening title: “Hal Roach Presents Priscilla Dean.” Who? If she was one of Hal Roach’s Comedy All-Stars, it’s a good thing L&H hit it big when they did, because even though she’s the star of this show, her non-presence makes Mae Busch look like Meryl Streep.

Then the credits treat us to Laurel and Hardy receiving third and fourth billing, which unfortunately is quite appropriate, given their sub-standard antics here. Even given that their Pathe comedies allowed for little of their later interplay or character development, their slapstick here is pretty forced. Ollie (er, excuse me, Jarvis) is a snooty butler, Stan (here nom de plumed as Ferdinand Flamingo) is an intrusive outsider, and so Ollie spends most of the movie beating Stan up. Other than a brief and hilarious moment where Ollie forcibly bathes a fully-dressed Stan, this doesn’t allow for much risible comedy.

Most ironic of all is that the plot of this wheezer was later re-worked as The Fixer Uppers, regarded by most L&H buffs as one of their weaker shorts. But at least in the later movie, the plot was simple and everything was in character. Here, the meager plot — Dean, neglected by her artist-husband, hires Stan as a pawn to make the husband jealous — is quickly larded down with what film critic Roger Ebert calls “The Idiot Plot,” where the movie would be over in two minutes save for a contrived misunderstanding. In this case, the contrivance is that Stan keeps mistaking the wrong man for the husband, and he keeps flirting with Dean in front of some man who wants him to flirt with her. This makes for an awfully long 23 minutes.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it’s astounding the way this movie treats us to glimpses of future L&H comedies. Stan’s mannerisms and Ollie’s daintiness (not to mention one brief but loving look at the camera); a two-shot of Stan and Priscilla Dean that reminds us of Stan and Thelma Todd’s hilarious by-play in Another Fine Mess; Stan taking a fully-clothed bath in what appears to be the same bathtub where he does a similar number four years later in Come Clean…these are like comic teasers to take us away from the dreariness of L&H’s current situation. Despite the presence of Pathe’s trademark rooster at movie’s end, there’s little to crow about here.

(Much has been made of a brief scene where Stan pantomimes the story of Samson and Delilah, an obvious echo of Chaplin’s David-and-Goliath routine in The Pilgrim. It’s cute, but once L&H hit it big as a team, Stan would be making his own contributions to physical comedy instead of ripping off someone else’s.)

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