A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940) – Routine Laurel & Hardy comedy with an amazing finale

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The following in my contribution to The Back-to-School Blogathon, being hosted Sept. 2-5, 2016 by Robin at her blog Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of school-themed movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

If I had to choose one average Laurel & Hardy movie to watch just for a single, extraordinary sequence, the hands-down winner would be A Chump at Oxford. The movie’s premise is that Stan and Ollie inadvertently thwart a bank robbery, and the bank president rewards them with a scholarship to Oxford. The movie’s college setting, and its title, are a spoof on the then-current movie A Yank at Oxford, but otherwise, there’s little reason to think that a comedy written and performed by men who probably never set foot in a college will be at all relevant to collegiate life then or now. (The Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers suffers from the same defect.) Indeed, knowing what one knows about Stan and Ollie, one would think that a lifetime scholarship to night school would be far more appropriate.

The movie was Laurel & Hardy’s penultimate film for Hal Roach, a producer who was far more sympathetic to their characterizations and work methods than later “big” studios would prove to be. Knowing this in hindsight offers a certain retrospective tinge to the movie, which is emphasized by the movie’s primary opening sequence, where Stan and Ollie get a job as maid (disguised, of course) and butler. This sequence was added to the film when Roach realized that the movie’s four-reel length was insufficient to satisfy L&H fans. L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt characterizes this sequence as, “in essence, their first two-reeler since [their final short subject] Thicker Than Water,” and it is fairly self-contained. The scene’s nostalgia is further underlined by the use of old L&H cohorts such as James Finlayson and Anita Garvin. And when Ollie comes out to announce, “There’s everything from soup to nuts, folks,” invoking the title of the L&H silent film from which this sequence liberally borrows, the movie is awash in nostalgia.

As fun as it is, though, this is not the extraordinary part of the movie. Neither is the middle (or is it “middling”?) section where Stan and Ollie go to Oxford and have juvenile pranks played on them by a drearily pretentious group of British students (one of whom is played by Peter Cushing).

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The Boys with Cushing (4th from left).

Just before the students attempt a nasty revenge on Stan and Ollie for “snitching” on them, a butler named Meredith mistakes Stan for the college’s legendary scholar, Lord Paddington. It seems that Lord Paddington had a windowpane fall on his head one day and wandered out of Oxford, never to be seen again — and Stan has an uncanny resemblance to Lord Paddington. Ollie poo-poos the whole thing, saying “Why, I’ve known him for years, and he’s the dumbest person I ever saw. Aren’t you, Stan?” Stan illustrates the point by agreeing heartily.

But Stan and Ollie go through an open window to try and escape along a ledge, and wouldn’t you know it, the windowpane falls down on him, and he becomes Lord Paddington. This opens up some interesting questions (and potential plot developments) that the movie doesn’t begin to touch. First off, is it possible that Stan really is Lord Paddington, and if so, what happened between the time he first lost his memory and the time he met Ollie in America? Or is it possible that Stan’s subconscious absorbed Meredith’s Lord Paddington story and allowed his other side to break out in best Freudian style? One could almost imagine one of H.M. Walker’s priceless subtitles prefacing this sequence, such as…

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But back to the plot. Stan-as-Lord-Paddington’s ears twitch furiously (which has been foretold as a sign that he means trouble), and he dispatches the mobbing students through the open window, while an incredulous Ollie looks on from the ledge. When Ollie enters back through the window, he is thrown out as well. Normally, Ollie would have been infuriated by Stan’s presumptuousness, but here he’s more amazed by Stan’s strength and his forgetting their friendship. Ollie’s appeal to Stan’s emotions is met with Paddington’s frosty query to Meredith: “Who is this coarse person with the foreign accent?” When Ollie is informed that he is beneath Paddington’s station, the old Ollie returns to inform Paddington and Meredith that he will not bow to this simpleton, whereupon he is dispatched through the window again.

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Fade in on Lord Paddington, returned to his former status at Oxford, and Ollie, who is now Paddington’s manservant and is addressed by Paddington as “Fatty.” Just the beginning of this sequence is delicious enough, as we imagine Ollie having to pay for all those years of his condescending treatment of Stan. Paddington is informed that he has an appointment to talk with Albert Einstein, who is “a bit confused about his theory.” This is one instance where a silent look to the camera just isn’t enough. Ollie looks straight at us and blurts, “Einstein! Before that bump on the head, he wouldn’t know Einstein from a beer stein!”

The next sequence rewards one’s anticipation. Paddington tells Ollie that he needs a bit more poise in his appearance. He directs Ollie to stand up straight and lift his chin. Ollie resignedly lifts his chin, but Paddington demands, “No, no, no, both of them!” L&H biographer Charles Barr suggests that this sequence might have been close to real life, where Stan Laurel, the uncredited writer-director of the L&H comedies, directed Oliver Hardy, who was content to go through his paces and then rush to the golf course at the end of filming.

Ollie tries to follow Paddington’s directions and succeeds only in tripping himself, whereupon Paddington denounces his clumsiness. Ollie can take no more. He blows up at Paddington and announces he’s packing his bags and leaving for America. Paddington, unperturbed, shrugs off Ollie as “a witty old stick-in-the-mud.”

Outside, a group of students sings “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to Paddington, who unfortunately never had the window repaired or his memory checked. He sticks his head out to hear the tribute, and boom! he is Stan again. He turns and asks Ollie why he’s leaving. It takes a few moments before the situation sinks in for Ollie, but when it does, he happily hugs his old friend — briefly looking down at his double-chin and then realizing that it is no longer of any consequence.

As much as we want to see Stan and Ollie in any form, it’s tempting to wish that this final scene had been their farewell to movies. It wraps everything up nostalgically, retrospectively, and with an air of finality. And had this been the coda of their film career, we would have been spared the below-average antics of their last Hal Roach film Saps at Sea, not to mention the painfulness of their final studio films and the foreign-made disaster Utopia. Indeed, Charles Barr closes his comprehensive look at Laurel & Hardy at this very point. That’s bad movie history, of course — but after all, everyone loves a happy ending.

 

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2 responses to “A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940) – Routine Laurel & Hardy comedy with an amazing finale

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