STAN & OLLIE vs. Laurel & Hardy

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(WARNING: This is not a review of the new movie Stan & Ollie, which has not yet come to my area and which I have not yet seen. However, the hyperlink in this blog leads to another blog which does give SPOILERS about said movie. So if you want to see the movie before reading some major plot details about it, avoid the hyperlink.)

I was looking forward to seeing Stan & Ollie. The general consensus of the film’s mostly glowing reviews is that the film mucks up a few facts about the events in question but generally gets the details right about the friendship between the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

But then I read the blog of Mark Evanier, a feverish Laurel & Hardy fan. He has seen the movie, and his blog points out the voluminous facts that the movie shunts aside in favor of tearjerking dramatics.

Reading this account of the movie angers me, though I do not blame Evanier for my ill humor. I blame it on a simple fact: I have never seen a single movie or TV show about Laurel & Hardy, either biographical or fictionalized, that does not take some kind of liberties with the facts about L&H’s history.

My late father-in-law, a Navy veteran of two wars, said he could never watch any Navy-themed movie because he knew what real Navy life was like, and Navy-themed movies always managed to get the details wrong. Evanier and I, along with generations of hardcore L&H fans, have done much reading about our two comedy heroes, and we seem to have the same problem with L&H-themed movies that my dad-in-law had with movies about Navy-based films.

Let me give you just three examples regarding L&H:

  • A 1992 direct-to-video compilation movie titled Laurel & Hardy: A Tribute to the Boys was hosted by comedian Dom Deluise. Aside from the movie showing colorized clips from The Boys’ comedies (I’ll spare you my condescending opinion of colorization), at the end of the movie, DeLuise stated when Hardy died, Laurel was at his bedside, holding his hand. A touching image, to be sure, but it’s totally false. Laurel was too ill to even attend Hardy’s funeral, much less be at his bedside to hold Hardy’s hand at the time of his death.
  • Cuckoo, a generally well-meaning 1974 British documentary about L&H, sports the oft-quoted “fact” that Stan Laurel was married eight times. Wrong again! As Evanier points out, Stan was married to and divorced from three different women (one of whom he remarried before divorcing her again).(If you’re looking for a happy ending, Laurel’s fourth wife, the former Ida [pronounced “E-da”] Kitaeva, turned out to be Laurel’s soulmate, and they were married for 18 happy years before Laurel died.)
  • Just yesterday, another well-meaning tribute to L&H was broadcast on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Half of it was a plug for the Stan & Ollie movie, while the other half was a L&H mini-history of The Boys that included several clips from their classic comedies. All well and good, except that CBS listed the wrong years for two of those comedies. If you are going to bother to list their movies’ release dates in the upper-left hand corner of the TV screen, why not go to the trouble of getting the dates right?

Sadly, Laurel & Hardy are not alone in this rewriting of movie comedy history. In 1971 came a book titled W.C. Fields & Me, written by Fields’ on-and-off mistress of 14 years, Carlotta Monti. Fields biographers (including his own grandson) have since established that the book was a vanity account in which Monti played hard and fast with several of the facts about her relationship with Fields. But nobody knew that in 1976, when Universal made a film version of the book, starring Rod Steiger as Fields and Valerie Perrine as Monti.

The movie played even harder and faster with the book’s fantasy version of the story, stating that Fields was a somewhat impoverished comedian who came to Hollywood accompanied by a midget sidekick (played by Billy Barty). Truth: Fields had no such sidekick, and he was already fairly wealthy from his stage and Broadway careers. The movie claimed that Monti met Fields when she attended one of his parties anonymously and was brusquely put to work by Fields as the party’s waitress. The truth, at least according to Monti, was that she first met Fields when she was a starlet appearing in a screen test for one of his movies.

So it appears that Hollywood has a thing for exploiting the personalities of its comedy legends, but when it comes to getting the facts right, Hollywood figures, “Ah, they’re just comedians — who cares?” And it seems to me that Laurel & Hardy have suffered the most from this lackadaisical approach to comics’ biographies.

You might think that I’m being a little too sensitive about this kind of thing. I dunno. If a good friend or relative of yours died, and you commissioned an outside party to film or tape a tribute to that person, how pleased would you be if said party got most of the facts wrong about your beloved? Many Laurel & Hardy buffs will tell you that they regard The Boys as friends. And friends should not be so carelessly wronged.

With that in mind, I’m still interested in seeing Stan & Ollie. But I will probably do so with a far more disparaging eye than that of some exceedingly generous film critics.

W.C. Fields in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (1933) – And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast!

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As parody (in this case, of old stage melodramas), The Fatal Glass of Beer was ahead of its time. Roundly panned upon its initial release for its cheap look and over-the-top acting, its sense of bad taste is positively quaint in this post-Mel Brooks era. Plus, it’s still funny as all get-out.

Fields plays Mr. Snavely who, with his wife (Rosemary Theby), live in a modest cabin in the Yukon at the turn of the century. The Snavelys have a son named Chester (George Chandler), who left his modest home to go find his way in the big city, only to be arrested and jailed after stealing some bonds. We find this out in a song that Snavely torturously sings to a visiting Mountie (played by Rychard Cramer, frequent villain of Laurel & Hardy comedies), as well as hammily acted flashbacks that accompany the song.

Besides the inevitable, bathetic reunion of Chester with his parents, much of the movie’s comedy comes from what we could kindly call its lack of mise-en-scene. At one point, Snavely goes “over the rim” with his team of sled dogs, one of whom is so spindly that his paws don’t even touch the ground. As Snavely repeatedly commands the dogs to “Mush!”, he swallows some of the fake snow that has been lobbed at him and observes, “Tastes more like cornflakes!”

Whereas in most W.C. Fields comedies whose cheapness and lack of coherency are to be taken at face value, The Fatal Glass of Beer presents those debits as comic relief to what we’d have had to endure if the melodrama had been played straight. The movie is a real hoot.

W.C. Fields in THE PHARMACIST (1933) – Wanna buy a stamp?

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The Pharmacist is easily the slightest of the three shorts that W.C. Fields made for producer Mack Sennett. With its utter defiance of film sense and continuity, it almost seems a short-subject companion to Fields’ equally surreal feature film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

Fields plays Mr. Dilweg, the owner of a pharmacy that does not seem to be thriving. And small wonder — Dilweg seems to regard himself as most successful when selling entries from his postage-stamp inventory, and he gives away huge, arty vases to all of his customers (even the non-paying ones) as “souvenirs.”

Even stranger than the movie’s miniscule plot is Babe Kane — the worldly fiancee from Fields’ Sennett short The Dentist — as Dilweg’s Baby Snooks-like toddler daughter, whom Fields disciplines in a way that is just short of child abuse. As with Sucker, this movie’s finale seems to have come about mostly because Fields couldn’t think of anything better with which to end the movie.

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941) – W.C. Fields, Sucker

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As W.C. Fields’ final starring movie, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break has its moments, but with its extreme non-plot and non sequitors, it is probably not the movie with which to introduce an unsuspecting viewer to Fields. An online friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he described the movie as “The Bank Dick after a few drinks.”

The main crux of the movie is Fields (who plays himself, more or less) trying to sell his movie script to the flummoxy boss (Franklin Pangborn) of a studio named Esoteric Pictures. As the boss reads Fields’ script aloud, it is presented to us in the form of a, er, non-movie-within-a-non-movie. The “real” movie’s bookends are no more than a series of vignettes. The best of them are probably Fields trying to consume a peach shake at an ice cream parlor (He prefaces the bit by telling us, directly to the camera, “This scene was supposed to be set in a saloon, but the censor cut it out”), and a wild climax of a chase scene that comes out of nowhere but is quite elaborate and pretty funny on its own.

Despite the movie’s rambling motif, its biggest debit is Gloria Jean, an ingenue whom Universal Studios was grooming to be their new Deanna Durbin (another ingenue who had outgrown her child-like roles). Fields reportedly had major battles with Universal over this movie, and one wonders if Gloria Jean’s role as Fields’ starry-eyed niece was forced upon him by the studio. In any case, with her many operetta numbers and her character’s pious loyalty to her uncle, the movie stops dead in its tracks whenever she appears.

But if you put your sense of cinematic continuity on hold, there’s a lot of fun to be had from the movie. Among other treats, Marx Brothers buffs will enjoy seeing Margaret Dumont (heavily eyebrowed) as Mrs. Hemoglobin, a widowed hermit who has her sights set on Fields. (Also, look for Fields’ real-life on-and-off mistress, Carlotta Monti, in a brief bit as a sharp-tongued receptionist.) At only 70 minutes long, the movie is quite a brief yet heady brew.

(TRIVIA: In one of his many feuds with Universal over the movie, Fields wanted to name it The Great Man, but instead, Universal knicked one of Fields’ quotes from his movie Never Cheat an Honest Man [1939] for its final title. Fields is said to have grumbled, “What difference does it make? They can’t get that on a marquee. It’ll probably boil down to Fields – Sucker.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 12 Days of Blogmas – Day 8

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Once again I’m playing cinematic Santa Claus, rewarding movie and TV clips to bloggers with similar interests! (Click here for a more detailed description of this self-indulgent holiday whim.)

Today’s lucky recipient is Karen at the blog shadowsandsatin. Karen’s bill of fare is primarily “pre-Code” movies — the racier movies that Hollywood made prior to the induction of the censorious Production Code. And nobody gets down-and-dirtier about these pre-Coders than Karen. (She even spotlights a different movie once a month under the heading “Pre-Code Crazy.”)

I can’t think anything livelier to provide to Karen than W.C. Fields’ 1932 short subject The Dentist. Fields’ screen character is always remembered as a cranky misanthrope. But in The Dentist, he even outdoes himself — cursing, throwing golf caddies into ponds, and (in the movie’s most notorious scene) getting a nervous dental patient’s long legs laboriously entwined around him.

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It looks as though she’s preparing to get drilled.

For your viewing pleasure, The Dentist is embedded below. Enjoy, and join us tomorrow for Day 9!

The 12 Days of Blogmas – Day 5

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Once again it’s Kris “Nitrate” Kringle, rewarding great TV and movie clips to all the good little bloggers he follows! (If you have no idea why I’m carrying on like this, click here to read about the roots of my newly minted, self-absorbed Christmas tradition.)

Day 5 belongs to the lovely Theresa of the blog CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Like most of my favorite bloggers, Theresa’s tastes are all over the place (in a good way), with a light emphasis on TCM-fave, 1930’s classics. I’ve always like Theresa’s blogging, but she officially won me over the day I discovered she liked W.C. Fields.

Therefore, the only reasonable filmic gift for Theresa is Fields’ rough-edged early talkie, The Golf Specialist (1930). It’s a two-reeler that looks like it was filmed for about 25 cents, and it has an almost completely disposable first half (in that the movie’s main appeal is Fields’ extended golfing routine in the second half). So of course, the film’s sloppiness only makes it that much more endearing to fans of Fields, who was never much known for making tidy movies anyway.

The movie is embedded below. Enjoy, and come back here tomorrow for Day 6!