THE CHIMP (1932) – Laurel & Hardy monkey around

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Chimp is essentially Angora Love or Laughing Gravy with a monkey. It starts out interestingly, with Stan and Ollie as performers for an underwhelming traveling circus. In their usual well-meaning way, they manage to destroy what’s left of the enterprise, forcing the owner to declare bankruptcy and divide the circus’s acts among the unpaid performers. Stan gets the flea circus; Ollie gets Ethel the gorilla (Charles Gamora).

The rest of the movie involves them trying to sneak the gorilla past their hotel room’s manager (Billy Gilbert). They also try to avoid the circus’s wayward lion, who unconvincingly chases them during their escapades. (Stan and Ollie run down a path, then the movie conspicuously intercuts a shot of the lion roaming the same path. Not exactly enough to strike fear into moviegoers’ hearts.)

The funniest moments involve H.M. Walker’s intertitles (“The night was dark — they usually are”) and a lion-chase moment where Stan tells Ollie, “I just saw M-G-M!” The rest is pretty mechanical stuff, especially when the manager hears L&H talking to Ethel the chimp and thinks they’re having amenage-a-trois with Ethel his wife. Something about the incongruity of great movie comics with guys in chimp costumes (remember The Marx Bros.’ At the Circus?) practically screams out desperation.

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Laurel & Hardy in COUNTY HOSPITAL (1932) – Half of a great comedy

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The first part of County Hospital is prime Laurel & Hardy. Ollie has a broken leg and is laid up in the hospital — happily laid up, as he tells his doctor (Billy Gilbert) that it’s the first decent rest he’s had in ages. That, of course, is before Stan arrives to visit Ollie, after which Stan has knocked Ollie’s doctor out of the top-floor window and nearly killed him, and completely destroyed Ollie’s hospital bed after first hanging him above it like the sword of Damocles. Exasperated beyond measure, the doctor orders Ollie out of the hospital.

The dialogue and by-play between L&H (Stan brought Ollie some nuts, knowing that Ollie can’t eat them, because candy was too expensive), and the thrill sequence with Dr. Gilbert dangling from the window, is truly wonderful stuff. But the comedy takes a distinct downturn when Stan accidentally sits on a needle filled with anesthetic. After the nurse removes the needle, she casually informs her boss that Stan will sleep for a month. (And she lets Stan leave the hospital on that basis. Nowadays, that would be plot enough for an episode of some TV legal drama.)

Ollie, unaware of Stan’s condition, tells Stan to drive him home. This could have made for some great thrill comedy, if it had been done properly. Unfortunately, what it does is show Stan and Ollie in a prop car in front of some very obvious back-projection of a busy city street. Ollie does his best to react to the footage as though he’s really in danger, but all it does is remind us of the lesser educational films we once saw in driver’s-ed class. (At one point, the prop car spins in a complete circle while the street footage stays in the same perspective!) Also, the music in this scene is lifted from L&H’s later (1936) film Our Relations, so apparently this score was tacked-on for a County Hospital re-release. One can only imagine how much drearier this sad footage already was without the music.

Eventually, of course, the car crashes (off-screen), and an irate cop tells Stan to get the car off the road. But the car is now bent at a right angle, so that when Stan tries to drive away, he follows himself around in a circle — much like a movie that begins promisingly and then ends up chasing its own tail.

Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX (1932) – Not a completely happy tune

 TheMusicBox

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Am I the only Laurel & Hardy fan on Earth who is a trifle put off by The Music Box? “This is the one everyone remembers,” writes Randy Skretvedt in his great L&H biography — but everyone always seems to remember it for the wrong reasons.

As with most L&H product, the movie provides enough genuine laughter to warrant at least one viewing. But it hardly seems worthy of the Academy Award it received (the only one in L&H’s career, save for a Special Oscar given to Stan Laurel in 1960). Just the image of Stan and Ollie lugging a weighty piano up an infinite flight of stairs is enough to bring a smile to many moviegoers — but much like a similar image in the L&H feature Swiss Miss, the movie that surrounds that image isn’t exactly prime L&H viewing.

The majority of the movie’s first half shows the Laurel & Hardy Transfer Co. (“Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow”) doing their best to deliver said piano. There is a lot of fun to be found in this premise — especially at the end of the movie’s first act, when a delivery man (Charlie Hall) informs them of a short-cut they could have taken (the payoff for this gag is priceless). And when they actually arrive at the piano’s intended destination, there are plenty more gags and payoffs that evolve quite nicely.

Yet the whole enterprise is slightly off-putting. Though Skretvedt’s book informs us that Laurel worked feverishly on the movie’s editing right up to its premiere, the movie seems more like one of those bad TV skits performed by L&H impersonators for countless generations. It’s almost like a Laurel & Hardy movie for (or by) people who don’t quite “get” Laurel & Hardy.

For one thing, the movie is strangely lacking in music. L&H shorts are usually wallpapered with Marvin Hatley’s and LeRoy Shield’s lively scores, so the absence is doubly noticeable here. One reason is probably that a lot of space had to be left on the movie’s soundtrack for the sounds of the piano whenever it rolled back down the stairs or crashed into a room. Yet a lively piano score would seem a perfect accompaniment.

(The colorized version of the movie, released in the 1980’s on home video, tries to rectify the situation, though the Hatley/Shield themes used there are performed by other artists and are thus slightly off-kilter.)

The movie’s most painful debit, though, is Ollie’s constant bullying of Stan. Ollie, of course, is always condescendingly bossy to his partner, but usually it has an air of Ollie trying to protect Stan from the world’s misfortunes. Here, it just seems mean-spirited. Some examples:

In one scene, a nurse whacks Stan on the head with a baby bottle, and Ollie, rather than helping his partner, laughs derisively (until he too is belted by the nurse). A similar gag (with the tables turned), in the post-Roach L&H film Great Guns, has been derided for years as being out of character for Stan and Ollie, who usually defend each other against outside forces.

At one point when they are halfway up the flight of stairs, a cop on the street calls up to them. As they are out of earshot, Ollie continually bullies Stan into going down to the street to find out what he wants. Ollie’s continuously harsh tone indicates that he’s too lazy to do it himself, though it’s Ollie whom the cop is after. I suppose that’s part of the gag, but it still comes off in a bitter tone.

Ollie actually addresses Stan as “stupid” in the movie — again, the same sort of mean-spirited anti-characterization that is maligned by L&H buffs when it comes in the middle of one of L&H’s Twentieth-Century Fox films.

Again, there is a lot to recommend in the film — particularly their encounters with “Professor Theodore von Schwarzenhoffen [L&H veteran Billy Gilbert], M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F.F.F., und F.” But for Oscar-caliber L&H material, I’d sooner recommend Helpmates or Way Out West (which actually was nominated for an Oscar, albeit for Marvin Hatley’s score). As with Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons, Stan and Babe got one of their industry awards for a movie that least deserved it.

Laurel & Hardy in TOWED IN A HOLE (1932) – A boatload of laughs

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Like Helpmates and a handful of their other sound films, Towed in a Hole is 100-proof Laurel and Hardy — methodically paced, but hardly boring; full of funny banter between the duo; and, in a couple of Ollie’s speeches, a brief glimpse at what makes Stan and Ollie (the screen personas) put up with each other. One could hardly ask more of a comedy short-subject.

The movie begins with Stan and Ollie actually happy with their lot in life. They hawk fish from their truck, with Ollie singing to prospective customers as a come-on; Stan provides accompaniment with a razzing horn. Out of nowhere, Stan comes up with the idea that they could make more money by catching the fish themselves. Never leaving well enough alone, Ollie coaxes Stan to “Tell me that again” and gets a garbled version of the same plan. Still, Ollie gets the idea; they should “eliminate the middleman,” little realizing that the middleman is the only thing standing between them and utter chaos.

Ollie purchases a boat in desperate need of repair, the need being all the more desperate when Stan tries to help Ollie repair it. After an escalating series of disasters, Ollie briefly has a heartfelt moment where he touchingly implores Stan’s help and friendship, but the whole episode still ends with Stan imprisoned below deck after Ollie has given him a black eye.

Another delightful example of Stan Laurel the actor making comedy out of almost nothing occurs when Stan is locked up. He draws a voodoo-like picture of Ollie on the wall and pokes it in the eye, then plays a hat-blowing trick on himself, then musically performs on a saw. Eventually, Stan’s boredom gets his head stuck between the mast and the bulkhead and uses the saw to get himself free, not knowing that Ollie had climbed the mast to perform a paint job. This results in Stan’s second black eye.

Finally, Stan and Ollie try to tow the boat out of the repair area with their car, but the boat is too heavy. Stan suggests putting up the sail for wind; Ollie does this, causing the boat to crash into the car, which then crashes into the fence. Stan rushes to survey the wreckage but finds a silver lining in the cloud; he pulls his fish horn out of the mess and indicates to Ollie that it has survived the wreck. Ollie chases Stan off-screen.

Towed in a Hole director George Marshall has said that the film’s original ending was to have shown the boat careening out of control down the highway, but that L&H improvised so much genuine comedy that this elaborate ending was rendered unnecessary. That’s Laurel & Hardy in a nutshell, having distilled their screen characters to the point that a lavish, Hog Wild-type chase scene was no longer necessary to garner great comedy.

Laurel & Hardy in THEIR FIRST MISTAKE (1932) – Poor baby

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In his seminal book on Laurel and Hardy, Charles Barr declares, “Their First Mistake is a film about the Stan Laurel character.” More accurately, this 1932 short subject is a film about the Stan and Ollie characters’ relationships, to each other and to their on-screen wives. This short, made fairly early on in their sound-movie career, is nearly a summation of many L&H themes that appeared before and after. In this film, we have:

* an extremely hostile wife (de rigeur in most L&H films)

* perhaps L&H’s most extreme expression of their childlikeness

* their devotion to each other at the expense of any other relationships

Armchair analysts (and you’re reading one of them right now) have for years made hay of the supposed homosexual subtext in Laurel & Hardy movies. It’s always risky to make such inferences about movies that their own creators stated were meant only for a few laughs. But in this film in particular, such symbolism is so blatant as to be unavoidable.

Their First Mistake opens with Mrs. Arabella Hardy (Mae Busch) chastizing her husband Ollie for spending too much time with Stan, when the phone rings and who should it be but Stan? Ollie answers the phone and fools his wife by addressing the caller as “Mr. Jones.” This causes an immediate identity crisis in Stan, who checks out his mirror image and his wallet I.D.’s to make sure he’s still himself.

Ollie tells his wife that the caller was his boss, Mr. Jones, inviting him to a company outing. Mrs. Hardy beams with pride until Stan comes to Ollie’s apartment to tell him that it was he on the phone. Mrs. Hardy chases Ollie around the apartment and beats him with a broom, scaring Stan just far enough out of the apartment to observe the fracas from an outdoor window. Ollie makes a hasty exit, knocking Stan down as they both head for Stan’s apartment across the way. Mrs. Hardy pounds on the door and announces that if Ollie spends any more time with Stan, she’s leaving him.

Ollie seems more concerned with placating Stan, with whom he finds himself alone on the bed. They engage in a prolonged conversation while indulging in mindless behavior — Ollie playing finger games, Stan polishing his shoes with the bedsheet. Barr finds this scene fascinating in its childishness, but actually, anyone looking for gay L&H subtext couldn’t do better than this scene. The pair’s coyish pre-coital activity, combined with some surprising dialogue — “She says I think more of you than I do of her”; “Well, you do, doncha?”; “Well, we won’t go into that” — seem ready for cataloguing in the Celluloid Closet sequel.*

Stan suggests that Ollie adopt a baby — not out of any parental desires, but to keep Mrs. Hardy occupied during his and Ollie’s outings. Ollie proclaims this a brilliant idea (Well, he would, wouldn’t he?) and tells Stan to head for the adoption agency with him. Stan, his brilliance already evaporated, asks, “What for?”

In the next scene, Stan and Ollie are bringing an adopted baby back to Ollie’s apartment. (Amazing — two not-too-bright men have more trouble getting a bank loan in Pack Up Your Troubles than they do in adopting a kid.) Along the way, they offer a congratulatory cigar to a curious neighbor (Mistake director George Marshall). They find the apartment empty and are then visited by a process server (L&H veteran Billy Gilbert). The process server proffers two summonses from Mrs. Hardy — one to Ollie for divorce, the other to Stan “for the alienation of Mr. Hardy’s affections.” (Sadly missing is the scene in which Mrs. Hardy would prove her case.)

There follows a nice parody of the old abandoned-lover theme, with Ollie as the jilted mother and Stan as the selfish deserter. “Why, it was you who wanted me to have this baby,” wails Ollie, “and now you want to leave me flat!” Stan declares that he has a reputation to protect (this from a man who began the film by inviting Ollie to a cement-workers’ ball in the hopes of winning a free steam shovel). Ollie blocks Stan’s exit, waking the baby in the process.

The rest of the film consists of their efforts to quiet the baby, and it is here that the movie’s frenzied maternal symbolism comes to a head. Much ado is made of bottle nipples, and every time Stan tests the baby’s milk for warmth, he can’t resist swigging a few chugs before reluctantly passing it to the baby. At one point, Stan’s “white magic” routine (doing out-of-this-world tricks manner-of-factly) reaches its peak when he nonchalantly pulls a full milk bottle out of his nightshirt, where he was “keeping it warm.” Ollie’s camera-look reactions here speak volumes.

The final scene shows the baby, Stan, and Ollie asleep in bed. To stop the baby’s incessant crying, Ollie sleepily passes a milk bottle across the bed — ostensibly for the baby, but the bottle reaches only to Stan. After getting his face doused with milk, Stan’s mouth finds the mother lode and indulges appropriately. Surprisingly, the baby stops crying until Stan finishes the bottle and is offered another one by Ollie. One would almost think the baby smart enough to protect her caretaker’s needs before her own–but then, if the baby was that smart, she wouldn’t be with these two guys to start with.

So Stan finishes off a bottle-and-a-half of milk, plus a complete nipple chewed and swallowed, before Ollie wakes up enough to realize what has happened. The scene is quite funny on its own, but the infantile imagery of Stan — his face doused with milk, contentedly suckling — is almost eye-popping. It’s like an image out of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

It seems as though the film could continue in this vein forever, but sadly, it closes on a throwaway gag (Ollie chastizing Stan for drinking the baby’s milk, then spilling the remainder on himself — more symbolism, perhaps?). L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt states that an alternate final scene, proposed but not filmed, showed Arabella Hardy returning to the Hardy apartment with a baby she adopted. (How easily were babies adopted in 1932, anyway?). This scene would have provided a fitting conclusion — with Mrs. Hardy, like her husband, indulging in a familial gesture, yet doing it entirely independent of her spouse.

It’s always dangerous to indulge in the kind of pedantic analysis that kills most comedy. Yet Their First Mistake, quite funny on its own terms, offers the ultimate statement on Stan and Ollie’s relationship: No matter how many (or what kinds of) people are involved in their lives — wives, babies, cement workers — Stan and Ollie are really most concerned with nurturing and protecting each other.

*POSTSCRIPT: This essay was originally published in Britain’s Laurel and Hardy Magazine, because of which a reader lambasted me for trying to imply any hint of homosexuality in Stan and Ollie’s relationship. However, The Celluloid Closet, the 2000 documentary about cinema’s depictions of gayness — which I hadn’t seen before writing this essay — does indeed use the “We won’t go into that” clip from Their First Mistake as an example of the movie’s subject. So apparently, I’m not the only one who noticed this.

Laurel & Hardy in ONE GOOD TURN (1931) – The worm turns

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According to L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt, One Good Turn came about because Stan’s real-life daughter Lois was afraid of “Uncle Ollie,” so Stan did this movie to show that his on-screen persona could stand up to Ollie whenever necessary. While there is some satisfaction in seeing the oft-bullying Ollie get his for a change, it leaves the movie rather open-ended.

(Major spoiler alert follows.) The story is that “victims of the Depression” Stan and Ollie have begged a meal from an old lady (Mary Carr) whom they mistakenly believe needs $100 to keep from being evicted. (They didn’t know that she was rehearsing for a community-theater play.) After a drunk (an uncredited Billy Gilbert) mistakenly shoves his loaded wallet into Stan’s pocket, Ollie discovers the wallet and assumes the worst about his pal, dragging him kicking and screaming back to the old lady to “make a full confession.” When Ollie learns the truth, he tries to tie-twiddle his way out of his “slight faux pas,” only to feel the full wrath of Stan’s vengeance.

The concept is cute, but the execution is troubling. Earlier at the free lunch provided by the lady, Stan absent-mindedly pours coffee into Ollie’s lap. To get back at Stan, he grabs an entire pitcher of coffee cream and pours it onto Stan’s lap. The laugh from this gag is diminished when one realizes they’re having a food fight at the expense of a generous woman.

Similarly, at the film’s climax, Stan corners Ollie in a garage (presumably also the old lady’s) and venomously chops it down so that the roof will fall on Ollie. Again, one can’t entirely enjoy Stan’s revenge while knowing that this poor lady might indeed need the $100 to clean up the destruction caused by Stan.

One Good Turn has some funny gags – especially at the beginning, when Stan inadvertently destroys the tent they were using to live in. But in that instance, the only persons they were harming were themselves. L&H biographer Scott MacGillivray wrote that when Stan and Ollie ripped up their wartime ration cards (in a scene in Jitterbugs), audiences groaned at the loss of what was then a sizable commodity. One wonders what Depression audiences must have thought of Stan and Ollie wreaking havoc on an innocent old woman.

Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) – Two little Hitlers

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first “all-talking” movie, is not a perfect film – there are dead spots here and there, and it wavers nervously between political farce and humanistic melodrama. Yet it is as compelling as anything in the Chaplin canon.

For one thing, you couldn’t find a movie that is more “of its time.” Chaplin’s uncanny resemblance to Hitler (they were also born within a week of each other) inevitably dictated (sorry) that Chaplin would have to take on the monster of his era. Chaplin later said that, had he known of the horrors of the actual concentration camps (portrayed fairly benignly here), he could never have made this movie. Yet one should be grateful he took on its subject matter at all, as history tells us how pacifist much of Hollywood (and America) was willing to be at the time.

The story concerns Chaplin’s version of Hitler, “Der Phooey” Adenoid Hynkel, and his country of Tomania, which he hopes to ruthlessly expand to include the entire globe. (Lest there be any doubt about this goal, there’s the movie’s famous, wordless scene in which Hynkel makes love to his “intended” by dancing and playing with an inflated globe of the Earth.)

Chaplin also plays Hynkel’s inadvertent double, an innocent Jewish barber who comes upon Hynkel’s Tomania after years in a psychiatric ward following World War I. The barber returns to his modest Jewish community and his business, thinking that everything is back to normal, only to be thrust into the center of anything-but-normal.

Chaplin’s burlesque of Hitler can be described only as spot-on; even the gibberish is perfect. As for the age-old question of whether the barber character is an extension of Chaplin’s Tramp, all you can do is look at the derby hat, toothbrush moustache, and waddle-walk, and think to yourself: He sure ain’t Monsieur Verdoux.

The movie begins a bit clumsily, as it’s pretty obvious that Chaplin is trying to do some silent-movie comedy at sound speed. But soon enough, the movie gets in sync and provides many memorable set-pieces: the globe dance, the barber shaving a customer in time to the radio music, the coins in the pudding, etc.

And this movie should stand as the final word to any critic who says that Chaplin never let another actor be his equal or upstage him. To a man (we’ll discuss the woman in a moment), Chaplin the director gets wonderful performances, of varying kinds, from his peers. Reginald Gardiner is rather touching as Schultz, the Tomanian officer who grants the barber some slack due to their shared past. Comic veteran Billy Gilbert is adorable as Hynkel’s flunkie Herring, forever sputtering and hoping for a ray of Hynkel’s approval. Henry Daniell is just fascinating as Hynkel’s advisor Garbitsch, bringing more to the role than seems asked of him; you get the feeling Garbitsch could have been a powermonger to overtake Hynkel if Chaplin had let him. The most sober (without being maudlin) of the downtrodden Jews is the cynical Jaeckel, understatedly played by Maurice Moscovich.

And let us give a manic salute to Jack Oakie for his Mussolini take-off, Napaloni. Chaplin gives Oakie generous leeway to show Napaloni’s passive-aggressive superiority to the neurotic Hynkel, and Oakie makes the most of every minute he’s on-screen.

Then there’s the famous finale, where the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and is called upon to address the world just before Hynkel’s forces are set to take over a nearby country of refuge. Chaplin famously “dropped the mask” here and delivered a heartfelt, six-minute speech devoted to humanity. The speech has mostly been a sore spot, even among many Chaplin buffs, since the movie was first released. And I have to say it: The speech works for me.

Of course, the speech is very out-of-character; it’s doubtful that the simplistic barber could conjure up such verbosity on the spot. That leaves Chaplin-the-celebrity addressing us, and many people have said he should have shut up then and there. But whenever I watch and hear that final speech, I think about 1940 and how much different (and presumably nicer) the world would have been if the real Hitler had found it in himself to say something like that. And aren’t movies just wish-fulfillment, anyway? On those terms, I can accept that speech quite handily.

(If the speech is missing anything, it’s that comic punctuation Chaplin used to include — a gag that would “snap” the pathos and keep it from getting too icky, as in City Lights when the Tramp lingers on the sight of the blind girl and she unknowingly throws water in his face. Maybe the speech could have been “leavened” by a cutaway or two to Hynkel having been forced into taking the barber’s place at the insane asylum, sitting bound-up in a strait-jacket and going into hysterics as he listens to the barber giving his power away.)

What I find much harder to ignore (or accept) about the movie is Paulette Goddard as Hannah, the simple, modest cleaning woman of the Jewish ghetto. Hannah is a poorly written character to start with – she’s little more than Chaplin’s love letter to Goddard (who was Mrs. Chaplin at the time) – and Goddard herself doesn’t add much to the role. Hannah is forever giving “Rah-rah, let’s beat those nasty storm troopers” speeches to the point of tedium. One such speech occurs when Hynkel, in an effort to finagle a loan from a Jewish businessman, decides to temporarily quit persecuting the ghetto’s Jews. When the storm troopers unexpectedly treat Hannah and the barber politely, Hannah looks straight into the camera and expostulates about the world’s goodness in a way to make you turn away in embarrassment.

Complaints aside, The Great Dictator remains compelling and often hilarious Chaplin viewing. It was his biggest money-maker to date, so there must have been at least a few other people who agreed with Chaplin’s sentiments in that closing speech.