Just as the silent-film Laurel & Hardy went through fits and starts before becoming a bonafide team, so the team’s early “talkies” went through an uneven stage. Judging from the staginess of Unaccustomed as We Are (their first talkie, which explains the movie’s title), one would never guess they would so quickly adjust to sound in their second and third talkies (Men ‘o War andPerfect Day), only to slip back again with They Go Boom .
The movie’s premise has been worn thin by decades of unimaginative sitcom copies of it. Ollie brings Stan home for dinner, leading Stan to believe that he’ll get a hero’s welcome, only to have Mrs. Hardy (Mae Busch in full shrew mode) complain about having to fix dinner for another of Ollie’s friends. Through labored circumstances, the woman across the hall (Thelma Todd) tries to help Ollie, only to get accidentally undressed via Stan and Ollie’s blundering, paving the way for a confrontation with the woman’s irate husband, a cop (Edgar Kennedy).
L&H buffs well know that their later movie Block-Heads (1938) was a feature-length reworking of this situation, but despite the feature’s extra length, the situation plays better nine years later. Here, the stagy “talkie” atmosphere lays bare the story’s contrivances. Some of the individual gags are cute, especially those that play with the movies’ newfound sound (as when Mrs. Hardy argues with Ollie to the rhythm of the music playing from a phonograph). But the fitful nature of the movie emphasizes the dud gags as well as the funny ones.
The best thing one can say about the movie is that it showed Laurel & Hardy adjusting to sound far better than some of their peers. Much of this nit-picking comes from hindsight; in 1929, nearly any movie with sound was a hit. But even Laurel & Hardy themselves could and would do much better in the near future.
The Knockout is not a Chaplin short per se. It is also not a knockout by any means.
It’s primarily a vehicle for Roscoe Arbuckle. He plays “Pug,” a genial sort who, for reasons I still haven’t sorted out even after seeing the movie, gets talked into a boxing match against a prizefighter named Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy).
Chaplin has a very brief role as the fight’s referee. The running gag of Chaplin’s appearance is that, by being in the middle of the fight, he endures the brunt of the punches. Mild as that sounds, it’s probably the funniest thing in the movie.
The movie’s finale involves the Keystone Kops and makes even less sense. Chaplin would work the boxing ring himself to far greater effect years down the road, in City Lights (1931).
If anyone doubts Laurel & Hardy vet Anita Garvin’s place in film-comedy immortality, witness her comedic contributions to L&H’s From Soup to Nuts, in which she develops an entire routine out of a tiara and a maraschino cherry. Most of the time when Stan and Ollie rub elbows with rich folk, the rich folk are dismissed as one-note snooties who snort at L&H and move on. Here, Garvin shows a rich snootie who nevertheless gives indications that she doesn’t fit into the rich world any better than L&H. Laurel & Hardy historians tell us that Garvin briefly served in her own L&H-type comedies for Hal Roach (though they didn’t catch on). This movie amply demonstrates why.
Of course, this is all with the benefit of hindsight. At its original release, From Soup to Nuts was viewed simply as another funny L&H comedy, and so it is. Long before the days of “high concept” (in which a movie’s appeal could be captured in a single sentence), “Laurel and Hardy are waiters” was all you needed to know in order to laugh just at the premise. If you want some iconic images of The Golden Age of Film Comedy, watch Ollie continually try to serve a huge cake, or Stan serving the salad undressed.
The directorial credit for this short goes to E. Livingston Kennedy, better known as L&H’s perpetual nemesis Edgar Kennedy. It’s usually a given that Laurel was the uncredited director of the L&H comedies, but one could do worse than having From Soup to Nuts and You’re Darn Tootin’on one’s film resume.
Anyone who saw Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business in 1929 wouldn’t have been surprised at how adeptly L&H could denude a house. In The Finishing Touch (1928), they try to build a house and can hardly even get it started.
This short subject is not counted as one of their greatest, but it’s full of delightful little touches. The byplay between Stan, Ollie, the local hospital nurse (Dorothy Coburn) who demands quiet, and the poor cop on the beat (Edgar Kennedy) who is forced to make Stan and Ollie acquiesce to the nurse’s wishes. The expert pantomime of Stan Laurel just about every time the camera is on only him. Ollie, trying to carry a load of nails in his mouth and of course swallowing them every time. And the first appearance of the L&H paradoxical proverb, “If you must make a noise, make it quietly.”
The film’s ending was initially to have shown L&H’s truck driving straight through the house, leaving a huge hole through it. But the house collapsed inward before the truck had a chance to plow all the way through. But it’s quite appropriate the way it is, considering that most of Stan and Ollie’s plans collapse upon themselves.
From Charlie Chaplin in Laughing Gas (1914) to Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), for decades movie comedians have known that you can’t go wrong exploiting comedy from people’s fear of dentists. It was inevitable that Laurel & Hardy would try their hand at it, and that the results would be as funny as Leave ‘Em Laughing.
Once their characterizations were firmly grounded, L&H’s best format was the three-parter. Here, the three settings are: their apartment (where Ollie tries to nurse Stan through a painful toothache); the dentist’s office (where both Stan and Ollie get overcome with laughing gas); and the city streets (where L&H disrupt cause a traffic jam and ruin the day of a traffic cop [Edgar Kennedy]).
It’s a simple set-up, to be sure, but the gags pay off due to L&H’s solid characterizations. There’s the scene where Ollie offers Stan a hot-water bottle to ease his pain, but Stan falls asleep and lets the bottle leak into the bed, causing Ollie to think that Stan has a control problem bigger than his toothache. Or witness Ollie’s glorious minute of screen time when he wakes up in the dentist’s chair to discover that his tooth was pulled instead of Stan’s.
This was also the first movie where L&H milked laughs from simply laughing their heads off. (Later examples occur in Fra Diavolo and Way Out West.) Funny thing, though, about the doctors in L&H movies–in this one and County Hospital, doctors let Stan and Ollie get back on the street under the influence of mind-numbing drugs with nary a shrug. If medicos really were that cavalier back then, no wonder the litigation industry is the giant that it is today.
Laurel & Hardy were “high concept” 50 years before the concept. The funniest L&H situations are the simplest, and “Stan and Ollie burglarize a house” is the highest of high concepts.
A cop named Kennedy (played by, conveniently, Edgar Kennedy) has to get in good with the chief of police, so he coerces vagrants Stan and Ollie into breaking into the chief’s house so that he can ostensibly catch them and be the hero. Woe to any cop who has Stan and Ollie on his beat.
This is one of L&H’s early talkies, but unlike the staginess of Unaccustomed as We Are or They Go Boom!, Night Owls makes the most of both sound and visuals. The sight gags are endless, as it takes Stan and Ollie most of the film to even get into the house. As for sound, Ollie is forever “ssh-ing” Stan, practically guaranteeing that the duo will make the most noise possible. And who else but Stan could get a running gag out of going “Meow”?
Best of all is the movie’s ending (SPOILER ALERT!) — not quite one of Laurel’s coveted “freak endings,” because the situation at hand is almost plausible. But you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Stan skitter away like a cockroach, with Ollie in his underwear throwing garbage at him.
Angora Love was Laurel & Hardy’s last silent film (not counting The Tree in a Test Tube, the ’40s Government short in which they appeared without dialogue), and it’s another of their shorts in which their winning characterizations overcome a sitcom-like script. (The device that sets the plot in motion is that a pet-shop owner’s goat chews through its leash and escapes, and the owner mistakenly tells a cop on the beat that his goat was stolen, which info the cop takes in a straight-faced manner. Even back in 1929, didn’t L.A. street cops have more important things to do, like issue citations to jaywalkers or something?)
The goat latches on to Stan and Ollie and their morning donuts, and suddenly they can’t get rid of him, which makes for some tracking shots that are pretty elaborate considering they’re from a goat’s point of view. They eventually try to hide the goat in their apartment under the suspicious eye of their distrusting landlord (Edgar Kennedy).
This set-up provides the template for every L&H hide-the-animal scenario forever after (e.g., Laughing Gravy, The Chimp). The most memorable gag is when Stan, trying to repeat Ollie’s earlier subterfuge of sticking Stan’s head in the washbasin so the landlord won’t think they’re bathing a forbidden animal, sticks Ollie’s head in the washbasin after the landlord has already seen the goat. (Stan is always about half a beat behind a given plan. At one point when they’re trying to hide the goat, Ollie lifts up the end of the bed and motions to Stan, whereupon Stan tries to hide himself under the bed.)
Angora Love isn’t their most memorable short (particularly with its unassuming organ score on the soundtrack), but it’s a fittingly simple farewell from L&H to silent movies.
Two men (Chaplin and Mack Swain) are bored with their day in the park with their wives (Phyllis Allen and Mabel Normand) – so bored that they take it upon themselves to desert their wives and then hit on each other’s wives. Once they get a flummoxed cop (Edgar Kennedy) and the wife of a jealous Frenchman involved, they both live to regret it.
Unlike the previous farcical short His Trysting Place (with the same starring quartet, even), this one gets it right. Lots of great exits to the wrong places, and funny misunderstandings all around. Standout gag: Chaplin sneakily uses his cane to lift Mabel’s skirt; when Mabel slaps him, Charlie reprimands the cane as though the whole thing was “its” idea.
Pity that this winner didn’t end Chaplin’s Keystone series instead of being the penultimate entry.
For some strange reason, in the early morning of Wed., Nov. 19, Turner Classic Movies are running two Laurel & Hardy movies that couldn’t be more opposite in quality.
At 6 a.m. comes Our Relations (1936), one of their most delightful features, in which they play Stan and Ollie as well as their long-lost twin brothers, Alf and Bert. You can read my review of the movie here; it ‘s definitely one of their best feature films.
Before that, though, at 4:45 a.m., TCM is broadcasting Air Raid Wardens, made for M-G-M long after Stan and Babe had left the Hal Roach Studios — and it shows. Below is my review of the movie, which I’m posting her mostly as a warning about the movie.
(First, though, let me point out the strangest connection between the two movies. Both of them feature screenwriting credits by L&H writing veterans Charley Rogers and Jack Jevne! It just goes to show what a world of difference two separate movie studios can make.)
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Laurel & Hardy legend has it that Air Raid Wardens was subtly sabotaged by the presence on the movie’s set of a Civil Defense official who wouldn’t tolerate any kidding of defense procedures. Based on the evidence of the final film, the guy must have gotten a major promotion.
The movie’s first few minutes go beyond the call of duty to establish Stan and Ollie’s hometown of Huxton as one of M-G-M’s most American towns, positively oozing at the seams with apple pie. An aw-shucks narrator introduces us to townspeople we couldn’t care less about, and doubles the offense by making sure that in their first few minutes on-screen, L&H have taken potshots at the wartime Japs as well as (wooden) Indians. Just the Stan and Ollie we’ve come to know and love.
Turns out that Huxton’s war plant is a major source of magnesium, though Huxton’s slow pace and cardboard characters would seem to lend themselves more to milk of magnesia. Anyway, the town seems even more eager to play war games than L&H’s peers were in Great Guns, and you’d think Stan and Ollie would fit right in with these pedestrian antics. But instead, they’re referred to by most of the townsfolk as “blithering idiots” and other endearing epithets — at least until they happen upon a nest of Nazis and suddenly find it in themselves to defeat them single-handedly. (If you know anything about 1940’s-era M-G-M and the big studios’ later emasculation of Laurel and Hardy, this “spoiler” doesn’t give much away.)
Of course, if you do know anything about L&H, all you can do is marvel at how a big studio went out of its way to not cater to its stars’ strengths. M-G-M went to all the trouble of hiring two former L&H scriptwriters (Jack Jevne and Charley Rogers) and one of their most famed co-stars (Edgar Kennedy) and then wouldn’t let them concoct anything funny. An M-G-M composer named Nathaniel Shilkret gets a music credit, but it must have been Shilkret’s easiest assignment ever, because there is no music between the opening and closing credits, making L&H’s supposed shenanigans operate in even more of a void.
To compound the humiliation, when Stan and Ollie are stripped of their air-raid gear, Stan is given the first of his woe-is-me M-G-M speeches in which he humbly states, “We’ll do anything that Uncle Sam wants us to.” (How about starring in a funny movie??) Hardy, surprisingly, still performs with his fancy curlicues and dainty body language, as if someone forgot to tell him that he wasn’t in funny movies anymore.
Then there’s a wheezer of an ending, in that it doesn’t even try to end on a gag — t just shows Stan with a subdued Nazi in tow. The moviemakers didn’t even have enough energy to let Huxton assign Laurel & Hardy the town’s manure-removal contract or something like that.
In his L&H biography, Randy Skretvedt deservedly makes much of an unfunny scene that tries to squeeze laughs out of Stan ineptly signing his name. “It’s like being asked to laugh at someone who’s mentally retarded,” Skretvedt sniffs. Sadly, the whole movie seems to be operating at that level.
Here’s an original trailer for the movie that gives you a pretty good idea of the low level of comedy at which this movie operates:
Duck Soup was initially a box-office flop — perhaps because it was released during the Great Depression, when the public didn’t want to believe that its leaders were hopeless. The movie was “re-discovered” by college students during the anti-Establishment 1960’s, and it has been rightly hailed as a comedy masterpiece ever since.
Its wisp of a story begins with Mrs. Teasdale (perennial sidekick Margaret Dumont), a wealthy widow who has singlehandedly financed the nearly bankrupt country of Freedonia. When pressed for another loan of $20 million, Mrs. Teasdale agrees to lend the money on the condition that her favorite politician, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), be allowed to rule Freedonia. (A wealthy contributor using her money to buy a candidate? Who’d have thought it?)
This Firefly guy certainly inspires confidence. In his first ten minutes as Freedonian president, he oversleeps through his inauguration; makes his entrance down a firepole; puts the make on his financier; and delivers a musical inaugural address (linked below) with the refrain, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ’til I get through with it.”
The only thing Firefly gets right is his take on Trentino (Louis Calhern), his political rival in the country of Sylvania. Trentino wants only to win over Mrs. Teasdale so that he can take over Fredonia, a political strategy that Firefly has already usurped. Trentino hires two spies, Chicolini and Pinkie (Chico and Harpo Marx), in the hopes of uncovering some dirt that will discredit Firefly. This plan fails on two counts: 1) Firefly is more eager to discredit himself than any political opponent could ever be; and 2) Chicolini and Pinkie aren’t exactly married to their work. (Their idea of political rivalry is to monopolize the local peanut-stand concession and drive their competitor [silent-film slow-burner Edgar Kennedy] either out of business or around the bend.)
This political sub-intrigue is a lame excuse for some of cinema’s most superb sight gags, wordplay, musical interludes, and unique lessons in animal husbandry (in a blatant nose-thumbing at the censors, Harpo sleeps with a horse). Legendary comedy director Leo McCarey stuffs all of this into a lightning-paced 70 minutes, so even if you don’t like the movie (highly unlikely), you don’t have to bear it for very long.
For decades, countless people — including many involved in the making of this film — have argued that Duck Soup is not a political satire. Try telling that to the makers of the films Primary Colors (of whose Clinton burlesque the Marxes surely would have approved) or Wag the Dog (whose view of war as a means to a political end seems to have been mainlined from Duck Soup). Every year, this mind-bending comedy looks more and more like a documentary.
Here’s my favorite number from the movie — maybe my favorite Groucho number ever…