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: