Laurel & Hardy in COME CLEAN (1931) – Kind of a drawn-out dirty joke

download

In Come Clean, Ollie tells Stan to divert their wives by telling them a joke. The camera later cuts to Stan giving the punchline — “…and the farmer shot the traveling salesman!” — and the wives’ outrage at the blue humor.

Unfortunately, Come Clean itself almost inspires that kind of reaction. The crux of the movie is that Stan and Ollie thwart the attempted suicide of a woman (Mae Busch) whom, until movie’s end, comes off as a plain old floozie. This characterization is only furthered when the woman insists that, since Stan and Ollie saved her life, they’ll have to take her home with them or she’ll scream bloody murder.

Up to that point, the movie has been fairly funny, with a reprise of a routine from Should Married Men Go Home? where Ollie and his wife try to convince the visiting Laurels that they’re not at home, and a great scene at an ice-cream parlor with Charlie Hall as the sneering vendor.

But when the movie tries to milk Stan and Ollie’s hide-the-floozie routine for ever-diminishing humor, the fun starts to leak out of the movie. At one point, Mae, locked in another room, turns on the radio to a blaring broadcast of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” (Coincidentally, that same march, also blaring from a radio, hampered the schemes of burglars Harpo and Chico Marx in Duck Soup. Was there a Los Angeles radio station that played the march non-stop in the ’30s?) The best that Stan and Ollie can do to cover up the noise is bang pots and pans and march around the room like little children. Characters this child-like should not be asked to milk a blackmail scheme for comedy.

The movie closes with a semi-“freak ending” where Stan, taking a bath while fully clothed, gets the plug pulled on him by Ollie and goes down the drain (suggested via sound effects). It’s as if the movie’s players are as eager to get rid of their sordid situation as the audience is.

Laurel & Hardy in LOVE ‘EM AND WEEP (1927) – Better than the remake

loveemandweep

It’s easy to brush off the silent versions of L&H comedies that were later remade with sound and with an understanding of Stan and Ollie as a team. But ironically, Love ‘Em and Weep is a far livelier comedy than its L&H remake, Chickens Come Home.

For one thing, even though the story is quite the same in both versions (right down to some of the dialogue), the earlier version is one reel shorter —

which gives you less time to analyze the movie’s sense of misogyny and more time to appreciate its fine comic performances. Here, James Finlayson assays the role later to be taken by Oliver Hardy, that of a respected businessman blackmailed by an old fling of his (Mae Busch in both versions). As is typical in Roach/Pathe productions, Laurel and Hardy hardly have a scene together (Hardy’s role is a glorified walk-on). But Finlayson well demonstrates why he was one of Hal Roach’s Comedy All-Stars before L&H hit it big. Much of his work is as florid as when he later reacted to Stan and Ollie, but he also plays the cuckolded husband quite well.

Laurel, in the same role he played in the later L&H version (the businessman’s partner, caught between a rock and a hard place), is hilarious and displays nearly all of the typical, beguiling Stanley mannerisms, seemingly lacking only a partner to bounce off of. And Mae Busch, besides being funny in her vamp role, is a winningly good sport in the film’s final reel, where she mostly serves as a mannequin for Finlayson and Laurel’s physical comedy.

It’s a good thing Stan and Ollie finally made it big as a team. Based on the evidence of this very funny short, it’s a wonder Hal Roach didn’t try to team Laurel with James Finlayson more often.

Laurel & Hardy in UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE (1929) – Their first talkie

UnaccustomedAsWeAre

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

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 and Perfect 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.

Laurel & Hardy in THE FIXER UPPERS (1935) – Another nice mess # 2,912

Fixeruppers

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound)

It’s inevitably the more looked-down-upon Laurel & Hardy shorts that yield the nicest surprises. “A fairly pedestrian little picture,” sniffs Randy Skretvedt about The Fixer Uppers in his book on the team. But while this is hardly a reputation-cementing flicker on the lines of Big Business or The Music Box, it has some funnier-than-usual dialogue for an L&H picture, and it yields a fair amount of laughs.

Stan and Ollie are greeting-card salesmen, a job they carry out as competently as they do most of their vocations. (Ollie’s dignified reading of the card’s couplets is almost the high point of the movie. I won’t spoil the punchlines by quoting them here. If you’re curious, check out the greeting-card section at the Way Out West on-line Tent; most of them are posted there and can actually be E-mailed to very indiscriminate friends.)

Stan and Ollie’s first customer is Mae Busch, which ought to send up warning flags right there. It turns out she feels neglected by her husband and wants to involve Stan and Ollie in a scheme to make him jealous and rekindle their romance. (She wants to use Stan and Ollie in a ruse to make her husband jealous? Warning Flag No. 2.) Her lessons in passionate kissing (particularly with the usually asexual Stan) are another highlight of the movie.

Pierre, the irate husband (Charles Middleton, later to give The Boys a hard time at the Foreign Legion in The Flying Deuces) catches Ollie and the woman in what used to quaintly be called “a compromising position,” and the scheme works too well — he challenges Ollie to a duel at midnight and exchanges cards with him (Ollie’s is a greeting card, of course).

Ollie drowns his sorrows in beer until Stan, in another of his rare bright moments, points out that Pierre can’t possibly find Ollie if he runs away. After Ollie chastizes Stan for not pointing this out sooner and saving him some grief, he phones Pierre to tell him off. Stan adds for good measure, “Say, listen, if you had a face like mine, you’d punch me right in the nose, and I’m just the fella that can do it!” Stan and Ollie celebrate by getting snockered and passing out. Some helpful cops find Pierre’s card on Ollie, assume that the card bears Ollie’s home address, and are kind enough to deliver Stan and Ollie to Pierre’s home and tuck them into bed so that Pierre can discover them there.

Pierre’s wife tells Ollie to play dead when Pierre shoots him — the gun is full of blanks. Ollie does his dropping-dead fall with his usual flourish, and all appears to be well, until Pierre tells his wife that he now will chop the body into little pieces. Stan and Ollie hastily beat it out of the apartment. Ollie hides in a trash can; Stan later knocks on the can to give Ollie the all-clear, but Ollie has unfortunately been taken out with the trash by the local sanitation department (at midnight??).

Jackie Gleason once said there are three stages in a comedian’s career. The first stage is when the audience can’t predict what the comedian will do; second is when the audience can predict it but enjoys the predictability; and third is when the comedian is so predictable that the audience is turned off. The Fixer Uppers finds Laurel & Hardy firmly lodged in Stage 2 — no great surprises in the act, perhaps, but still great fun to watch.

Laurel & Hardy in CHICKENS COME HOME (1931) – Another round of battle-ax wives

CCH

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Most of the comedy in Chickens Come Home assumes that you buy into the premise of most women being either (a) deceitful blackmailers or (b) the ones who pass judgment on Type (a). The principal females in the movie are: a hussy (Mae Busch) who comes to collect money from Ollie to keep herself quiet about her lurid past with him; Ollie’s wife (Thelma Todd), who automatically assumes the worst about Ollie when her suspicions are aroused; a gossipy old biddy (Patsy O’Byrne) who is only too thrilled to report bad news; and Mrs. Laurel (Elizabeth Forrester), who, at movie’s end, makes a cameo appearance wielding a hatchet. This is not exactly a movie to show at NOW membership drives.

The movie begins with Ollie running for mayor after having established himself and Mr. Laurel as “dealers in high-grade fertilizer” (insert your own political commentary here). Enter the scarlet woman (Busch), carrying an incriminating photo of herself atop Ollie’s shoulders in a beach-bathing-suit pose. (Amazing, what passed for a scandal in the 1930’s.) Ollie tries to bluff his way out of the situation, but of course Mae is not one to take “no” for an answer. She tells Ollie to be at her apartment at 7:00 that evening with the cash.

Ollie is hosting a campaign dinner at his home that night and sends Stan in his stead. (Unbeknownst to Stan, Mrs. Laurel has threatened to break Stan’s arm if he isn’t home for dinner that night. Ah, these zany wives!) Ollie keeps trying to break away and help Stan, but Ollie’s nosy butler (James Finlayson) can’t think of anything better to do than thwart Ollie’s moves to get some hush money. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hardy (who, in hindsight, comes off like Hillary Clinton) intimates her own suspicions to Ollie by passing him a sheet-music song to sing to the guests: “You May Be Fast, But Your Mamma’s Gonna Slow You Down.”

Mae eventually breaks into Ollie’s party with Stan in tow, leaving no choice but for Ollie to introduce them as “Mr. and Mrs. Laurel.” (For some reason, Mae the blackmailer does nothing to thwart this lie. Ah, these zany women!) Ollie gets Mae alone and threatens to shoot her if she doesn’t leave, whereupon she faints. Stan and Ollie position Mae on Ollie’s back, throw a coat over her, and try to walk “Mrs. Laurel” out of the party. The ruse backfires, of course, and the last we see of the real Mrs. Laurel, she’s sharpening that hatchet before chasing after Stan. Ah, those…

Of course, most great comedy is politically incorrect, but Laurel & Hardy’s comedy gets rather painful (for me, at least) the closer it gets to death threats from the wives.

Laurel & Hardy in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL (1936) – An operetta that misses a few high notes

TheBohemianGirl

The general consensus among Laurel & Hardy fans (and, in their lifetimes, among L&H themselves) was that adding comic opera to L&H revitalized their comedy. If so, it had a steroid effect — initially strengthening their work (at least according to fans of Fra Diavolo), but eventually bloating their work and accentuating its weaknesses.

Take The Bohemian Girl‘s famous set-piece, where Stan is trying to bottle wine, can’t think of what to do with the wine hose once a bottle is full, and repeatedly sticks the hose in his mouth. I agree with generations of L&H fans who regard this as a masterpiece of Laurel pantomime. Funny thing is, Laurel the editor doesn’t trust Laurel the performer. Laurel as editor obviously worried that the scene was too “stagey,” so he kept intercutting the scene (and ruining its tempo) with the same stupid shots of the wine vat getting lower and lower. Yeah, we get the idea, already. Couldn’t he have left well enough alone?

As for the movie proper, even its most vocal fans find something annoying in it. Laurel and Hardy are gypsies; Mae Busch is Hardy’s wife, and as John Brennan pointedly observes at the website Laurel and Hardy Central, Busch is unusually mean (even for an L&H spouse) for no other reason than that it’s expected of her. She verbally berates Ollie, who meekly accepts it; she flaunts her affair with a fellow gypsy in Ollie’s face; when she and the gypsy steal a count’s daughter named Arline (Our Gang‘s Darla Hood), she brazenly passes the girl off as Ollie’s child (the conception of which Ollie is understandably confused about); and then she hoodwinks both Stan and Ollie before running off for good with the gypsy. Such unrelenting nastiness seems more appropriate for a David Mamet play than an L&H comedy.

Then there’s the girl. When played by Darla Hood, she’s charming and blessedly unaffected. But when she grows up to be a young woman (Jacqueline Wells, who was also Walter Long’s unwilling bride in Any Old Port), she’s too precious for words. She infinitely sings “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” and Laurel the editor again editorializes, cutting in cutesy close-ups of a beaming Ollie. Far more appropriate is Stan’s reaction — he quits trying to puzzle out the song and instead eats his and Ollie’s breakfast.

Then there’s the climax, where Stan, Ollie, and Arline are arrested. Stan and Ollie are tortured, and Arline is about to be beaten when her countess origins are discovered and she is spared. As L&H author Charles Barr points out, Arline “sits smugly in her ancestral home, incurious about [Stan and Ollie’s] fate.” In another of Laurel’s beloved “freak endings,” the torturing results in Stan being abnormally squashed and Ollie being elongated, which might be halfway funny if not for the lingering close-ups of Stan and Ollie tearfully staring at each other.

As with even middling L&H, there’s enough genuine comedy — the wine-bottling scene, Stan and Ollie as pickpockets — to make at least one viewing worthwhile. But it’s probably no coincidence that this was Laurel and Hardy’s last (and probably least) foray into comic opera.

Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy in OLIVER THE EIGHTH (1934) – A close shave for Ollie

olivertheeighth

Oliver the Eighth is a lot more plot-heavy (and a bit more macabre) than the usual L&H short. But as scare-comedies go, it’s a darned sight better than The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case.

The story is that Stan and Ollie (here, partners in a barbershop) come across a personals ad that Stan and Ollie both answer (though Ollie neglects to mail Stan’s letter). Unfortunately for (and unbeknownst to) Ollie, the woman in question (Mae Busch) has it in for men named Oliver, and she gets engaged to him merely for the pleasure of slitting his throat.

It’s not L&H’s greatest or most pleasant storyline, but it allows for some superb pantomime by all, especially when Stan and Ollie get to the woman’s mansion and have to deal with a butler (Jack Barty) who serves imaginary soup. Stan, being a bit on the abstract side himself, plays along for quite a while, but finally the logical side of him sinks in, and he declares, “You’re nuts.”

It’s also nice to see Stan be a bit more assertive than usual. When he realizes that Ollie has duped him, he follows Ollie to the woman’s mansion and declares that he deserves “half of what you’re going to get” (which he is surely doomed to receive). Of course, we find out that Stan wasn’t quite that assertive in selling the barbershop, but you can’t have everything.

Like most of L&H’s thrill-comedies (such as Habeas Corpus), Oliver the Eighth reeks of nostalgia for a time when it took far less blood and gore to put an audience on the edge of its seat. As such, it’s a worthwhile comedy.