Monday, September 01, 2014

The Laurel and Hardy Sound Shorts (1931)

One of the team's least inspired efforts. This is another film frequently cited as a contender for their weakest, specifically for its protracted sequence with Stan trying to remove a tight boot from Ollie's foot. Usually they could mine a simple situation like this for all its comic potential, but in this case, the results are only mildly amusing and wear thin quickly. The fact that it's a three-reeler doesn't help the pacing issue. Unlike an early talkie such as BERTH MARKS, say, where they were still adapting to sound film, this one feels like a step backward after they had already made great progress in the new medium.

This is one of Laurel and Hardy's more interesting films, and probably their best film from 1931. It's a remake of their silent LOVE 'EM AND WEEP (1927), with Hardy as a mayoral candidate who finds his campaign threatened by the re-appearance of an old flame. Laurel has to keep her at bay while Hardy entertains important political guests at his home. Mae Busch is especially effective here as the woman from Hardy's past, and James Finlayson has one of his funniest roles as Hardy's suspicious butler. Usually in their comedies, the boys start out with nothing and end up with nothing again at the end of the film, whereas this one begins with them as successful businessmen in positions of power and prestige, providing an added gravity to the pitfalls they encounter.

A re-working of their silent ANGORA LOVE, this is another poignantly funny comedy, like BELOW ZERO before it, that focuses as much on their characters as it does the gags and situations. The premise is simple: the boys try to hide their beloved dog in a seedy boarding house whose landlord has a strict "no dogs allowed" policy. Charlie Hall, playing the landlord, brings the perfect mix of humor and menace to the part. It does contain one of those grim endings - with the landlord blowing his brains out after learning that he and the boys will have to be quarantined inside the house together for two months - that represents the kind of dark comedy the team dabbled in occasionally. An alternate ending was discovered in which Laurel inherits a fortune on condition that he sever all ties with Hardy, which is another indication that they were just as interested in exploring the characters here as they were in creating solid laughs.

An oddly overlooked title in the Laurel and Hardy canon. It seems that their farce comedies tend to inspire less passionate reactions from fans and critics, probably because they do not contain the kind of really dexterous slapstick and distilled, almost poetic simplicity of shorts like HELPMATES or THE MUSIC BOX. But this is one of their very best in the farce tradition. Unlike ANOTHER FINE MESS or CHICKENS COME HOME, the situation here is simple: Ollie can't marry his sweetheart because her father (James Finlayson) objects, so they decide to elope (with Stan's help, of course). There's a great sight gag when Laurel hires a tiny car for Hardy and his fiancee to make their escape in, and the three of them are forced to pile inside, with Laurel pressed up against the windshield. But the highlight is the cameo appearance by Ben Turpin as the justice of the peace who performs the marriage ceremony with predictably mixed-up results.

Of all the Laurel and Hardy comedies, this was one of the very last ones that I saw. For some reason, I never came across it on TV, nor on any of the video releases, and only saw it for the first time a decade ago, in a 16mm print at a Sons of the Desert tent screening. Perhaps because of this, it doesn't stick in my mind as clearly as their films I've seen many times over the years. The pacing lacks the requisite energy, and the situations feel underdeveloped and even tired. It also features one of those strange, surreal endings the team employed occasionally, with Laurel disappearing down the bathtub drain after Hardy pulls the plug. Contains the classic "ice cream shop" routine, where the boys proceed to ask Charlie Hall for every flavor that he's out of.

One of the Laurel and Hardy's more interesting efforts, if not one of their funniest. The exposition required by the plot contrivances slow things down a little, but the comedy is good-natured and gentle, at least until the unexpectedly violent climax! Here the boys are even more down-on-their-luck than usual, victims of the Depression, which gives the comedy an air of pathos.

In order to forget the lover who has jilted him, Hardy enlists in the Foreign Legion, and insists that Stan join up with him. Much of the humor is pretty standard service comedy stuff, combined with very mild satire of legionnaire pictures such as BEAU GESTE. The best scenes are the boys' interactions with stern commandant Charles Middleton. There doesn't seem to be enough material to really justify the four-reel length, and the ending is disappointingly weak stuff, though the running joke of all the men joining the legion to forget the same woman results in a funny wrap-up gag. Overall, it's one of their weakest efforts. The basic premise was later re-worked as THE FLYING DEUCES (1939).

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