Thursday, May 15, 2008

A forgotten silent comedy gem: "Double Trouble," with Snub Pollard

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This is a 1927 Snub Pollard comedy called Double Trouble (a quite frequently used movie title, as you might imagine; there was even another Double Trouble that same year) in a 1930’s release with a horribly recorded soundtrack of effects (surprisingly closely synched to the action) and corny (but appropriate) music. The plot is simplicity itself; Pollard (as himself) and Marvin Loback (as “Fat”) are aspiring vaudevillians who share a room in a fancy-looking but cheaply-built apartment building (who says times have changed?) and get themselves tangled in each other while trying to get out of bed in the morning. When they finally get dressed (Pollard had the bright idea of pressing his pants by rolling them up in the window shade, only when he gets them out again they’re permanently curled and he has to go through the devil’s own tricks to get them to uncurl so he can put them on) they try out at the local vaudeville theatre and both get the “hook.”

Desperate for money, in the second reel (which for some reason survived in far worse visual shape than the first; there were times in which the action turned into white-on-white with just some vague outlines of humans and cars indicating where the action had been before the film disintegrated so badly — also whoever uploaded this film had transferred it from a poor-quality VHS tape and there were tell-tale mistracking lines at the bottom early on) they hire on as repossessors and are assigned to take back a piano from their landlord, who lives in the same building in which he rents to them. Though Pollard and Loback are supposed to be moving a piano out instead of in, the similarities to Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box — made five years later — are quite apparent; indeed, much of the byplay between the two men, short, slightly built Pollard and huge Loback, definitely anticipates the Laurel and Hardy teaming (which was just getting under way when Pollard, a veteran of the Hal Roach studio who was producing for his own company by the time he made this film, did this one).

What’s amazing from this movie is that, even though Snub Pollard hardly has a reputation of one of the greats of silent comedy, this movie is screamingly funny from start to finish, built up on simple gags executed to perfection. The physical command of the performers is a joy to watch, and laugh builds on laugh in a way we simply don’t get anymore in today’s so-called “comedy” films. As I’ve written in these pages before, when it comes to movie drama there’s room for debate as to whether old or new films are better — the gradual loosening of the Production Code restrictions allows love, romance and sex to be treated more frankly on screen, though at times sacrificing the delicious imagination with which the genuinely sophisticated directors of old could get across sexual content without being able to show it explicitly — but when it comes to comedy there’s no contest: stuck with dialogue and a public whose taste runs towards the vulgar (will someone please explain to me why farting and other similarly involuntary bodily functions are supposed to be so funny?), today’s modern comedians make feature-length movies that drone on and on and on and don’t pack anywhere near the laugh-inducing punch of a simple two-reeler made by people without pretensions to be making “art” or doing anything but making people laugh.

In that, they succeeded then and still do, partly I think because though fashions, furniture, buildings and social mores may have changed, essential human nature hasn’t; when Loback pushes Pollard through the doorway of their apartment and the momentum carries him into a crash with a woman who lives elsewhere in the building, we “read” that gag the same way as a 1927 audience did and find it funny for the same reason. Based on this and the only other Pollard film I’ve seen — his hilarious 1923 Hal Roach one-reeler It’s a Gift, as excerpted in the Robert Youngson compilation When Comedy Was King — a full DVD set of his films would probably be quite worthwhile and a joyous investment (Kino, are you listening?).