Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Our Relations (Hal Roach Studios, 1936)

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

My partner Charles and I finally settled in at about 10:50 and, after looking for a suitably short film, found it in Our Relations, a 1936 Laurel and Hardy comedy feature that was one of the two he made for Hal Roach that were billed as “Stan Laurel Productions.” (As is well known, Oliver Hardy took no creative role in their films — he was just a performer — but Laurel worked with the writing staff before the movies were filmed and also helped edit them afterwards, for which services he was paid twice as much as Hardy was.)

Loosely based on a story by W. W. Jacobs called “The Money Box,” which Felix Adler and Richard Connell turned into an “original” screen story, Jack Jevne and Charles Rogers adapted into a script and Laurel, Mauri Grashin, Clarence Henneke and Harrington Reynolds made uncredited contributions to (then as now, comedies were especially susceptible to the writing-by-committee process on the ground that jokes get funnier if a number of different people in a room are bouncing ideas off each other and offering “toppers” for each other’s gags), this one cast Laurel and Hardy in dual roles: as Stan and Ollie and their no-good twin brothers from Britain, Bert Hardy and Alf Laurel, who ran away to sea after cutting up and establishing themselves as no-goodniks in the small British town where all four were born (so this is one movie in which Stan Laurel is playing his true nationality and Oliver Hardy isn’t!).

Supposedly they were executed following a mutiny, but in fact they’re alive, well and ready to cruise for drink and girls in the small town where Stan and Ollie live with their wives Daphne Hardy (Daphne Pollard) and Betty “Bubbles” Laurel (Betty Healy). (In a nice casting touch, the actress playing Hardy’s wife is a diminutive woman and the one playing Laurel’s wife is a big battle-axe type who towers over him.) The film was directed by Harry Lachman, an obscure figure who was a friend of cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who’d come to the U.S. after shooting The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr for Carl Theodor Dreyer — and who for some reason got work here only because Lachman put him on his movies as a favor, and Maté acquitted himself magnificently in the photography of the Spencer Tracy vehicle Dante’s Inferno at Fox in 1935. Maté also shot Our Relations — a far more prestigious cinematographer than usually associated with Laurel and Hardy (though George Stevens had got his start photographing the early Laurel and Hardy shorts that Leo McCarey directed) — and he got a couple of unusual camera angles into it, including an interesting shot from above as Laurel, Hardy and Arthur Housman (an inebriated husband desperate to call his wife and tell her he’s bringing home some milk) crowd into a phone booth simultaneously in what appears to be Laurel and Hardy’s answer to the stateroom sequence in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.

All the principals end up at Denker’s Beer Garden, where the manager of the establishment (Alan Hale) is trying to collect a bill Bert and Alf have run up lavishing food and drink on two gold-diggers they’ve picked up there, Alice (Iris Adrian) and Lily (Lona André). Bert and Alf can’t pay it because they’ve given their money for “safe-keeping” to Fin (James Finlayson), a fellow crewman on the S. S. Periwinkle who rips them off by saying that he’ll “invest” their money and make them both millionaires, and when they seek him out and try to get the money back he gets them to undress and traps them both in the room he’s rented at a boarding house — which they flee by dressing in blankets and towels and passing themselves off as Singaporean grandees.

Our Relations isn’t one of the most highly regarded Laurel and Hardy vehicles, and indeed it misses almost as many opportunities as it makes — the two Laurels and Hardys don’t even meet until the final scene, a neat slapstick sequence in which the two have been kidnapped by gangsters (Ralf Harolde and Noel Madison), taken to a dock and had their feet encased in concrete that for some reason developed a convex curve at the bottom so they look and act like those life-size inflatable pop-up dolls that pop back when you punch them. There’s a lot of business involving a pearl ring of appalling tastelessness which the captain of the Periwinkle (Sidney Toler, out of his “Asian” Charlie Chan makeup and almost unrecognizable) asked Bert and Alf to pick up from a delivery person at the ship and then take to Denker’s to give to him there — which, of course, they give to the manager as security for their bill — and of course when Stan and Ollie stumble into Denker’s with their wives, the two floozies accost them and the manager presents them with Bert’s and Alf’s bill and demand that they pay it, giving them the ring that Bert and Alf left for security and which really belongs to the captain.

It’s the sort of movie that has way too much plot to be funny, but the drunk scene with Housman is hilarious and the finale is at least amusing — though too little is made of the obvious mistaken-identity gimmick. (There is one nice shot of a cop doing a double-take when Stan and Ollie walk past him just seconds after the indistinguishable Bert and Alf have done so.) Still, second-rate Laurel and Hardy is still a lot funnier than first-rate just about anybody else (especially in 1936, when after the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields one didn’t have much in the way of great screen comedy — the Three Stooges? The Ritz Brothers? Give me a break! Undoubtedly, though, the funniest film released in the U.S. in 1936 was Chaplin’s masterpiece, Modern Times). It did occur to me that Stan Laurel’s naming his cinematic alter ego Alf might have been a tribute to Alf Goulding, the manager of Fred Karno’s comedy troupe when both Chaplin and Laurel worked for them (and him), and incidentally the brother of director Edmund Goulding.