Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Two More by Snub Pollard: “Mitt the Prince” and “The Doughboy”

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

My partner Charles and I ran a couple of hilarious silent comedies he’d downloaded from public-domain Web sites, both featuring Harry “Snub” Pollard. One — though missing its opening title in the credits — was called Mitt the Prince, and was from the same 1927 series as Double Trouble, which we’d watched earlier. It also co-starred Pollard and his jumbo-sized sidekick, Marvin Loback, as “Snub and Fat,” a comedy team doing some of the same gags as Laurel and Hardy (who were also just coming together and starting out at a team at Hal Roach Studios around the same time as Pollard and Loback were making these independent films). In this one they’re itinerant job seekers who get thrown out of their apartment building after they predictably fail to complete the tasks their landlord has assigned them — Snub was supposed to sweep the sidewalk in front of the building (and his own feet kept tracking dirt over it faster than he could sweep it up) and Fat was supposed to wash the windows. Being silent comedians, naturally they get into a fight with each other, and it ends with Fat throwing the bucket with his soapy water for washing windows at Snub — and hitting their landlord instead.

Now both homeless and unemployed, they hit the city streets and run across a man who offers them money to borrow his car and do a delivery of five white boxes to a party being given by “Mrs. Woodby Noble” (Thelma Daniels), a Margaret Dumont type who’s counting on the arrival of a prince to make her party a social success — only newspaper headlines reveal that the “prince” is an impostor so, when Snub and Fat show up, she gets Snub to impersonate the prince and Fat to play his adjutant (which they do via a box of theatrical costumes left over from an amateur play once performed at the house — and the costumes emit a horde of moths when the hapless humans put them on), which Charles joked made them look like the Prince of Freedonia accompanied by Hermann Göring. Eventually the other guests get wind of the headlines announcing that the prince is a fake — at this point you want to take them aside and say, “No, he’s not the real fake prince — he’s the fake fake prince!” — but not before a blonde gold-digger has attempted to vamp Snub and he’s ended up in a swimming pool, where his clothes fall off and he’s worried about the exposure. (Snub Pollard seems to have done a lot of risqué jokes about being in various states of undress — earlier in this film his ornate pants tear down the seam on the bottom, and he attempts to sew them while he still has them on — and ends up sewing himself to a seat cushion and, when he attempts to extricate himself from the cushion, only rips the pants worse than they were earlier.)

This isn’t exactly world-beating silent comedy but it’s still hilarious — and how these old clowns, even workmanlike ones like Pollard rather than geniuses like Chaplin or Keaton, could manage far more laughs in two reels than today’s comedians can in entire features remains a mystery, albeit a delightful one. The Doughboy was made a year earlier (1926) and the entry on it lists Mack Sennett as producer — though it also names it as a “Snub Pollard Comedies” production — and the film didn’t seem quite as uninhibitedly funny as Mitt the Prince, though it was still a lot of fun.

By then World War I had been a major subject for comedy for some time — it had already been done by Chaplin in Shoulder Arms and Langdon in Soldier Man and The Strong Man (and Keaton would tackle it as well in the 1930 talkie Doughboys, based largely on his own experiences in France — he made it too late for actual combat but spent a lot of time drilling and running amateur theatricals) — and Pollard’s entry is good, with the predictable incompetence gags (when his unit is drilling, he marches in one direction while everyone else goes the opposite way, and later when they’re doing the bit where they move the rifles around on cue he pleads with his sergeant, “Make up your mind!”) and a quite elaborate village set that must have been built for a major-studio feature on the war and some extensive stock footage of trench battles that probably also came from a feature film (it looked too good to be documentary footage of the actual war).

The highlight is a scene in which Pollard waves his own troops in to attack on the ground that he’s found a sector the Germans aren’t guarding — only as soon as he uses the field telephone to call in that information, the Germans pop up from where they’d been hiding — and another in which he disguises himself as a German officer, crashes a party and is discovered and declared to be a spy (which he wasn’t; all he was doing was looking for good food). He finds a woman hiding in a wine cellar — she’s literally secreted herself inside a barrel — and in a marvelously irreverent ending the two of them end up fleeing the war together in what at times seems like it could have been a spoof of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms except that this film was made three years before Hemingway published the book.