Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bonnie Scotland (Hal Roach/MGM, 1935)

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

I wanted a comedy, and having just recorded virtually all the Laurel and Hardy marathon on TCM a week ago last Saturday (omitting only the films Pack Up Your Troubles and Sons of the Desert, which I already had on DVD) I reached out for a film I’d never seen before and found it in Bonnie Scotland. This was a feature made in 1935, directed by James W. Horne with the working titles Kilts, Laurel and Hardy in India and McLaurel and McHardy. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the movie was made after one of the many contract disputes between Stan Laurel and Hal Roach; the Hollywood Reporter stories said that Laurel was claiming he’d been fired and Roach that he’d quit because of “story objections” to the new film. Roach announced plans for a series called “The Hardy Family” (two years before MGM actually launched one!) with Hardy and Patsy Kelly as the parents and Spanky McFarland from the Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies as their kid — plans that were abandoned when Laurel settled with Roach in April, less than a month after he’d either been fired or had quit.

The screenplay for Bonnie Scotland was by Frank Butler and Jeff Moffitt and was apparently intended as a parody of Paramount’s film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. It begins (much like Laurel and Hardy’s last film, Atoll K, made 17 years later) with Laurel and Hardy stowing away on a cattle boat to reach Scotland, where they’ve been promised an inheritance by Stan’s ancestor, the recently deceased Angus Ian McLaurel. Not surprisingly, instead of the McLaurel estate, all they actually inherit is a set of bagpipes supposedly blown at Waterloo and a snuff box allegedly presented to the McLaurels by Mary, Queen of Scots herself. The estate actually goes to Stan’s cousin, Lorna McLaurel (June Lang), and following Angus’s wishes his attorney and executor, Mr. Miggs (David Torrence), has put the estate in trust with Col. Gregor McGregor (Vernon Steele) as trustee.

He’s also trying to arrange a marriage between McGregor and Lorna, but Lorna loves Miggs’ clerk, poor but nice Alan Douglas (William Janney). Unable to return to America because they escaped from prison to make the trip to Scotland, and unable to leave their hotel room because Stan has ruined Ollie’s last pair of pants, they end up fleeing their ferocious, rent-seeking landlady Mrs. Bickerdike (Mary Gordon, later Mrs. Hudson in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies at Universal) with Hardy still in his nightgown, and answering what they think is an ad for a tailor promising a 30-day free trial for a suit, they actually end up enlisting in the British army and being sent to serve in India (then still the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire). Alan Douglas also ends up enlisting in the Indian regiment after he learns Lorna has been sent there to be with Col. McGregor, and eventually true love wins out, of course — though William Janney is such a boring, whiny actor it’s hard not to believe she’d be better off with charming, handsome, dashing, David Niven-esque Vernon Steele as Col. McGregor.

Once pre-production on Bonnie Scotland (a title that’s kind of a cheat because only the first half of the film actually takes place in Scotland — and we don’t see the one real card-carrying Scot in the cast, James Finlayson, until the setting moves to India midway through; but as the sergeant who’s Laurel’s and Hardy’s direct supervisor, he’s great as usual) resumed, the Hollywood Reporter said that Laurel and director Horne were working with writers Charles Rogers and Albert Austin on the script — and while the AFI Catalog couldn’t nail down any contributions from Rogers and Austin, Laurel’s involvement in the writing is apparent from the physically impossible gags he loved and Hal Roach hated. In one sequence, Laurel accidentally pushes Hardy into a creek, and every time Hardy tries to get out he spits out more and more of the water until at the end of the sequence the creek is dry! Later, Laurel masters a trick of being able to blow air through his head and get his military hat to lift itself off his head — Hardy, of course, tries the trick and can’t do it — and at one point both Hardy and we are convinced Laurel is doing this just by leaning against the side of a building and pushing the hat up that way, but then he does it when he’s free-standing.

The plot is a bit of a bring-down — another Hollywood Reporter story claimed that after the film was first previewed, a good chunk of it was reshot to reduce the amount of time devoted to the plot and increase that devoted to the Laurel and Hardy comedy audiences were actually paying to see — but the film is quite handsomely produced, reflecting how much the profits from Laurel and Hardy’s films were enabling Roach to expand his operation from a penny-ante producer of comedy two-reelers into a semi-major studio; supposedly they borrowed the Scottish sets from RKO (which had built them for the 1934 film The Little Minister with Katharine Hepburn and John Beal), though it looked to me like they might have done some second-unit shooting in Scotland — and the scenes in India are quite splendid, well produced, with hundreds of extras playing both the British army and the indigenous forces that they fight (apparently the American Legion provided the “British” extras), a whole crew of bagpipers directed by John Sutherland, and a fair assortment of dancing girls for the sequence in which Laurel, Hardy, Finlayson and Janney are sent to the native court as a diversion; pretending to be McGregor and his top staff, their purpose is to decoy the Indians into thinking that their attack plan is still secret, when in fact the British have learned of it by torturing — excuse me, using “enhanced interrogation” on — an Indian detainee and have turned it around so it will be a trap for the native army instead.

Needless to say, what makes this film are the comedy sequences: an early one in which, forced to cook a fish secretly in their hotel room (which must have brought back memories of Laurel’s real-life antics when he and Charlie Chaplin roomed together as part of Fred Karno’s British comedy company before either of them made films: Laurel would cook them meals over the gas jets, forbidden by the terms of their leases in the various hotels in which they stayed, and Chaplin would practice on the violin or cello to conceal the noise made by the cooking, which sounds like a gag either of them could have used in their films!), they end up nearly wrecking the place; a later sequence in which, ordered to clean up some garbage at the Indian fort while a military band is playing, Laurel and Hardy turn it into a dance number (a gag they’d already pulled with a piano roll of patriotic songs in The Music Box); a marvelous sequence in which Laurel disrupts a march by deciding it’s more comfortable to skip instead of march, and everyone else in the line of march also starts skipping (a much more creative gag than the usual inept-private-messes-up-everyone-else one we expect in a service comedy); and a final scene in which Laurel and Hardy defeat the native army by throwing beehives at them, then can’t stop the bees (actually cartoons drawn by Roach special-effects artist Roy Seawright) from attacking their own forces as well.

Laurel and Hardy made better feature-length films than this (ironically, when Laurel had his contract dispute with Roach one of his complaints was that Roach was still having them do two- and three-reelers even though they were feature stars by then; by the 1960’s, he had changed his tune and told biographer John McCabe, “We should have stayed in two-reelers”) but this is still incredibly funny and unusually creative, especially for a Hal Roach comedy.