Thursday, September 30, 2010

Opened by Mistake (Hal Roach/MGM, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I went to the recent TCM “Summer Under the Stars” showcase for actress and comedienne Thelma Todd and dug out a 1934 Hal Roach comedy short called Opened by Mistake because I knew that after A Film Unfinished we both needed something that would make us laugh. This was one of the series of shorts Todd did with Patsy Kelly (who had replaced ZaSu Pitts) in Hal Roach’s ongoing attempt to find a female comedy duo as distaff counterparts to Laurel and Hardy. Neither duo hit the heights Stan and Ollie did, either artistically or commercially — in his book Movie Comedy Teams Leonard Maltin wrote that the Todd-Kelly films “as a whole were better than the Pitts-Todd shorts, but once again it was a case of the stars making material seem better than it was” — but Opened by Mistake, directed by James Parrott (brother of Charley Chase, a Roach comedy star in his own right), is a marvelously funny film.

It begins with Todd and Kelly (both of whom play characters with their real names, as Laurel and Hardy did) both tenuously holding on to jobs, Todd as a nurse and Kelly as a switchboard operator for a Wall Street brokerage. When Kelly ties up the phone (she’s calling Todd — in the middle of an operation! — to ask her about a clue in a crossword puzzle) and prevents her boss (William Burress) from completing a crucial call to another broker needed to keep the company in business, she gets fired and sneaks over to the hospital where Todd both works and lives (which, at least if 1930’s movies are to be believed, was actually a quite common arrangement for nurses at the time). Kelly shows up outside the window of Todd’s room in the pouring rain, and though reluctant at first (another nurse has just been fired for letting a visitor into her room), Todd sneaks her into an empty room — not knowing that that room was being held for a patient scheduled for an emergency appendectomy.

Todd tries to persuade Kelly to go through the operation because, even though she doesn’t need it, at least it will give her a place to stay for a few days (they didn’t do these sorts of things outpatient and ship you out of the hospital the same day like they do now!) — but Kelly is understandably reluctant, and the film devolves into quite good slapstick in which Kelly tries to keep from having the operation by grabbing the anaesthesia hose and placing it over the nose and mouth of the head nurse (Nora Cecil) who’s supposed to be prepping her — and in the process the room fills up with gas and anaesthetizes everyone in it, an effect Parrott achieves by shooting the sequence in slow motion and giving the proceedings an almost balletic quality. This isn’t a great film but it is an engagingly funny one, and suggests that had Todd not died in 1935 Roach may have been able to get her and Kelly the material they needed to launch them as feature-film stars and build them into the attraction their talents deserved.