Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Soilers (Hal Roach/Pathécomedy, 1923)

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

Charles and I watched one other movie in the last two days: The Soilers, a Stan Laurel comedy from 1923 that, as its title suggested, spoofed The Spoilers — the second version, directed by Lambert Hillyer with Milton Sills as hero Roy Glennister and Noah Beery as villain Alex MacNamara, also released in 1923 — it was included in the Stan Laurel Collection from Kino on Video and I thought it would be fun to run it just after we’d seen the 1942 version of The Spoilers, which it tracks quite closely plot-wise. Laurel plays Bob Cannister (sometimes spelled “Canister,” a spelling confusion associated with the original Spoilers as well: Michael Druxman’s chapter on The Spoilers in his book Make It Again, Sam spells the hero’s name as “Glenister” throughout even though every time his name is shown visually in the 1942 version it’s “Glennister”), discoverer of the Double Cross Mine, only not surprisingly he gets double-crossed by gold agent Smacknamara (James Finlayson, later a superb comic villain in innumerable Laurel and Hardy movies), who’s in league with a corrupt attorney and a crooked judge to seize all the valuable mines in the Yukon.

Canister’s girlfriend is Helen Chesty (Ena Gregory), and the character of Cherry — a minor role in the first three films of The Spoilers but inflated to a star part for Marlene Dietrich in the 1942 version — is played by Mae Laurel, Stan’s real-life wife at the time. The film features a sequence in which a gold miner is literally shaken down over a stream, and the contents of his pockets — gold coins and paper bills — fall into the stream; later, when Laurel’s character finds these in a gold pan, he’s convinced he’s struck it rich. Stan attempts to blow up the Double Cross Mine’s office once the villains have taken it over, only he also tries to hold them up at gunpoint and, naturally, they have the sense to get the hell out of there before the bomb goes off, and he doesn’t. (Part of his problem is his confusion over which of the innumerable timepieces on his person is the one the bomb is synched to; Stan wears a dizzying array of both wrist and pocket watches and has at least two alarm clocks in his pockets — the most formidable clock collection I can recall on screen until the Robert Taylor character’s in The Time Machine, shown off in a scene so spooky that to this day I cannot sleep in a room with a ticking clock: all my bedroom clocks have to be electric.)

The best gag happens towards the end, in which Laurel and his writers, Hal Conklin and H. M. “Beanie” Walker, and director Ralph Cedar (according to imdb.com his real last name was “Ceder” but it was “Anglicized” for this credit), decided to spoof the convention of the Western fight scene, in which two men start a brawl and just about everyone in their vicinity joins in, by playing it as the exact opposite: when Laurel and Finlayson start their climactic fisticuffs, everyone else ignores them! They start it in a room upstairs at the saloon — in which they’re periodically visited by a cowboy who looks properly dirty, disheveled and bearded but acts with all the gestures of a screaming queen, who periodically brings the fight to a halt by walking into the room, going to the mirror and literally primping: they patiently wait him out, then resume the fight when he leaves.

The fight then moves down the stairs to the floor of the saloon, packed with customers, who instead of joining in as in virtually every other saloon brawl ever filmed (including the one at the end of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in which the gag was the opposite of the one in The Soilers: the big fight spilled out of the Blazing Saddles set onto other films being shot at the same studio), the customers either ignore the fight altogether or treat it as nothing more than an annoyance that’s getting in their way. When Laurel finally wins, the Gay cowboy calls out to him, “My hero!,” and when Laurel rejects him the Gay cowboy, who’s been at a second-story window with a flowerpot on the ledge, drops the flowerpot on Laurel, rendering him unconscious and getting him picked up by the garbage truck that has previously been shown picking up dead bodies off the street following gun battles. (This scene was excerpted in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, still the best survey film ever made about the history of Queer depictions in film.)

The Soilers is quite an artful comedy and holds up magnificently well; though it would take his teaming with Hardy to move Laurel up to the level of the all-time greats (including Charlie Chaplin, whom Laurel had understudied with the Fred Karno company in both British music halls and American vaudeville and who remained a strong influence on Laurel his entire career), even “solo” Laurel was an inventive comedian with a real flair not only for slapstick but situation comedy as well.