Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blotto (Hal Roach/MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Blotto, a 26-minute Laurel and Hardy short from 1930 and one of my all-time favorites of theirs. The basic situation is one they used over and over and over again — dimwitted Laurel and Hardy trying to sneak away from their wives for a night on the town — though in this case only Laurel is married, and Anita Garvin, who plays Mrs. Laurel, throws herself into the part and plays it considerably nastier than usual, coming off as a combination of a Nazi concentration camp guard and the Wicked Witch of the West (indeed, based on her performance here Garvin could have made a quite good Wicked Witch), while Laurel himself is even more of a dimwit than usual, going through the entire first reel (in which he’s so henpecked he dares not even go out of the house for a breath of fresh air without his wife’s explicit permission) with a zombie-like air.

Hardy has scored them a reserved table at the Rainbow Club (which, when we finally see it, is a deco delight and a surprisingly elaborate set for a Hal Roach two-reeler) but, in those days of Prohibition, though they charged you an arm and a leg for the soda and the glasses you needed to bring in your own booze. After he hangs up on Hardy several times under the eagle eye of his wife, Laurel hatches a plan to fake a telegram calling him away on “important business” so he can go out. He does this with Hardy on the other end of the phone (and Hardy gets some brilliant laughs over his temper tantrum at the phone when Laurel keeps hanging up on him and the people around the phone booth laughing at him) and Garvin presumably in the kitchen, though she’s really sneaked into their bedroom so she can (you guessed it) listen in on their extension. Laurel says that Garvin has been hiding a liquor bottle for years, ever since Prohibition was passed (which would have been a decade before this film!), and he knows where it is and can swipe it — and she pours out the booze and substitutes tea, spicing it with hot pepper and other amusingly inappropriate ingredients to make it taste like bootleg hooch.

Laurel and Hardy go to the club and get roaringly drunk on the faux-liquor, while Garvin goes to an all-night shop and buys a gun, then takes it into the club and, in the movie’s most brilliantly funny gag, comes on her “drunk” husband and his buddy and informs them that what they have been drinking was just cold tea — whereupon they instantly sober up. (Given that Norman Cousins’ fabled recovery from cancer by watching their films made Laurel and Hardy avatars of the mind-body connection, it’s ironic indeed that at least one of their films used the mind-body connection as the basis for a gag.) Garvin chases them out of the club with her gun and, in a surprisingly grim finish for a comedy, she catches up to their taxi and, with a well-aimed shot, literally blows the cab to bits, forcing them to flee her murderous rage on foot.

Blotto is one of the Laurel and Hardy films I remember seeing as a child when most of their work was readily available on TV in syndication (albeit sometimes grievously cut — and with the rather odd chopping-up of their feature films into bits under new “short” titles to fit in the half-hour TV time slots, with the result that I ended up seeing some of Laurel and Hardy’s major films, including The Devil’s Brother and Saps at Sea, piecemeal in this fashion before I ever had a chance to see them start-to-finish), and I remembered the instant sober-up gag but not quite how malevolent Anita Garvin’s character was drawn; whereas other women who played Laurel’s and/or Hardy’s wives were more motherly and the joke was that Laurel and Hardy seemed more like their kids than their husbands, Garvin here is downright mean, and not just comic-“mean” but avenging-angel mean: a tour de force performance for a woman who (as A Pair of Tights and some of her other non-L&H films for Roach showed) could be very funny in her own right. — 7/11/07


This morning TCM was in the middle of a Laurel and Hardy marathon as a tribute to the Hal Roach studios and I watched one of the films as it was being shown: Blotto, one of my all-time favorites of theirs, made in 1930 and directed by James Parrott (Charley Chase’s brother) from an original story by Leo McCarey, who more than anyone other than Laurel and Hardy themselves (especially Laurel) developed the “Laurel and Hardy” characters and approach to comedy. It’s basically a triangle story with Stan, as he often did, playing a character caught between his quasi-adolescent friendship with Ollie and a dragon-lady wife (Anita Garvin, who judging from her shrewish performance here would have done quite well as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz). Ollie wants Stan to accompany him as his date to the opening of a new club, the Rainbow Room — this being the 10th year of Prohibition, the club supplied seltzer bottles and other mixers but customers were expected to bring their own booze — but a suspicious Anita eavesdrops on their phone call: after several calls in which Stan hangs up on Ollie or says, in his inimitable voice, “Wrong number,” Anita says she’s going into the kitchen (which doesn’t have an extension phone) but really goes to their upstairs bedroom (which does) and hears Stan plot to steal a bottle of liquor she’s had since before Prohibition (which would make the stuff at least a decade old) and take it to the club to meet Ollie.

Stan fakes a telegram calling him away on “important business” — the scene in which he talks to a nonexistent telegram delivery person is one of the comic high points of the film — and sneaks out to the club (Anita tries to get a goodbye kiss out of him and fails) with the bottle stuffed down his pants, not realizing that Anita has poured out the liquor and refilled the bottle with tea, doused with cayenne pepper to give it the illusion of an alcoholic “kick.” The greatest part of the film takes place at the Rainbow Room, where the boys watch an exotic dancer and an insufferably adenoidal singer (Frank Holliday) whose rendition of “The Curse of an Aching Heart” moves them both to tears as they get progressively more schnozzled on the fake booze — only Anita has followed them to the club, stopping on the way to buy a rifle and bullets (a particularly macabre plot twist these days!), and when she confronts them and tells them the great booze they’ve been drinking was just “cold tea,” they sober up instantly. (Earlier they’d offered a drink to the singer, who — not being part of Laurel and Hardy’s netherworld consciousness — spat it out and said, “That was terrible!”) Anita gets out her gun, Laurel and Hardy flee, they grab a taxi (driven by James Finlayson, who’s instantly recognizable visually even though he’s only on the screen for a few seconds and he doesn’t speak) and tell the driver, “Take us anywhere,” only a well-aimed shot from Garvin’s rifle causes the cab to collapse in pieces and Our Heroes have to flee on foot.

It’s a movie I particularly loved as a child, when the Laurel and Hardy movies were regular Saturday morning features (much to the irritation of Laurel, who when he watched them found them intolerably slow because the long pauses between gags, which he’d inserted to give time for the movie-theatre audience to laugh, weren’t necessary on TV; “I’d offer to edit them for nothing, but I know they don’t care,” he sourly complained to his biographer, John McCabe), mainly for the audacious mind-over-matter gag of Laurel and Hardy getting genuinely drunk on pepper-spiced tea, and watching it now I’m also impressed by the amount of money Hal Roach spent on the production: the nightclub set, though small enough to be credible as an actual nightclub, was quite fancily built, with lovely Art Deco walls — by 1930 Roach realized that Laurel and Hardy were his most popular attraction and more or less treated them accordingly — and a bit discouraged by the fact that we can’t hear and see these movies the way they were originally, since many of the early Laurel and Hardy talkies came out with little or no musical underscoring but in 1937 Roach reissued them with wall-to-wall music (most of it by Marvin Hatley, composer of the “Dance of the Cuckoos” Laurel and Hardy theme) that sometimes helps the comedy but more often is just annoying. Still, there are few things funnier than Laurel and Hardy at their prime (O.K., Chaplin, Keaton, the Marxes and Fields) and it’s a delight that their movies are still in circulation and hold up beautifully. — 1/12/11