Sunday, May 8, 2011

Two Laurel and Hardy Shorts from Hal Roach/MGM: “Night Owls” (1930), “The Hoose-Gow” (1929)

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

For our movie program last night I ran into one of the discs of Laurel and Hardy shorts I’d recorded and showed two of them from the early sound years: Night Owls (1930) and The Hoose-Gow (1929). Night Owls turned out to be a screamingly funny short that had Charles and I laughing from the opening credits — well, let’s face it: any movie whose billing promises Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy is so guaranteed to be amusing a hardened movie-watcher is liable to start laughing even while the credits are still on! It has one of the most audacious premises ever cooked up for a film: a big-city police chief (Anders Randolph) is in hot water politically because in the last week alone his city has had 42 reported burglaries, and not one person has been arrested for these crimes. The word filters down to the squadroom where Officer Kennedy (Edgar Kennedy — like Laurel and Hardy themselves, he’s using his real name as the name of his character) is being personally blamed for the chief’s troubles, and one of his fellow officers tells him, “The only way you could ever make an arrest is to frame someone yourself.”

Needless to say, Kennedy thinks that’s a wonderful idea. In the next scene Laurel and Hardy are nodding off on a park bench and Kennedy rousts them, then makes them a proposition: either he can arrest them on the spot, in which case they’ll get “90 days on the rockpile” for vagrancy, or he can take them over to the police chief’s house so they can burglarize it, he can catch them in the act and arrest them, and when Hardy sensibly asks, “But what’s going to happen to us?,” Kennedy assures them, “I’ll fix everything.” Laurel doesn’t want to go through with the plan at first — one of the things that made Laurel and Hardy great was that they were played as idiots, but not total idiots; every so often they had flashes of good sense, but they didn’t last — but eventually Hardy, who once described his character as “the dumbest guy there is — the dumb guy who thinks he’s smart,” talks Laurel into it and they set off for the chief’s house with a bag full of burglary tools and the knowledge that, whatever they do, they must do it in absolute silence. Of course they make as much noise as humanly possible — from slamming windows and doors to spilling the bag of tools and, in the film’s most inspired scene, accidentally turning on a player piano in the chief’s living room and then stuffing it full of everything they can find, including a bearskin rug, in a vain attempt to muffle the sound.

They also continually lock each other out of the house they’re supposed to be burglarizing — one will sneak through an unlocked window and open the door for the other, then both will end up on the wrong side of the door — and they have to evade detection not only by chief Randolph but also by Finlayson, who’s playing the chief’s butler (though for some odd reason he starts the movie sleeping in the same bed as his boss, a gag that “reads” as far kinkier now than it did in a more innocent time like 1930!). At one point a cat runs across the brick fence on the outside of the house’s grounds — and from that Hardy gets the idea that they should pretend to be cats, which means he and Laurel make meowing noises for the next several minutes in a vain attempt to fool the inhabitants of the house. What’s amazing about Night Owls is not only how funny it is — it’s basically a one-joke movie but Laurel and Hardy are so creative they manage to play a nearly infinite series of variations on that one joke — but also what a creative piece of filmmaking it is and how their use of sound in particular is miles above the Hollywood norm for 1930. The year before they’d developed a sound-editing trick that’s become standard — instead of showing a comedian execute a pratfall, they suggested it by cutting away just before the fall, then inserting a loud crash on the soundtrack, then cutting back to the comedians prone and helpless after the fall — and while Night Owls includes a beautiful visual pratfall as well (Finlayson takes a marvelous header down a flight of stairs between the two stories of the house) Laurel and Hardy have a sonically suggested one as well.

One amazing thing about Laurel and Hardy is that they were minor comedians before sound came in and blossomed into major stars, while the great silent comedy stars either ignored sound altogether (Chaplin) or proved oddly unable to adapt to it (Keaton, Langdon, Lloyd — though in Keaton’s and Langdon’s cases there were personal and business issues that got in the way and I’m convinced by gag scenes like the “Asleep in the Deep” sequence from The Navigator that Keaton would have had no problem adjusting to sound had he not had a collapsing marriage, business clashes at MGM and a burgeoning love affair with the bottle going at the same time), mainly because they (especially Laurel — throughout their tenure at Hal Roach Studios he got paid twice as much as Hardy because he was creatively involved in both writing and editing the films, while Hardy did nothing but act in them) figured out creative ways to use sound to make themselves and their movies even funnier. Though Leo McCarey isn’t credited on Night Owls (the director is James Parrott — brother of Charley Chase, a Roach comedy star in his own right — and the cinematographer is a McCarey protégé, future director George Stevens), it’s almost certain he was involved in it because the burglary sequences are surprisingly similar to those in the McCarey-directed Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, made three years later — though, as Joe Adamson pointed out in his book on the Marx Brothers, the gags “read” quite differently in Duck Soup than they do in Night Owls because “for [Laurel and Hardy] it’s because they’re brainless. The Marxes do it because they’re perverse.”

The Hoose-Gow — which I suspect TCM showed right after Night Owls because it almost seems like a sequel even though it was made a year earlier (Laurel and Hardy are shipped off to a prison camp in the opening scene and protest that they were merely innocent bystanders at a raid; when the guard snarls at them, “Why didn’t you tell that to the judge?,” Laurel whines right back, “We did — only he wouldn’t believe us!”) — isn’t quite as creative either in its gagging or its use of sound, but it’s still an incredibly funny film. Two years later Hal Roach would ask MGM for the loan of the elaborate prison set they’d built for the 1930 film The Big House so he could do a Laurel and Hardy parody — only MGM unexpectedly refused so Roach built his own prison set and spent so much money on it he decided to expand the film, Pardon Us, from a two-reel short to a six-reel feature — but the “prison” in The Hoose-Gow is a low-budget affair, just one wall and a watchtower, or rather a watching post built on top of a tree, and virtually all the movie takes place outdoors with Laurel, Hardy and their fellow prisoners on work detail.

There are some great gags in this one — a prisoner who knows them gives them two apples with instructions that at the right time they’re to throw the fruit over the wall, which will give their confederates on the outside the signal to throw a ladder over so they can escape, only the officious guard from the opening scene catches them and Laurel swallows the apple whole in a desperate attempt to avoid getting caught with it; a Black cook tells Laurel and Hardy that in order to earn a meal, they have to chop down some trees for firewood, and naturally the one they chop down is the one with the watching post on top (where a guard, played by frequent L&H character player Charlie Hall, is snoring away); and a final climactic scene in which the governor (James Finlayson) and two women, a dowager (Elinor Vandivere, who was essentially to Laurel and Hardy what Margaret Dumont was to the Marx Brothers) and a younger one who’s probably supposed to be her daughter, visit the prison work camp, driving up in a fancy car. When Hardy puts a pickaxe through its radiator, one of the other prisoners tells him that they can plug up the leak by pouring rice into the radiator, where the hot water will cook it and seal it — something motorists were actually told to do at the time; the Model T Ford came with a tool kit that included a bag of oatmeal which you were instructed to put into the radiator as a sealant in case of a leak — only of course they overdo it, pour way too much rice in the radiator, it shoots off the radiator cap and gushes out over everything and leads to a slapstick scene with people throwing rice at each other, almost as if behind the scenes Laurel had been thinking, “Well, pies have been done to death. What other sort of food can we do a funny fight scene with?”