Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Disorder in the Court (Columbia, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1936 Three Stooges short Disorder in the Court, made early in their long (1934 to 1957) career at Columbia making two-reelers and, according to Leonard Maltin’s filmography in his book Movie Comedy Teams, 16th of the 191 shorts they made at Columbia. It was directed by Preston Black, whom Maltin called “competent but uninspired,” but you couldn’t tell that from his work here. (According to imdb.com, “Preston Black” was a pseudonym for Jack White, brother of Jules White, who produced the Stooges’ shorts throughout their Columbia career.) Scripted by Felix Adler — no doubt with a lot of help from gag men and the Stooges themselves — the film is surprisingly funny (and I write that as someone who generally stopped liking the Stooges when my age got past single digits and I started watching films by more prestigious movie comedians) and with most of the gags coming less from the violent slapstick the Stooges were famous for and more from funny dialogue and lunatic situations. The plot, simple as usual in a two-reeler, centers around stripper Gail Tempest (Suzanne Kaaren, later Bela Lugosi’s foil in The Devil Bat and someone whose career spanned from 1934 to 1984, when she was in The Cotton Club, her last film), who’s a bit heftier than anyone who’d have that gig now but is still appealing. She’s on trial for murdering her boyfriend “Kirk Robbin” — an obvious allusion to the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” and the mega-hit Disney cartoon based on it released the year before — and the only witnesses in her defense are the Stooges, who were the musicians at the club where she worked.

The film is full of quite inventive gags, including some courtroom dialogue producer Jules White supposedly recycled from the 1931 film Sidewalks of New York, in which he directed Buster Keaton (it’s a film Keaton hated making — so much that he was disappointed when it was a box-office success because he knew that would mean MGM would want him to make more like it — but it actually holds up pretty well, and since Charles and I watched it and the 1980 film Arthur on consecutive nights I noticed connections between the two: both are about spoiled rich twits with paternalistic butlers who are ultimately redeemed by the love of a good woman, though I found it interesting that in Sidewalks, made on the cusp of the Franklin Roosevelt presidency, part of Keaton’s redemption came from using his money for social causes, while in Arthur, made on the cusp of the Ronald Reagan presidency, that wasn’t an issue in the plot at all) and a great scene anticipating Lou Costello’s drill foul-ups in Buck Privates. Curly Howard approaches the witness stand wearing a hat and holding a cane in his left hand, and when he’s told to take his hat off he does so with his right hand — and when he’s told to place his right hand on the Bible to be sworn in, he naturally puts his hat back on so his right hand will be free again. Then he’s told to raise his left hand, which means he takes his right hand off the Bible so he can put the cane in it!

There are also some quite witty exchanges — like when Curly is asked, “Do you swear?” and he fires back, “No, but I know all the words!” — and one in which a letterpress in court as an exhibit is used to crush Curly’s head, only its round handle flies off and lands on Moe’s head. I found myself laughing quite a lot harder than I usually do at the Stooges these days — even though, despite a few token eye-pokes and some “Nyuk! Nyuk! Nyuk!” noises from Curly, it’s not really in their usual style and doesn’t have the elaborate slapstick routines that reached almost balletic precision (the closest thing is one in which the Stooges — who are supposed to be playing a band, remember — take out their instruments and they and Gail Tempest reproduce their nightclub act in the courtroom, with predictably ghastly results even though the glimpse of Suzanne Kaaren’s figure is welcome: as I noted before, she’s a bit on the zaftig side but elegantly proportioned and I’m sure she was eye candy for adolescent straight guys in the 1936 audience); certainly a courtroom, with its highly elaborate and specific procedures, is a great place to do movie comedy: to take just one example, when the bailiff spits out the words of the oath at warp speed — “Doyousweartotellthetruththewholetruthandnothingbutthetruth?” — Curly complains that he’s speaking pig-Latin and so Curly can’t understand him!