Thursday, March 27, 2014

Salt Water Daffy (Warner Bros./Vitaphone, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copryight © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched a short film on TCM called Salt Water Daffy, a 1933 Warner Bros./Vitaphone production (Warners was still using “Vitaphone” as a trade name for their shorts even though they’d stopped using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc recording process in 1931 and gone over to sound-on-film like everyone else) that’s an odd forerunner of the Abbott and Costello military movies from 1941 and 1942 — and even features one of the same actors, Shemp Howard (brother of Moe and Curly Howard of the Three Stooges and later a Stooge himself). Elmer Wagonbottom (Jack Haley, top-billed) and Wilbur (Shemp Howard) are two pickpockets who steal the watch of a Navy captain and get chased by police into what turns out to be a Navy recruiting office. Realizing what’s happened to them, they try to fake medical disabilities but they’re caught, and they end up in basic training with the great Lionel Stander as their drill sergeant — and later their immediate superior in the Navy itself. The base where they’re stationed is visited by Count Fille du Pax (Jules Epailly) from the Sylvanian navy (were they seeking U.S. help in their war against Freedonia?), and also by an impostor (Charles Judels), a spy who’s impersonating the count to take photos of the Navy’s fortifications. There are a lot of slapstick scenes — of which probably the best is, told to give a haircut and shave to anyone who comes into the office and then put them in the fumigation room, they do that to the fake Count and give him what looks like a punk haircut as well as significantly shortening his Russian-style beard (the fact that he was wearing a Russian beard, claiming to be Sylvanian and speaking French should have alerted someone to his imposture!) — some engaging reversals and Laurel-and-Hardyish by-play between the two leads, who end up first rewarded for catching the spy and then imprisoned for stealing the captain’s watch (which has a distinctive set of ship’s-bell chimes that sound on the hour). Given that the director was Ray McCarey — whose far more prestigious brother Leo had first teamed Laurel and Hardy back at Hal Roach Studios in 1926 — the L&H influences are not surprising, but they’re well done enough that the film is amusing and genuinely entertaining instead of oppressive the way some of the other L&H knockoffs from the period were.