Saturday, July 5, 2014

Taxi Barons (Hal Roach/MGM, 1933)

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

I watched My Little Chickadee as part of a five-film tribute to Mae West on TCM July 3 (the other movies were I’m No Angel, She Done Him Wrong, Belle of the Nineties and The Heat’s On) that was interrupted in the middle by a surprisingly good Hal Roach two-reeler called Taxi Barons from 1933. Apparently Roach was convinced of the comic appeal of taxis and the people who operated them, for in the early 1940’s he centered one of his first series of “streamliners” (40-minute movies that were supposed to fall midway between a two-reel short and a feature, thereby allowing theatres with a long major film to plug something else into the program so they could advertise a double feature) around a pair of roughneck cab drivers (William Bendix and Joe Sawyer) who’ve risen to owning their own cab company but still get themselves into trouble. Even before that Roach had produced a series of shorts called “The Taxi Boys,” whose cast changed occasionally but generally featured the stars of Taxi Barons, Ben Blue and Billy Gilbert. Given that they’re in a Hal Roach short and one of them (Blue) is small and skinny while the other (Gilbert) is big and fat, Laurel and Hardy comparisons are almost inevitable — indeed, it seems as if Roach teamed Blue and Gilbert precisely so he’d have another “Laurel and Hardy” in the works in case the originals (Laurel especially) gave him too much trouble in their contract renewal negotiations. Ben Blue is a relatively attractive man and a quite good physical comedian; Billy Gilbert’s schticks (a comic “German” accent and a big sneeze he predictably lets loose with at the end of this film) date badly (though they work brilliantly in what is probably his best film, his supporting role as the professor in Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box) but are still funny.

Taxi Barons, directed by Roach stalwart Gus Meins and with no writer credits, is one of those jam-packed two-reelers that seems to carry more plot than some of today’s features. In the opening scene, Blue is a cabbie trying to figure out what to do to cool down the overheated radiator of his taxi; every time he tries to pour water into it, the water comes spraying back at him and the radiator cap hangs above it in mid-air. (The wire work’s obviousness only adds to the humor.) He ultimately plugs a fire hose into the radiator — and the radiator bulges out from all the water pressure, as does the hose, and when the hose finally bursts under the pressure (mainly from Gilbert sitting on it and trying to smooth out the bulges with the weight of his body) the cab garage is flooded. Our Heroes set off and have an altercation with a motorcycle cop (Eddie Baker), backing over his cycle and turning it into a modern-art parody of itself — though it still moves under its own power, like the similarly vandalized cars in the Laurel and Hardy films — and naturally he gives chase as best he can. Blue and Gilbert hide out on an ocean liner ready to sail, on which the most prominent passengers are a German baron (Howard Truesdale) and his general (Eric Mayne). The two run from the cop and the ship’s own officials — seeing the length of the accordion-like boarding pass shown by the legitimate passengers, they tried to get on with “tickets” that were really similarly long strings of postcards — and hide out in the baron’s room. If you’ve seen enough comedies of this stripe you can guess what happens next: Gilbert emerges in the baron’s clothes and Blue in the general’s, and they both end up at a fancy house party (set in the same big-mansion set that had represented Gilbert’s home in The Music Box a year before) where they’re taken as the baron and the general, they get to screw up a banquet with their atrocious table manners, and it’s only when the real baron and general enlist Eddie Baker’s aid that the imposters are discovered, they have to flee in a hurry, and in a great final gag quite possibly inspired by Buster Keaton’s silent short Cops they find that they’re in a police car, which is receiving a radio message from their central dispatcher to “take care of” the two — and the cops in the back of the car slowly strangle our heroes as the radio dispatcher congratulates them and the film ends.

Taxi Barons is a pretty typical Hal Roach production, funny and so relentlessly paced you get more gags in 20 minutes than some later comedies gave you in an hour and a half or more, and though Blue and Gilbert are hardly in Laurel and Hardy’s class either as comedians or as personalities, they’re certainly fun to watch. Out of the three most famous silent comedy producers — the others being Mack Sennett and Al Christie — Roach seemed to make the best transition to sound, adding dialogue and effects while still keeping the best part of silent comedy, the relentless building of laugh on top of laugh until you’re not only amused, you’re screaming on the floor with laughter in ways modern so-called “comedies” almost never produce. Billy Gilbert lasted long enough to reminisce about the old days in his introduction to Leonard Maltin’s 1970 book Movie Comedy Teams, in which he wrote, “I was briefly teamed with Ben Blue, Frank Fay and Shemp Howard, but never cared much for the experience even though I liked all three men.” Gilbert went on to say that the only experience as half of a comedy team he really enjoyed was in the early 1950’s when he did a TV show with Buster Keaton — he doesn’t seem to have realized that the sketch he did with Keaton was a close copy of The Butcher Boy, a Fatty Arbuckle vehicle in which Keaton made his film debut in 1917, and Gilbert was playing Arbuckle’s original role while Keaton was reprising his. Taxi Barons isn’t a great film, but it’s a reliably funny one and proof that sound didn’t destroy the art of slapstick overnight, as one of the bad old legends of movie history would have it.