Monday, May 18, 2015

Four Laurel and Hardy Silent Shorts (Hal Roach/Pathé and MGM, 1927-1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Turner Classic Movies’ “Silent Sunday Showcase” last night was a program of four Laurel and Hardy silent shorts, with host Ben Mankiewicz pointing out that unlike a lot of other silent-era stars, Laurel and Hardy not only survived into the sound era but became more popular — I suspect not only because their voices were incredibly right for their characters but also because dialogue gave them more opportunities to project the extraordinary warmth and love that set them apart from other slapstick comedians on film. As a team, Laurel and Hardy evolved from the so-called “Comedy All-Stars” at Hal Roach Studios in the 1920’s; Roach, having lost his original star comedian — Harold Lloyd — to Lloyd’s own self-contained production company (the parting was amicable but Lloyd had simply outgrown the Roach lot), was looking around for a replacement and ended up with a number of comedians under contract, none of whom could carry a film on their own but all of whom could work together to generate laughs. Thus came about the “Comedy All-Stars,” a free-floating group of comedians who came together for a series of films until Roach realized that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were becoming more popular than their studio-mates, pulled them out of the All-Stars and gave them films in which they had the starring roles. The first film on TCM’s program was one of the transitional ones in this process, Do Detectives Think? (not that it’s hard work to guess the answer the film gives!) from 1927, billing five people, with Laurel and Hardy at the top of the cast list but not above the title. It was also still distributed by Pathé, which lost the rights to the Laurel and Hardy films later in 1927 to MGM (Pathé’s U.S. branch never recovered from the triple blow of losing Lloyd to Paramount, losing the Roach product to MGM and the 1929 accident during which 11 people were burned to death following a set fire during the shooting of a musical in New York).

Officially directed by Fred Guiol but with Leo McCarey credited as “supervising director” (he had that credit on all four of the Laurel and Hardy silents TCM showed, and I suspect that if anyone was the auteur on these films, it was McCarey, who developed the slow-paced “tit for tat” method of staging slapstick fight scenes that was very much a part of their early style) and photographed by George Stevens (who would later become a director and use Guiol as his frequent screenwriter and assistant), Do Detectives Think? starts out in a courtroom, where “The Tipton Slasher” (Noah Young — though when I first saw him he looked so much like Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House I thought for a while it was Karloff playing the part) has just been convicted of two murders. Judge Foozle (James Finlayson) gives him a long prison term, and the Slasher vows revenge on the judge and says he intends to escape for the sole purpose of killing him. Then the Slasher does escape and waylays the new butler assigned to the Foozle house (Wilson Benge), sending the real butler off in the night in his long johns and “disguising” himself by the simple expedient of appearing clean-shaven, without the heavy beard he was sporting in the opening scene. Meanwhile, Judge Foozle, understandably concerned for his own safety, calls a local detective agency — whose boss, thinking it’s an unimportant case, decides to send the agency’s two worst operatives, “the second-worst detective in the world,” Ferdinand Finkleberry (Stan Laurel), and the worst, Sherlock Pinkham (Oliver Hardy). What follows is a pretty relentless but still screamingly funny succession of slapstick gags, in one of which the judge is taking a bath when the plug on his bathtub is accidentally pulled and the black, murky water in which he was submerged disappears on him; in another the judge falls on the face of a mask of tragedy that’s been knocked off his wall and scares the other characters silly just by showing the mask on the back of his head; and at the end the incompetent detectives actually capture the killer, only Hardy puts the handcuffs on his own arms — and still later Laurel locks the killer in a closet of the judge’s house, only he’s locked Hardy in there with him! Do Detectives Think? is a great little comedy, not particularly subtle and lacking the great characterizations of the later Laurel and Hardy films (in which they junked the conceit of separate character names and played people named “Stan Laurel” and “Oliver Hardy” — Laurel explained later that was because a character name could be copyrighted by a movie studio and reassigned to another actor, but their real names were their own and they could take them anywhere they worked) but still screamingly funny. It’s also interesting to see Laurel with his hair slicked down and center-parted the way Rudolph Valentino (whom Laurel had parodied as “Rhubarb Vaseline” in his 1922 film Mud and Sand, a spoof of Valentino’s vehicle Blood and Sand) wore his instead of combed upwards the way he wore it later. The change happened when Laurel and Hardy had to have their heads shaved for an early Roach two-reeler, The Second Hundred Years, in which they themselves played escaped convicts, and when Laurel’s hair grew back it obstinately refused to stay plastered to his head and instead kept sticking up. Other employees of Hal Roach laughed at it, and Laurel, reasoning that if Roach’s staff found it funny audiences would too, kept wearing it that way.

The next film on the program was You’re Darn Tootin’, a 1928 vehicle for Laurel and Hardy that cast them as bumbling musicians whose spectacular incompetence costs them jobs playing in a park band (Laurel plays clarinet and Hardy French horn) and forces them to work as buskers. Charles and I had seen this one before at the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion’s silent-movie night in 2007, but it was still hilarious, and though it was a silent film (and one has to wonder about the chutzpah of Laurel, Hardy, Roach, McCarey and nominal director Edgar Kennedy — one of his few forays behind the camera — to make a silent film about musicians!) it’s got some interesting bits of verbal wit in the titles, including the opening, which says that the park-band conductor “was making his farewell appearance — which the audience had been demanding for years” (later he’s shown rehearsing for “another farewell,” and with Laurel and Hardy busking outside and interfering with his rehearsal, that precipitates the slapstick shin-kicking climax — so even in the 1920’s people were making jokes about celebrities’ “first farewell tours”!); and later, when Laurel and Hardy are sitting to a meal at the boarding house where they live and the landlady (Agnes Steele) has sent them a note saying that in the thrill of finally getting jobs they still need to remember that they owe her 14 months’ back rent and board. A kid who lives in the boarding house says he went to the band concert at the park, the landlady asks, “How was the music?,” and the obnoxious little brat says, “Fine — after those two got fired!,” leading the landlady to throw them out at once. Though You’re Darn Tootin’ would no doubt have been considerably funnier as a talkie — let’s face it, we want to hear for ourselves how bad Laurel and Hardy are as musicians instead of just having it explained to us in titles (and Robert Israel’s added background score for this 2011 re-release actually made them sound pretty good — too good for the plot to make much sense) — it’s still quite amusing as it stands and shows that even this early, having been cast as a team for only two years, they were already developing the characterizations that would make them first famous and then legendary, including not only wearing derby hats but constantly getting them mixed up so Laurel’s small derby ends up, much to Hardy’s discomfiture, on Hardy’s big head.

The next film on the program was probably the best of the four, Big Business, a 1929 silent I’d seen before only in a shortened version at the end of Robert Youngson’s 1960 compilation film When Comedy Was King but which turned out to be even better when viewed complete. It’s a simple tale of Laurel and Hardy going door-to-door on a hot California day selling Christmas trees (some of the writing about this film says it takes place in July, which would have made the central premise even sillier, but there’s nothing in the movie itself that makes that claim — probably people who have never lived in California and have spent their lives in more northern climes and therefore associate Christmas with snow simply saw all those warm, sunny vistas and assumed this was midsummer). They encounter three customers. The first is a heavy-set woman who says she doesn’t want a tree; when Laurel asks her if her husband might want one, she says, “I have no husband,” and Laurel — refusing to take no for an answer, in what was probably the writers’ deliberate parody of the aggressive go-getter books on salesmanship that abounded in the 1920’s — asks, “Well, if you did have a husband, would he want a tree?” The second customer we never see — we just see a sign on his front porch saying that no peddlers or solicitors are welcome, and an unseen hand holding a hammer and banging Laurel on the head with it. The third customer is James Finlayson (again!), and he refuses a tree but Laurel keeps ringing his doorbell anyway because part of the tree he was trying to sell him got caught in the door when Finlayson closed it on them. This snowballs into a great fight scene in which, according to Leo McCarey’s “tit for tat” principle (once again another name was credited as director — James W. Horne — but clearly McCarey was the auteur), instead of staging wild, frenetic slapstick violence the protagonists politely take turns as they wreak havoc on each other. What’s more, when Laurel starts taking out a knife and slicing off bits of the molding off Finlayson’s house, and he responds by walking over to their car (a Model “T” Ford, an anachronistic transport that became part of the Laurel and Hardy characterizations and undoubtedly got funnier once time past and rendered it totally obsolete — though in the 1938 Block-Heads Hardy is seen driving a brand-new car which Laurel, naturally, quickly buries in sand) and yanking off first its headlights, then its gas tank, then its door, the victims of this comic violence don’t try to stop it while it’s in progress. They just patiently and politely wait it out until it’s completed, then figure out something they can do to get back at the perpetrator. It ends with a police officer (Tiny Sandford) coming on the scene and getting hopelessly confused as to who started the confrontation and unclear whom to bust — though of course it ends with Laurel and Hardy fleeing the wrath of both Finlayson and the law. One of the legends of Big Business, perpetuated by John McCabe’s 1962 biography Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, was that in order to save money the filmmakers decided to rent a real house rather than build a set on the Roach lot — only Laurel, Hardy and Finlayson improvised so many destruction gags that the house ended up needing so many repairs (which the studio had to pay for) it would have cost less to build a set. Over the years this tale got twisted and turned into a legend that Roach actually bought a house for the filming, then mistakenly sent his crew to the house next door from the one he’d bought and virtually destroyed a house he didn’t own. Not true, said Stan Laurel in one of his late-in-life interviews; “The chap who owned the house was employed at the studio and worked on the film with us.”

After Big Business, the fourth film on the program, Double Whoopee (1929), was something of a letdown, though still quite amusing. This time Stan and Ollie play hotel workers — Hardy a doorman, Laurel a footman (did they still have footmen in 1929? I thought they’d gone out with horse-drawn carriages!) — who are sent by an employment agency with a somewhat less than ringing letter of introduction (“There is some reason to believe they may be competent”) and are instantly mistaken for a mittel-Europan prince (Hans Joby, who’d worked for Erich von Stroheim as a stand-in and stunt double and is made up to look uncannily like Stroheim here) and his prime minister (Charley Rogers). They are invited to sign the hotel register, which Hardy does with a flourish while Laurel spills ink all over it — and some jets over into the compact of a fashionable woman, who decides to powder her face and doesn’t notice that the ink is turning her into a blackface minstrel. Once they present their letter and are “outed” as hotel staff, they assume their duties and Hardy takes over as doorman with the grand uniform and self-important air of Emil Jannings in Friedrich Murnau’s classic The Last Laugh (1924). Laurel also has a run-in with a self-important cab driver (Charlie Hall) and the real prince and prime minister take a few too many pratfalls down the shaft of an automatic elevator (automatic elevators were still a novelty in 1929), with the prince’s previously immaculate white uniform getting stained with gobs of black grease. The big moment everyone remembers from this film comes when Hardy is self-importantly escorting a young platinum-blonde woman into the hotel, not aware that when he closed the door on her cab Laurel got her dress caught in it, with the result that she’s wearing only underwear below the waist (a gag Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant repeated to just as much effect in Bringing Up Baby nine years later). The reason that’s the big moment everyone remembers is the young woman is played by Jean Harlow, just launching her film career — she appeared in two other silent Laurel and Hardy shorts, Liberty (in which she was billed under her original name, Harlean Carpenter) and Bacon Grabbers (in which Laurel and Hardy play repo men trying to grab a radio from Edgar Kennedy, and Harlow is Kennedy’s wife), as well as a number of even smaller bits before Howard Hughes got hold of her and gave her the female lead in Hell’s Angels (1929). Maybe I was just getting tired, but Double Whoopee didn’t seem to hold the punch of the three films TCM had shown before it — though it was still quite amusing and miles funnier than any of the movies being shown today that, as Dwight Macdonald put it, “in form and intent can be called comedies.”