Monday, September 01, 2014

The Laurel and Hardy Sound Shorts (1931)

BE BIG!
One of the team's least inspired efforts. This is another film frequently cited as a contender for their weakest, specifically for its protracted sequence with Stan trying to remove a tight boot from Ollie's foot. Usually they could mine a simple situation like this for all its comic potential, but in this case, the results are only mildly amusing and wear thin quickly. The fact that it's a three-reeler doesn't help the pacing issue. Unlike an early talkie such as BERTH MARKS, say, where they were still adapting to sound film, this one feels like a step backward after they had already made great progress in the new medium.



CHICKENS COME HOME
This is one of Laurel and Hardy's more interesting films, and probably their best film from 1931. It's a remake of their silent LOVE 'EM AND WEEP (1927), with Hardy as a mayoral candidate who finds his campaign threatened by the re-appearance of an old flame. Laurel has to keep her at bay while Hardy entertains important political guests at his home. Mae Busch is especially effective here as the woman from Hardy's past, and James Finlayson has one of his funniest roles as Hardy's suspicious butler. Usually in their comedies, the boys start out with nothing and end up with nothing again at the end of the film, whereas this one begins with them as successful businessmen in positions of power and prestige, providing an added gravity to the pitfalls they encounter.



LAUGHING GRAVY
A re-working of their silent ANGORA LOVE, this is another poignantly funny comedy, like BELOW ZERO before it, that focuses as much on their characters as it does the gags and situations. The premise is simple: the boys try to hide their beloved dog in a seedy boarding house whose landlord has a strict "no dogs allowed" policy. Charlie Hall, playing the landlord, brings the perfect mix of humor and menace to the part. It does contain one of those grim endings - with the landlord blowing his brains out after learning that he and the boys will have to be quarantined inside the house together for two months - that represents the kind of dark comedy the team dabbled in occasionally. An alternate ending was discovered in which Laurel inherits a fortune on condition that he sever all ties with Hardy, which is another indication that they were just as interested in exploring the characters here as they were in creating solid laughs.



OUR WIFE
An oddly overlooked title in the Laurel and Hardy canon. It seems that their farce comedies tend to inspire less passionate reactions from fans and critics, probably because they do not contain the kind of really dexterous slapstick and distilled, almost poetic simplicity of shorts like HELPMATES or THE MUSIC BOX. But this is one of their very best in the farce tradition. Unlike ANOTHER FINE MESS or CHICKENS COME HOME, the situation here is simple: Ollie can't marry his sweetheart because her father (James Finlayson) objects, so they decide to elope (with Stan's help, of course). There's a great sight gag when Laurel hires a tiny car for Hardy and his fiancee to make their escape in, and the three of them are forced to pile inside, with Laurel pressed up against the windshield. But the highlight is the cameo appearance by Ben Turpin as the justice of the peace who performs the marriage ceremony with predictably mixed-up results.



COME CLEAN
Of all the Laurel and Hardy comedies, this was one of the very last ones that I saw. For some reason, I never came across it on TV, nor on any of the video releases, and only saw it for the first time a decade ago, in a 16mm print at a Sons of the Desert tent screening. Perhaps because of this, it doesn't stick in my mind as clearly as their films I've seen many times over the years. The pacing lacks the requisite energy, and the situations feel underdeveloped and even tired. It also features one of those strange, surreal endings the team employed occasionally, with Laurel disappearing down the bathtub drain after Hardy pulls the plug. Contains the classic "ice cream shop" routine, where the boys proceed to ask Charlie Hall for every flavor that he's out of.



ONE GOOD TURN
One of the Laurel and Hardy's more interesting efforts, if not one of their funniest. The exposition required by the plot contrivances slow things down a little, but the comedy is good-natured and gentle, at least until the unexpectedly violent climax! Here the boys are even more down-on-their-luck than usual, victims of the Depression, which gives the comedy an air of pathos.



BEAU HUNKS
In order to forget the lover who has jilted him, Hardy enlists in the Foreign Legion, and insists that Stan join up with him. Much of the humor is pretty standard service comedy stuff, combined with very mild satire of legionnaire pictures such as BEAU GESTE. The best scenes are the boys' interactions with stern commandant Charles Middleton. There doesn't seem to be enough material to really justify the four-reel length, and the ending is disappointingly weak stuff, though the running joke of all the men joining the legion to forget the same woman results in a funny wrap-up gag. Overall, it's one of their weakest efforts. The basic premise was later re-worked as THE FLYING DEUCES (1939).


Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Laurel and Hardy Sound Shorts (1930)

NIGHT OWLS
This one has a lot of potential, but never seems quite as funny as it could have been. Officer Edgar Kennedy is warned by the Chief of Police that unless he makes an arrest soon in the string of burglaries that have been occurring in the neighborhood, he's out of a job. So he recruits vagrants Laurel and Hardy to break in to the Chief's home and will save the day by arresting them. The idea of the boys as burglars and their various failed attempts to enter the house without making a sound seems like the kind of thing that could have resulted in a minor classic, but for some reason the gags never quite pay off. This one was also shot simultaneously in a Spanish-language version titled LADRONES, which features an alternate and slightly extended ending.



BLOTTO
This is one of my favorites. The boys sneak off for an evening to a swanky new nightclub that's just opened in town, and bring along a bottle of Mrs. Laurel's best liquor (not realizing that she's swapped its contents with raw tea, as revenge for their little scheme). Watching it this time around, I was struck by the comparatively high production values that Hal Roach put in to these short films. The Rainbow Club set is an elaborate Art Deco affair, filled with extras, and Laurel and Hardy's entrance into the club is shot with a high-angle dolly shot that takes advantage of the full scope of the production design. It also contains one of the boys' most infectious "laughing" routines, as they become intoxicated by the phony liquor. The surviving copies derive from a 1937 reissue print, featuring the musical underscoring that would become standard. A simultaneously-shot Spanish language version, LA VIDA NOCTURNA, features extended nightclub acts among other differences.



BRATS
Despite its gimmicky premise (the boys play both themselves and their infant sons), this one works very well, and is impressive for its forced perspective in shots involving oversized props. Another example of the extreme care and expense that went in to making these films at this time. Contains one of the best "Laurel-isms": "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead." And the build-up to that final gag, with the bathtub overflowing, delivers big on its payoff. One of the Laurel and Hardy comedies that was reissued later in the '30s with a new bed of musical underscoring, featuring the familiar LeRoy Shield tunes that had become a staple of Hal Roach comedies. The difference between the new soundtrack and its 1930 counterpart reveal how much those melodies contributed to the films and worked with the image to create a unique rhythm all their own.



BELOW ZERO
One of the strangest, and yet also one of the most interesting, comedies the team ever made. It's one of those films that is as much about their characters as anything else, a poignantly funny examination of their friendship. This is also perhaps the first of their films that clearly presents their characters as childlike outsiders alone in a cruel world, a dynamic they would explore more often especially in their features. The setting is a particularly tough and seedy part of town, where Laurel and Hardy attempt to scrape together enough to eat by working as street musicians. Their luck turns when they find a lost wallet, but this quickly attracts the attention of local pickpockets. Saved by a policeman, they offer to take their new friend out for dinner to show their gratitude, but it turns out the wallet they found just happens to belong to the cop. Unlike Chaplin's Tramp, who would have immediately been suspicious of the cop and would never have invited him to dine in the first place, or Keaton, who would have accepted the situation with a bemused shrug, Stan and Ollie are much more trusting, and see the officer as a friend and protector in their rough surroundings, which makes the final outcome all the more poignant. Contains one of those surreal sight gags Laurel was so fond of: dumped in a barrel of water, he proceeds to drink the entire contents, emerging with a giant, swelled belly.



HOG WILD
One of their very best. Taking as simple a premise as trying to install a rooftop antenna, the result is a sublime masterpiece of construction. Not much more to say about this one except that it's one of the few truly perfect comedy films. This is the kind of material Laurel and Hardy could do better than anyone else and that made them so special.



THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE
This one gets a bad rap in some quarters, and indeed I've frequently seen it cited as the worst film the team ever made. I'm certainly in the minority on this one, but I find it to be a quite funny send-up of the "old dark house" genre that was so popular at the time. I must admit I'm partial to "fright humor", and when it's done right (Abbott and Costello were masters of it, and Bob Hope's THE GHOST BREAKERS and Don Knotts' THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN are classics of this kind), it leaves me in stitches. The boys go to an old mansion to hear the reading of the late Uncle Ebenezer Laurel's will. A detective (Fred Kelsey, of course), suspecting foul play was involved, places the guests under house arrest while he investigates. When Laurel and Hardy retire to their room for the evening, they are so jumpy and on-edge that every little creak sends them into hysterics. Some may find this tiresome, but the atmosphere is genuinely creepy and spooky enough that it works for me. The funereal pacing is eerie and unsettling, taking its cue from the kinds of films it was sending up. The "dream" ending is certainly weak, though. Certainly not a minor classic or anything, just funnier than its reputation might suggest.



ANOTHER FINE MESS
A remake of their earlier silent DUCK SOUP, itself based on a music hall sketch by Laurel's father. The premise is a bit more complicated than usual, and even at three reels, there is still a lot of plot to cram in. Laurel and Hardy are tramps on the run from the cops, who seek refuge in a house belonging to big game hunter Col. Buckshot (James Finlayson). While Buckshot's away on safari, the servants have put the place up for rent, and an interested wealthy couple have come to take a tour of it. To avoid capture, Ollie is forced to pose as Col. Buckshot, and Stan pulls double duty as both his butler and maid. They get a lot of mileage out of the comic role-playing, but it runs out of steam by the end. Laurel's appearance in drag as Agnes the maid is a lot of fun, and his scenes with Thelma Todd are a delight, but all in all, the premise wears thin by the time Finlayson shows up at the end and a chase ensues.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Laurel and Hardy Sound Shorts (1929)


UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE
Laurel and Hardy's first talkie is a domestic farce of the kind they had done a number of times before, but demonstrates how instinctively and naturally suited they were for the sound film medium. Unlike other clowns, such as W.C. Fields or The Marx Bros. who relied primarily on their distinctive delivery for full effect, Laurel and Hardy found creative ways of using sound itself as a source of humor -- probably moreso than any other comedian until Jacques Tati. While still technically primitive in terms of the recording quality, the film contains a number of inventive sound gags, such as Mae Busch haranguing Hardy in rhythm with a blaring phonograph record. They later re-worked the premise of this film into their 1938 feature, BLOCKHEADS.




BERTH MARKS
This is frequently cited by critics and fans alike as one of the team's lesser efforts, particularly for its protracted sequence in which Laurel and Hardy get tangled up in eachothers' clothing while changing in an upper train berth. They were still clearly struggling with adapting their pacing to sound at this early stage. The best part is the opening scene, with the boys continually missing eachother at the train station. This sequence features a great sound gag, with the train conductor rattling off the names of the destinations at an intelligible speed.



MEN O'WAR
I enjoyed this one less this time around. It used to be one of my favorites; now, I find it bogged down by the forced chaos of the boating sequence that ends the picture, though it's an improvement over BERTH MARKS' clothes-ripping finale. The "soda fountain" scene is of course a classic, itself a re-working of a scene in their earlier silent SHOULD MARRIED MEN GO HOME? Abbott and Costello did a similar routine years later, and while their version is certainly funny, it also feels somewhat mechanical, a fine performance by a talented comedy team, whereas Laurel and Hardy's version works so well because it stems naturally from their characters. The second half, consisting one of those tit-for-tat battles that had worked so well in their silent films, suffers from serious pacing issues due to the new challenges presented by sound. Unlike the tightly-edited finales of YOU'RE DARN TOOTIN' or THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, this sequence is comparatively clunky and clumsy, a decided disappointment after the relaxed pace of the first half.



THE PERFECT DAY
With this film, Laurel and Hardy prove once again that they needed only the simplest of situations on which to build a sublime comedy. Considered their first really great sound film in some quarters, it's certainly a big improvement on the pacing of their previous talkies, and demonstrates how effectively the team could milk a single situation for maximum comic potential. Edgar Kennedy works especially well with the boys here, as their cantankerous uncle whose gouty foot manages to get stomped on and slammed in the car door at every opportunity. Kennedy was a great foil for the team, and it's a shame he didn't work with them more frequently in the sound shorts. Brilliant use of sound effects in this one, especially when Hardy hits Laurel over the head with the clutch. I can only imagine the uproarious reaction that must have provoked from audiences in 1929. The final sight gag, with the car sinking into a giant puddle, is a perfect topper to this fine little comedy.



THEY GO BOOM!
A minor effort from their first year of making sound films, this one shows how quickly and naturally Laurel and Hardy adapted to talkies. The pacing and technical issues that had marked their early sound shorts are nowhere to be found here. The premise is simple: the boys are tenants in a seedy boarding house. Ollie's sick in bed with a cold, and Stan's attempts at helping him lead to one disaster after another. Contains the great sight gag of the over-inflated air mattress that finally explodes when Hardy sneezes. They had used the boarding house setting before in ANGORA LOVE, and would return to it a couple years later in LAUGHING GRAVY (1931).



THE HOOSE-GOW
This little prison comedy seems to be rarely regarded as one of the team's better efforts, probably because it lacks any really memorable gags or scenes (though I've always been partial to the moment when Hardy accidentally chops down a tree containing a prison guard station). The rice-throwing finale, between the prisoners and the board of governors, fails to build the necessary pace in order to really work effectively. Still, the film is overall leisurely-paced and pleasantly funny enough, especially when Stan and Ollie get to play with axes and picks, which is always good for some laughs.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Medicine Man (1930)


Jack Benny stars in a rare dramatic turn in this odd and rather unpleasant melodrama. A charming but predatory snake oil salesman, in town with his medicine show to bilk the locals, strikes up a romance with a vulnerable young woman who, along with her younger brother, suffers cruel abuse at the hands of her father.

Benny is surprisingly effective as the medicine show huckster, making the character's sympathetic turn at the end believable through his usual affable personality. But the film's attempt at a happy ending is undercut by the relentless cruelty and meanness of many of the scenes, and the overall effect leaves a bad taste.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Informer (1929)


British part-talkie version of the Liam O'Flaherty play -- later famously filmed by John Ford in 1935 -- about an IRA member, Gypo Nolan, who has a crisis of conscience when he informs on a fellow party member, Francis McPhillip, wanted for murder, resulting in McPhillip's death at the hands of the police, and an ill-gotten cash reward for Nolan.

The great Swedish actor Lars Hanson offers an interesting interpretation of Gypo Nolan, quite different from Victor McLaglen's take on the character in the Ford remake. Hanson brings a real intensity to the role, conveying the character's haunted conscience and sense of guilt from the moment he betrays his comrade, and the knowledge of the inevitable fate that awaits him in return for his actions. This was also the final film of Hungarian actress Lya De Putti, who delivers a strong performance as Nolan's girlfriend, who has her own crisis of conscience when the IRA leaders come looking for him.

Made during the transitional period for sound film technology, it is an odd hybrid of silent footage (with music and effects) during the first half, and mostly synchronized dialogue in the second half (both Hanson and De Putti are somewhat distractingly dubbed). Arthur Robison's direction is most distinctive in the silent sequences, aided greatly by the high-contrast cinematography of Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl, and marked by a remarkably fluid use of the camera and editing, while the sound sequences are more stagy, too often bringing the action to a halt for the dialogue. The climax in the church is an exceptionally powerful and beautiful scene, with an effective combination of sound and image.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The 39 Steps (1935)


It seems odd to think of this as an "early" Hitchcock film, since the director already had well over a dozen films (including a couple of minor classics) under his belt by the time he made this one, but it is a significant prototype for his later work that looks forward to themes, plot devices and imagery he would return to again throughout his career. Even with its excellent script, and fine performances by Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, it's really the little moments, the subtle but effective touches that Hitchcock brings to the material, that make this one hold up so well. It's certainly one of his most formally inventive works, representing perhaps the moment when Hitchcock's use of sound caught up with his mastery of the image to create his first wholly-realized masterpiece in the sound film medium.

Two moments in particular stand out: the moment when the maid discovers the body of a murdered woman, and turns to the camera with her mouth wide open in horror -- but instead of a scream, we hear the piercing whistle of the train in the shot that immediately follows; and the moment when the pious but hypocritical crofter, discovering that his wife has given away his best coat to the fugitive, begins to beat her mercilessly (off-screen) before cutting away to the sounds of hearty laughter from Donat and the local constable as they inspect a conveniently-placed hymn book, left in the front pocket of the crofter's coat, that has stopped a bullet from hitting Donat's heart.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Face at the Window (1939)


Atmospheric British thriller -- starring magnificent, eccentric screen villain Tod Slaughter in a characteristically fine performance -- about a series of mysterious murders by a killer known only as "The Wolf" that have left 1880 Paris in a grip of fear. The on-screen introductory text lets us know what to expect, describing the story as a "melodrama of the old school - dear to the hearts of all who enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy".

Slaughter has a fascinating and commanding screen presence, conveying a grand, melodramatic villainy in the finest over-the-top theatrical tradition that he perfected on the Victorian stage. I first encountered his work in the 1936 film of THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, and was captivated by his performance as Sweeney Todd. He became a familiar face in low-budget British thrillers of the '30s and '40s, with his macabre sense of humor perfectly suited to the tone of these films. Slaughter clearly had a great deal of fun with these juicy roles, while still managing to be genuinely terrifying when the story called for it. He's even afforded an especially garish death scene here.

The production is enhanced by a strong period atmosphere that belies the film's low budget. Good, exciting fun that never takes itself too seriously and is all the better for it.