Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Laurel and Hardy: Platinum Disc Collection 2

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched all of the second disc in the Platinum Disc collection of Laurel and Hardy — jointly and severally — except for the “feature,” The Flying Deuces (1939). This entry begins with my comments on The Flying Deuces from the last time Charles and I saw it together, and includes notes on the silent films that filled out the disc (including one, The Stolen Jools, that wasn't actually silent at all but is erroneously listed as a silent on the DVD box):

I did have a short movie available: the 1939 film The Flying Deuces, directed by A. Edward Sutherland and produced by Boris Morros (hitherto the music supervisor at Paramount) for RKO release (and the first film Laurel and Hardy made away from their home at Hal Roach, unless you count their supporting roles in a couple of MGM loanouts, Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Rogue Song — MGM having been Roach’s distributor at the time).

It’s quite a good movie, benefiting from a genuinely witty script (Harry Langdon was one of the writers, and his odd sensibility shows in the sequence in which Laurel and Hardy are made to wash clothes — and the camera pans over to a 20-foot high mountain of all the clothes they’re supposed to be washing, while the ones they’ve already washed are hanging over literally acres of clotheslines) that essentially remakes their earlier film Beau Hunks and casts them as enlistees in the French Foreign Legion because Hardy has been jilted by a faithless (and, in this version, already married) girlfriend. Though real Laurel and Hardy mavens generally prefer their more slow-paced films at Roach, Sutherland’s direction of this one gives it zip and pace, and the stars are both screamingly funny and warm and charming. As I’ve written before, I’ve often wondered how Laurel and Hardy could poke each other in the eyes in a slapstick sequence (though no such sequence exists in The Flying Deuces) and make you laugh and break your heart at the same time, while when the Three Stooges do exactly the same gags the effect (for me, anyway) is simply repulsive. — 3/24/99


The additional material on the disc included a surprisingly long 40-minute comedy from 1922 starring Stan Laurel — Mud and Sand, a parody of Rudolph Valentino’s famous bullfighting film Blood and Sand, with Stan playing a character called “Rhubarb Vaseline” (!) — as well as two films from 1925 with Hardy cast opposite diminutive comedian Bobby Ray, The Paperhanger’s Helper (actually cut down from a two-reeler called Stick Around) and Hop To It, Bellhop!; a 1926 Hal Roach short called Yes, Yes, Nanette (the title is a parody of the popular musical No, No, Nanette but the stories don’t have anything to do with each other — much the way the 1940 film Saps at Sea, Laurel and Hardy’s last for Hal Roach, had a title making fun of the 1937 Gary Cooper vehicle Souls at Sea but the script itself was not a parody of the earlier film) in which Laurel directed and Hardy appeared; and what’s actually become a fairly well-known Hollywood curio by now, the 1931 all-star short The Stolen Jools, produced for the National Variety Artists as a fundraiser and with a dazzling array of stars of the day. Charles and I had seen The Stolen Jools before and I have a couple of notes about it:

Yesterday I’d copied some of the Bing Crosby short films for Mack Sennett on the end of my tape of the 1930 musicals Whoopee and The King of Jazz, and this morning I finally filled out the tape with the 1931 National Variety Artists short The Stolen Jools, a kind of “spot the star” exercise featuring Edward G. Robinson, Norma Shearer, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Crawford (when they were still married to each other — though Crawford’s on-screen partner is the famous Hollywood Queer, William Haines, who — contrary to the myth — doesn’t seem at all unmanly or un-butch), Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck (when they were still married to each other), Loretta Young (almost unrecognizable in a severe bob), Buster Keaton (as a Keystone Kop), Laurel and Hardy (doing one of their most famous gags, involving a Model “T” Ford which collapses into a pile of junk parts as soon as they park it), Wheeler and Woolsey (reprising their famous slapping routine from the stage and film musical Rio Rita), Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels (the third real-life couple to appear), Little Billy (the midget actor) and Mitzi Green (the precocious kid star who imitated Erich von Stroheim and George Arliss in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round two years later) as the girl who finally solves the titular mystery (Edward G. Robinson and George E. Stone, one of his co-stars in Little Caesar, stole Norma Shearer’s pearl necklace from the annual screen stars’ ball, and little Mitzi stole them back). It’s an interesting curio, and a “cute” one. — 2/16/96


I ran Charles a movie he had downloaded from one of his sources onto a DVD: The Stolen Jools [sic], also known as The Slippery Pearls because this previously unknown film was originally rediscovered in Britain in the early 1970’s under that title, released in 1932 as one of the Masquers Club two-reel comedies distributed through RKO. It turned out, however, not to be an RKO film at all but an independent production by the National Variety Artists (N.V.A.), a “company union” of vaudeville performers set up in competition with the American Guild of Variety Artists (N.V.A. also stood for “National Vaudeville Association” and, in that guise, it was the association of vaudeville producers, circuit owners and theatre owners). The film was designed to be shown in N.V.A. theatres and afterwards a live speaker would come out and collect for the N.V.A.’s charities, particularly its sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. Since it was a charity film, the producers were able to pick willy-nilly from Hollywood’s star contingent, as evidenced by this listing (from imdb.com) of the people in it:

Wallace Beery ... Police Sergeant
Buster Keaton ... Policeman
Jack Hill ... Policeman
J. Farrell MacDonald ... Policeman
Edward G. Robinson ... Edward Robinson (as Edward Robinson)
George E. Stone ... Himself
Eddie Kane ... Detective Kane
Stan Laurel ... Policeman
Oliver Hardy ... Police Driver
Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins Farina (as Farina)
Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard Stymie (as Stymie)
Norman ‘Chubby’ Chaney Chubby (as Chubby)
Mary Ann Jackson ... Herself
Shirley Jean Rickert ... Shirley Jean
Dorothy DeBorba ... Echo (as Echo)
Bobby ‘Wheezer’ Hutchins Wheezer (as Wheezer)
Pete the Dog ... Pete (as Pete the Pup)
Polly Moran ... Herself
Norma Shearer ... Herself
Hedda Hopper ... Herself
Joan Crawford ... Herself
William Haines ... Himself
Dorothy Lee ... Herself — giving autograph
Victor McLaglen ... Sergeant Flagg
Edmund Lowe ... Sergeant Quirt
El Brendel ... Waiter
Charles Murray ... Kelly (as Charlie Murray)
George Sidney ... Cohen
Winnie Lightner ... Herself
Fifi D’Orsay ... Herself
Warner Baxter ... Cisco Kid
Irene Dunne ... Herself
Bert Wheeler ... Himself
Robert Woolsey ... Himself
Richard Dix ... Himself
Claudia Dell ... Herself
Lowell Sherman ... Himself
Eugene Pallette ... Reporter
Stuart Erwin ... Reporter
Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher … Reporter (as Skeets Gallagher)
Gary Cooper ... Reporter
Wynne Gibson ... Herself
Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers … Buddy Rogers (as Buddy Rogers)
Maurice Chevalier ... Himself
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ... Himself
Loretta Young ... Herself
Richard Barthelmess ... Himself
Charles Butterworth ... Himself
Bebe Daniels ... Herself
Ben Lyon ... Himself
Barbara Stanwyck ... Herself
Frank Fay ... Himself
Jack Oakie ... Himself
Fay Wray ... Herself
George ‘Gabby’ Hayes … Projectionist (as George Hayes)
‘Little Billy’ Rhodes ... Film Delivery Boy (as Little Billy)
Mitzi Green ... Herself (solves the mystery)
Joe E. Brown ... Himself
Robert Ames ... Himself (uncredited)
Bert Lytell ... Bert Lydell (uncredited)

What’s more, the film holds up quite well: Norma Shearer seems barely able to play herself but it’s fun to see Wallace Beery commanding the Keystone Kops (he had started out at Keystone and his then-wife, Gloria Swanson, had started there with him!) and even more fun to see Buster Keaton taking a couple of great pratfalls as one of the Kops. The other comedians — Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey, Stuart Erwin, Jack Oakie — are also quite amusing (the scene in which Laurel touches the fender of their Model T car and the whole car collapses is especially hilarious), and so are some of the people who weren’t ordinarily comedians: William Haines and Joan Crawford have a surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly given Haines’ real sexual orientation) decorous scene in a bedroom (did he decorate it for her?); Barbara Stanwyck horseplays with her then-husband, Frank Fay (they were, as I pointed out to Charles, a real-life version of A Star Is Born: he was an established vaudeville and Broadway star when he was invited to Hollywood in the early days of the talkies, she was an unknown whose career he boosted, then his film career bombed out while hers took off and he responded by drinking a lot) and likewise Ben Lyon with his real-life wife, Bebe Daniels; the Hal Roach “Our Gang,” later known as the Little Rascals, also appear; Edward G. Robinson and George E. Stone (reunited from Little Caesar) growl their way through gangster parts.

The plot — to the extent there is one — concerns the theft of Norma Shearer’s pearls by Robinson and Stone, only someone else steals them from them and the someone turns out to be child star Mitzi Green (who’d have been a Shirley Temple prototype except she was considerably more sassy and less cute than Temple: the only other things I’ve seen her do are the torch number “Bluebird Singing the Blues” in International House and an outrageously funny impression of George Arliss in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round), though in the meantime we’ve been treated to glimpses of plenty of Hollywood royalty and quite a few genuinely funny gags (especially one towards the end that anticipates the home-video gag in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs: two men in a film studio projection room load a film can with The Stolen Jools, presumably the film we’ve just been watching, and the lead detective, played by Eddie Kane, overhears them and of course thinks the real stolen jewels are hidden in the film can): a rare and odd delight of a movie! — 10/1/07


The other films on the disc also turned out to be quite compelling and generally very funny. Mud and Sand is a bit long for a non-feature comedy — 40 minutes — but it doesn’t feel padded and it manages to hit most of the high points of the Valentino vehicle (based on a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibañez, who had also written the book The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that had been the basis for Valentino’s star-making film). Rhubarb Vaseline (Stan Laurel) is a poor kid in Spain who dreams of being a bullfighter; one day, when he’s out with his friend Sapo (Wheeler Dryden) supposedly shopping for flour for his mother, he’s sidetracked towards a bull ring (“Amateurs Welcome,” its sign promises — or warns) and takes a few passes at a few bulls despite the poor track record of the two would-be matadors who precede him, both of which are carried out on stretchers while a solemn man with a piece of chalk writes under “Bulls Killed” on the arena scoreboard, “0.” We don’t get to see how Stan actually does in the bullring but we get the idea as two bulls come sailing out over the top of it — they’re quite obviously dummies but the scene is still funny — and then Stan gets flung out himself on his third try but returns and finally dispatches the last bull.

Stan instantly becomes a bullfighting star and gets an invitation to fight in the big ring in Madrid — he’s seen out of his tiny village in a big parade where he’s carried in an appropriately ox-drawn cart and steps out of it into a mud puddle — where he runs into a series of women including his old childhood sweetheart Caramel (Julie Leonard), aspiring actress Pavaloosky (played by Stan’s real-life wife then, Mae Laurel — noting the male form of her Slavic name, Charles joked, “Shouldn’t that be ‘Pavalooskaya’?”), and the notorious vamp Filet de Sole (a marvelously dry performance by Leona Anderson). As in the Valentino original, all these womenfolk run Our Stan down to the point where as he faces the final bullfight of the season he’s too worn out to be much use in the ring, and plenty of hints (including a few lightning bolts, one of which hits his head and re-parts his hair in its own jagged shape) are dropped to indicate that he has a dire fate ahead of him. In the end he collapses during the fight after some gags mocking his apparent cowardice (and anticipating the ones in Sam Goldwyn’s Eddie Cantor vehicle The Kid from Spain by 10 years) and he’s buried in sand as the title comes up over the image of him to indicate that “mud and sand” are the inevitable fate of someone who tempts it by “throwing the bull,” as the credits routinely (and rather audaciously) call it.

For some reason, while all the other silent movies on these two discs had accompaniment (mostly what sounded like a rather scratchy LP copy of one of Joshua Rifkin’s albums of Scott Joplin music), Mud and Sand screened in utter silence (though it would be easy enough — and fun — to piece together a soundtrack for it based on such “Spanish” classical-music themes as the “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen and Ravel’s Bolero), but it came off as a very funny movie anyway, with good gags like Laurel’s utter incomprehension of what Pavaloosky wants from him (anticipating the cluelessness with which Laurel and Hardy — who at their best mixed pre-sexual, homosexual and heterosexual signals in a deliciously absurd and funny way while still maintaining their reputation as morally “clean” comedians — would respond to attempts by scheming women to seduce them in their later films) and his inadvertently squirting her with a seltzer bottle; Laurel plastering his hair with runny black goop in an attempt to duplicate the famously slicked-down appearance of Valentino’s; and Laurel being outfitted with the waist scarf of his bullfighting costume, spinning his body to wrap it around himself in the usual approved manner, and getting dizzy. Ironically, Laurel would spoof not only Valentino’s Blood and Sand but the 1941 20th Century-Fox remake with Tyrone Power as well; in 1945 20th Century-Fox decided that the last of their six contract pictures with Laurel and Hardy would be The Bullfighters, a bullfighting spoof which liberally used a lot of the 1941 Blood and Sand as a source of stock footage of bullfights.

The Paperhanger’s Helper and Hop To It, Bellhop! have interesting origin stories. The Georgia-born Hardy broke into films not in Hollywood but in his native Florida, where he was appearing in movies as early as 1912 (five years before Laurel first faced a camera), and by 1918 he had hooked up with one of the most blatantly imitative comedians of all time, Billy West. Billy West’s whole schtick was Chaplin; he not only copied Chaplin’s story formulae but made himself up into an exact duplicate of Chaplin’s famous “Tramp” makeup and costume. Today the character could have been copyrighted and the originator could have sued, but in 1918 those laws did not exist and so Chaplin’s only defense against people ripping off his act was to advertise and get the word out as to which films with that character were genuinely his and not an imitator’s. (At the time movie theatres regularly ran Chaplin impersonator contests, and Bob Hope got an early career boost by entering one and placing second. At another Chaplin impersonation contest Chaplin himself entered under a false name — and placed third.)

By 1925 West — like “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the producer of Laurel’s Mud and Sand — had quit appearing in front of the camera and was concentrating on a behind-the-scenes career as producer. Bobby Ray was a comedian who had a brief vogue in the silent era even though he never got anywhere near stardom (probably working at the two-bit Billy West studio in Florida didn’t help), but because he was short and thin these films (the only two of the four Ray and Hardy made together that survive) are often regarded as Laurel and Hardy prototypes. “This is only true on the surface,” Leonard Maltin wrote in his 1970’s book Movie Comedy Teams. “These two-reelers are typical comedies of the era, with some good slapstick gags, and in some ways they do parallel later L&H work; Hardy is tough and domineering, and makes sure Ray does all the work. He is arrogant, but always seems to get himself into trouble. Beyond this, however, there is none of the warmth that set Laurel and Hardy apart from other slapstick comedians of the day.”

Actually these two “Ray and Hardy” films are closer to Laurel and Hardy than Maltin makes them sound — the central scene of The Paperhanger’s Helper (Hardy is the paperhanger, Ray the helper, and they’ve been hired to paper the inside walls of a sanitarium) anticipates the mess Laurel and Hardy make out of Billy Gilbert’s living room in The Music Box, and there are some quite inventive gags, notably ones in which the two incompetent paperhangers insist on trying to paper over a doorway while people are in it — resulting in one man getting the face of a lion (they’ve got their paper samples mixed up and are doing the room up in old circus posters) and another with a skeleton picture plastered on his back. The Paperhanger’s Helper is shown here in a cut-down one-reel version released by Castle Films for home viewing in 1956; Hop To It, Bellhop! is shown here in its original two-reel length, and the contrast hints that Bobby Ray’s comedic vision was enough to sustain a one-reeler but not a two-reeler; Hop To It seems draggier, more dull and less funny.

Both are far overshadowed by Yes, Yes, Nanette, which involves both Laurel (as director) and Hardy (as supporting player) on the eve of their mega-stardom at Hal Roach studios. Roach had two ambitions for his little company: to eclipse Mack Sennett and to discover his own comedy superstar who could be bigger than Chaplin. He tried some unlikely candidates for this honor, and the one he was pushing in Yes, Yes, Nanette was, of all people, Jimmy Finlayson, who plays Hillory, who’s just married into a monumentally dysfunctional family (described in a title as “seven daughters, two sons and one who goes around all day reciting ‘Gunga Din’” — later one of the sons is described as proving “Bryan was wrong — the monkey idea was right”). His new wife, Nanette (Lyle Tayo), brings him home to meet his new in-laws and some delightful comedy complications ensue, many of them centering around the very obvious black wig Finlayson is wearing when he shows up — and which keeps getting knocked off his head and ending up in various places, including on the head of Pete the Dog (as himself), where it lands perfectly coiffed.

Yes, Yes, Nanette is co-directed by Clarence Hennecke and Stan Laurel from a script by comedy veteran Carl Harbaugh (and, likely, a lot of other writers trading gag ideas back and forth around a table — it’s how most silent comedies were written and how a lot of modern-day sitcoms are written as well), and it shows Laurel as an interesting filmmaker with as much of a flair for comedy when he was just directing as he had when he was on screen himself — even though Finlayson, as brilliant as he was as a supporting player in the later Laurel and Hardy vehicles (especially after sound came in and his delightful, inimitable Scottish accent registered in his films), just didn’t have quite the comic power on his own to work as a lead.