The next film in the set is the first (only?) to star neither Stan Laurel nor Oliver Hardy. Instead, it was written by Laurel and directed by Leo McCarey, the third most important member of the team. The film stars comedian Max Davidson, who started in features in 1915 (he had a small role in DW Griffith’s Intolerance) and lasted until 1945 (the Clark Gable film Adventure was his last appearance). At the Hal Roach Studios, Davidson specialized in a comic Jewish character, hence the title of this short, which for some reason is changed to simply Prudence on the title card of what I assume is a rereleased print. Removing the pun makes the name of the film pretty nonsensical, since the movie’s about a court case, not moderation. Maybe they changed it for anti-semitic reasons to make the film palatable to a non-Jewish audience, I don’t know. Davidson’s character is a bit of a caricature, but a sympathetic one, certainly not any more offensive than any random five minutes of Jon Stewart or Larry David.
That last comparison is particularly apt here, because the film is a perfectly structured twenty minute comedy, the kind David, the best comedy writer of the last 25 years, has mastered. Thus this film highlights Laurel’s ability not just as a performer but as a writer. It was Laurel who was the driving creative force behind the team, Hardy was much more laid back (and/or lazy), contrary to their on-screen personae, and I expect to see that their later films will show the kind of carefully designed structure that this film displays. Like a good episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s built around multiple plot threads that seem disconnected until they neatly unify at the end. Also like those TV shows, the main character is a scoundrel, willing to lie and cheat to get ahead, while drawing the line at actually hurting any people (insurance fraud, though, is OK).
Davidson is a middle class father with two sons and a daughter. The daughter wants to marry a lawyer, but Davidson withholds his permission until the young man can win his first case. He wants the lazy and goofy sons to get rich, so he buys one of them a truck. But the kid doesn’t know how to drive and manages to destroy an entire set (memorably taking out half a building) before crashing the truck into another car. At the scene of the accident, Davidson gets his other son to fake an injury, hoping to make some money on insurance and sue the other driver.
Later, Davidson and his son attempt to convince some insurance men (one of whom is played by the great character actor of the 30s and 40s, Eugene Pallette, most recognizable as Friar Tuck from the Errol Flynn Robin Hood) that the son is paralyzed by lying him on a couch and hiding his good leg in a hollow cushion and replacing it with a wooden one, which they then stick with needles and such. This, of course, goes comically wrong, for a while the son has three legs, another time he’s almost caught dancing (his dream is to be a professional Charleston dancer). Eventually, Davidson and the son end up in court (suing that driver), where the daughter’s boyfriend wins the case for the defense (exposing Davidson as a liar and fraud) and gets the girl. Davidson drives away in disgust, only to have his car hit by the truck driven by his other son.
The film is pretty funny throughout, the two major set pieces, the truck destruction and the wooden leg, are slapstick gems, but what elevates the film and makes it the best of the shorts I’ve seen thus far, is that escalating series of callbacks that brings everything to such a nifty conclusion. At the end it all seems so obvious and inevitable, but that’s the genius of it.