The Laurel & Hardy Project #11: Sugar Daddies

All of the films in the Project thus far have been two-reel shorts, which, a reel of film in the silent era being about ten minutes long, means they each run twenty minutes or less.  They were also made very quickly in a studio setting.  Maybe a month at most for the whole production.  This is how we’re now eleven films into the series and have progressed in time fourteen months from July 1926 to early September 1927.  So, as you’d expect under these conditions, the films follow certain formulas and structures, and some gags get repeated in multiple films.  At the most basic level, the two-reel comedy short tended to be evenly split in half, with the setup in the first reel and the conclusion in the second, usually filmed at two different locations (often the second reel has two locations intercut).  Think of With Love and Hisses evenly divided between the train location of the first reel and the camp location of the second, or Love ‘Em and Weep with the office location for the first reel and the intercut restaurant and home locations for the second.  This basic structure makes me think something is wrong with Sugar Daddies, or at least the version included in this DVD set.  The first reel is simply too short at less than seven minutes long, and as a result the film feels even slighter than it should.  This fact, plus some recycled jokes, make this the least satisfying film in the Project yet.

James Finlayson plays a millionaire drunk who accidentally gets married one night on a bender.  Oliver Hardy plays his butler (this isn’t the first time Hardy’s played a butler and I don’t really get it, he doesn’t seem right for that type of part at all to me).  The new wife turns out to be a grifter and her brother blackmails Finlayson.  The lawyer, Stan Laurel, is called in to help (this sequence has the best touch in the film: looking closely you can see that Laurel’s office, specifically his telephone, is covered in cobwebs; it’s that kind of attention to detail that leaks through even the worst films of great filmmakers.  The production still at the top shows the office without dust).  But abruptly, the reel ends here with the three heroes running away from the gun-toting brother and the second part starts with them hiding out at the sea shore.  The grifters discover their location thanks to a newspaper item about Finlayson and 27 chorus girls (interestingly, the rest of the newspaper is taken up with a story about Edward Muybridge, whose photographic experiments helped lay the foundation for motion picture technology).  When the bad guys show up at the hotel, we get an early version of what will become a Laurel & Hardy catchphrase: Laurel says to Hardy, “A fine mess you’ve made of things!”  What follows are some typical chase antics, including the “Laurel sits on Finlayson’s back and they pretend to be a ridiculously tall woman” gag from Love ‘Em and Weep, which is extended here far past the point where it’s actually funny.

The second part of the chase (the second half of reel two) takes place at an amusement park funhouse, which has some fun bits in it but the location doesn’t seem like its possibilities are being fully exploited.  Fifteen years later though, the cinematographer for Sugar Daddies would direct a film with a great funhouse sequence that shows it off at its surreal best.  That film, A Damsel in Distress, stars Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Joan Fontaine and was directed by George Stevens.  Stevens also, of course, directed Gunga Din and Giant, both of which have screenplays credited to Fred Guiol, the director of Sugar Daddies and most of the early Laurel and Hardy films.  Guiol began as a prop man for Harold Lloyd in the late teens and was Oscar nominated for the Giant screenplay, his last film credit.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #10: With Love and Hisses

This is another pre-official team status pairing of Laurel and Hardy, and their characters and relationship are beginning to come into a bit more focus.  The story this time is a military one, with Laurel as a new Home Guard recruit, Hardy as his sergeant and James Finlayson (seen most recently in Love ‘Em and Weep) as their captain.

The first reel follows a repeated joke pattern, each time escalating the crazy though never quite reaching the comic heights they would in later films.  While the troop is boarding their train to head out for camp, Laurel unwittingly (literally) sets Hardy up to get in trouble with the captain: by leaving his luggage in the way so the captain trips over it and blames Hardy, by convincing him that two girls flirting with the captain are actually flirting with Hardy, by taking the captain’s private cabin, only to have Hardy take it over and eat the captain’s food.  It’s a one-note joke that doesn’t really go anywhere interesting, though the sight of Hardy taking his shirt off and devouring an entire fruit basket is pretty funny (why does he take his shirt off?  Because it’s awesome, that’s why).  But the relationship between the two leads is promising, with Laurel again and again getting Hardy into a fine mess.

In the middle of the film is a cute little scene where Laurel is trapped on the train with an annoying bunkmate who is eating raw green onions and garlic sandwiches.  Errol Flynn as Custer in They Died with Their Boots On also made a point of always eating raw onions, I like to think Flynn’s Custer smelled just as bad as Laurel’s nemesis.  The sequence ends with the smelly guy offering Laurel a berry pie (presumably also slathered in garlic), which Laurel promptly throws out the window.  This being the end of reel one, the pie of course lands several cars down the train in Finlayson’s face.  I believe this marks the first pie in the face of this series, though I might be wrong about that.

The second reel details two sequences at camp.  In the first, Finlayson is inspecting the troops while Laurel is being clueless.  This is the best sequence in the film, Laurel really shines with the physical comedy here.  After a misunderstanding over the nature of the “dress, right” stance, which Laurel takes as a bit of flirting between himself and the captain, with Laurel doing a Chaplinesque coquette routine.  This will pay off in the scene’s capper.  Next though, when presenting his gun to the Captain, he opens the bolt-action only for the assembly to come flying off in his hands.  Laurel sells the gag by holding a deadpan expression for several seconds longer than you’d think would be necessary.  It’s the surprise wait that makes you laugh.  As Finlayson attempts to put the gun back together, he orders the men to about face, but, in a beautifully balletic move, Laurel can’t manage the necessary half turn, but can only do a full pirouette.  The first time he does it, it’s merely silly, the second time, it’s just lovely.  Finally, Finlayson throws the gun at Laurel, who throws it right back.  The two throw the gun back and forth for awhile until it hits Laurel in the nose.  In a perfect childlike action, Laurel pauses, then breaks into his “weepy” face.  This is his signature comic touch, and he uses it here better than he has to date.  More than just a silly looking expression, Laurel sells the fact that his nose and his feelings really are hurt by the captain (“Now I really am mad at you.”).  He continues to make a big production of it until the troops march off, wherein he catches the captain’s eye and instantly changes from weepy back to his flirty coquette look.  And just like that we know the weepy face is all an act, that all of this is an artifice and that Laurel built it.

The final sequence involves Hardy, Laurel and the troops marching to a pond, where they disrobe and go for a swim.  But, after Hardy inadvertently burns up all their clothes, they have to return to camp for inspection disguised as a billboard for the latest Cecil B. DeMille epic The Volga Boatman (heads peeking through the picture’s bodies, like in one of those novelty photo stands).  They’re all saved from disgrace thanks to a swarm of bees they run through (they’re being chased by a skunk) which attack everyone at camp.  It’s a ridiculous way to end a ridiculous film, but one that points to better things to come.

On Kanal

I liked the only other Andrzej Wajda films I’ve seen, Ashes and Diamonds, though I thought it was a bit overstuffed with Style! and Symbolism!, which is strange because generally I like that kind of thing (Cranes are Flying, for example, is all Style!, though less so with the Symbolism!).  This film is a bit more subtle, though that hardly seems an appropriate way to describe a film that equates war with Andy Dufresne’s escape from Shawshank, except instead of crawling through “five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine, or maybe I just don’t want to”, Wajda’s freedom fighters are trapped there, seemingly for eternity.  The first third of the film is typical war movie stuff, introducing the characters and their relationships and making clear the hopelessness of their situation, in the waning days of the Polish revolt against the Nazis.  Soon the small band is cut off and their only escape route is through the sewers of Warsaw, and ancient labyrinth that looks back to Dante and ahead to Apocalypse Now.  Wandering in the darkness, wounded and poisoned by the noxious gasses, the group splits and splits again, until we’re left with only a couple small groups of soldiers: a woman who knows the sewers well leading her dying lover to the sea, a composer who loses his mind, doomed to wander the tunnels blowing a haunting tune on an ocarina, and most poignantly, the platoon’s Lieutenant, who, with an attendant, makes it to safety only to find the platoon had been left behind him long ago.  In a film so relentlessly hopeless, the Lieutenant’s final act, descending again into hell to try to rescue his men, is miraculous.  He knows they’re doomed, he knows he’s doomed.  But he does it anyway.  It’s as pure an act of heroism as you’ll ever see in a film, done with resignation and horror.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #9: Why Girls Love Sailors

This is just the second time in the series that Laurel & Hardy are paired as the stars of the film, after Duck Soup, though they are not yet an official comedy team and their personae have yet to fully mature.  They come close here, with Laurel playing up his crybaby mugging portraying a wimpy-looking young man ( “the great periwinkle fisherman”) in love with a girl (Viola Richard, in her first film) who gets kidnapped by a much taller sea captain.  Laurel begins the film flirting with the girl, giving her a seashell necklace and twirling away in a bit of Chaplinesque acrobatics.  He then rolls around playfully on a bed, childlike and not the least bit erotic.  When the captain bursts in and pours a pitcher of water down his shirt, Laurel gives his longest weeping face to date, extending the single joke for almost a minute, until the captain takes the girl.  I really don’t know what to do with this face.  I still don’t think it’s particularly funny, but it’s Laurel’s signature move and I’m starting to appreciate the absurdity with which he commits to it.

Anyway, Laurel chases the captain and his girl back to the ship and, pulling his turtleneck up over his head, attacks one of the crew Ichabod Crane-style (“The headless man. . . he gave me the evil eye!”  The titles by HM Walker are pretty great).  After deciding haunting the ship won’t get his girl back, Laurel dresses up in drag (his third disguise, after child and ghost).  One by one, he lures the crew members behind a wall, knocks them unconscious, then tricks Hardy (the ship’s ornery first mate) to throw them overboard by posing the crew members behind him thumbing their noses and hitting Hardy on the head.  Every time this happens, it’s filmed from the front, with Hardy looking at the front right and Laurel in the left back corner of the screen, out of sight of Hardy, but clearly visible to us as he does a hilarious happy dance each time a crew member gets thrown over.

The crew dispatched, Laurel goes after the captain and flirts with him, a plan which doesn’t seem particularly well thought out.  Fortunately, the captain’s wife shows up and, after knocking out Hardy with one punch, shoots the captain while Laurel and the girl make their escape.  In the last shot of the film, the wife shoots at them too, blowing their pants off.

This is clearly a showpiece for Laurel, and while it has some funny bits and his mastery of physical comedy is obvious, the film never really escalates to anything particularly interesting or chaotic.  Hardy is wasted, his character doesn’t have much to do or much personality, and while I like the idea of a woman knocking him out after Laurel had been throwing things at his head all night to no effect, it’s weird that his character just disappears in the final act.  This film was out of circulation and considered lost for decades.  Wikipedia cites this factoid, “Why Girls Love Sailors went missing in the U.S. for nearly fifty years.  Cinémathèque Française had a 16mm print, French film critic Roland Lacourbe saw it in 1971, and pronounced it mediocre.”  Which sounds about right to me.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #8: Fluttering Hearts

Possibly the funniest short to date, though it lacks the formal brilliance of Jewish Prudence, is this Charley Chase film featuring Oliver Hardy.  Chase is one of the most well-regarded comics of the silent period, though he isn’t nearly as well-known as the superstars.  This is, I think, the first film I’ve seen him in (though he did have a small part in the first film in this series, Thundering Fleas).  He looks a bit like John Cleese: tall, gawky and angular with a little mustache and, at least in this film, an air of bemused competence.  He’s not always in control of his world, but he’s having fun in it nonetheless.

Chase plays an idle millionaire who helps a cop (the always welcome Eugene Pallette) chase down an even idler girl who’s driving like a maniac through the streets of Los Angeles (one of the little pleasures of silent films: the time capsule look at the city as it was when it was little more than a series of undeveloped villages loosely connected by dirt roads).  They catch the girl but she’s so cute and charming they decide to help her buy some linens.  You know those solemn news stories every Thanksgiving weekend about the craziness at Black Friday sales and how we can’t believe society has sunk so low that people will actually physically fight each other for a shot at a decent bargain?  Yeah, that’s not new.  This marks the third silent I’ve seen wherein the violent lunacy of sale-shoppers is a major set-piece (the others being Chaplin’s The Floorwalker from 1916 and Harold Lloyd’s 1923 Safety Last!).  After the sale, the girl (played by Martha Sleeper, who was also in Thundering Fleas and whose last screen appearance was in Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s) tells Chase her father hates idlers and so Chase becomes his chauffeur, setting in motion the second half of the film.

The father is being blackmailed by Oliver Hardy (playing “Big Bill”), who possesses an incriminating letter.  The father and Chase go to a local speakeasy to get the letter back, but the bouncer won’t let them in unless accompanied by a woman.  Their first attempt (dressing the father in drag) is foiled and ends with the father being chased away by the police (“That she is a he!”), so Chase gets a mannequin and, manipulating it Weekend at Bernie’s style, uses it to flirt with Hardy and get the letter back.  This culminates in a charming fight scene wherein everyone in the bar throws bottles and plates at Chase while he bats the objects right back at them (knocking them all unconscious) using a drum and a banjo like tennis rackets.  The reveal of the whole bar piled up with unconscious bodies is perfectly timed and one of the comic high points of the series thus far.  As is the film’s capper, when Chase mistakes the girl for the mannequin and attempts (off-screen) to retrieve the letter from its hiding place in her dress with disastrous results.