Thursday, April 05, 2012

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.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

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.