Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 23: Spring Cleaning Edition


Continuing my quest to watch all these movies sitting in my DVR (so I can record more movies!), here are six more capsule reviews for you Dear Readers:

FIFTH AVENUE GIRL (RKO 1939; D: Gregory LaCava) – A minor but entertaining bit of screwball froth revolving around rich old Walter Connolly , who’s got  problems galore: his wife (the criminally underrated Veree Teasdale) is cheating on him, his son (Tim Holt in a rare comedy role) is a polo-playing twit, his daughter (Kathryn Adams) in love with the socialism-spouting chauffer (James Ellison ), and his business is facing bankruptcy because of labor union troubles. On top of all that, no one remembers his birthday! The downcast Connolly wanders around Central Park, where he meets jobless, penniless, and practically homeless Ginger Rogers, and soon life on 5th Avenue gets turned upside-down! Ellison’s in rare form as the proletariat Marxist driver, Franklin Pangborn shines (as usual) as Connolly’s butler, and Ginger makes with the wisecracks as only Ginger could. There are some similarities to LaCava’s MY MAN GODFREY, and though FIFTH AVENUE GIRL isn’t quite as good (few film comedies are!), it’s a more than amusing look at class warfare. Fun Fact: Screenwriter Alan Scott wrote most of Ginger’s classic films with Fred Astaire (TOP HAT, FOLLOW THE FLEET, SWING TIME, SHALL WE DANCE, CAREFREE), and penned the Rogers/LaCava follow-up PRIMROSE PATH, costarring Joel McCrea.

THE FLYING DEUCES (RKO 1939; D: A. Edward Sutherland) – Laurel & Hardy join the Foreign Legion after Ollie is rejected by (unknown to him) married Jean Parker, whose husband Reginald Gardiner becomes their captain! To say complications ensue is putting it mildly in this fast moving (only 69 minutes) comedy, with a cast that includes L&H regulars Richard Cramer, Charles Middleton (who played a similar role in their short BEAU HUNKS), and of course James Finlayson. The gags come fast and furious in this, the best of their non-Hal Roach movies. Fun Fact: This is the film where The Boys perform their famous “Shine On Harvest Moon” song-and-dance routine, sweetly sung by Ollie.

THE TATTOOED STRANGER (RKO 1950; D: Edward J. Montagne) – A young girl is found shotgunned to death in a parked car in Central Park. The only clue to her identity: a Marine Corps tattoo. This low budget police procedural moves fast (it clocks in at just over an hour), contrasting the latest in 50’s forensic investigating with good old fashioned legwork, and benefits from it’s NYC location shooting. The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, all of whom are good, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role for a young Jack Lord. Not the greatest cops-chase-down-killer flick, but certainly not the worst, either. Fun Fact: Director Montagne went on to create the sitcom MCHALE’S NAVY, and produced most of Don Knotts’ 60’s movie comedies.

WITNESS TO MURDER (United Artists 1954; D: Roy Rowland) – Barbara Stanwyck spies George Sanders kill a woman from her apartment window across the street, but with no body or any clues to go on, no one believes her, and Sanders (who’s also an ex-Nazi!) gaslights her, leading the cops to question her sanity. Gary Merrill is the cop who helps crack the case, and the supporting cast includes brief but memorable bits by Claire Carleton and Juanita Moore as Babs’ fellow mental patients. Stanwyck and Sanders help elevate this somewhat derivative entry in the “Woman in Jeopardy” noir subcategory. Fun Fact: The real star of WITNESS TO MURDER is DP John Alton, whose dark cinematography can be found in classics like HE WALKED BY NIGHT, RAW DEAL , and THE BIG COMBO .

GUN THE MAN DOWN (United Artists 1956; D: Andrew V. McLaglen) – Big Jim Arness, TV’s heroic Marshal Dillon on GUNSMOKE, turns to the dark side as a bank robber who’s shot and left for dead by his compadres, who drag his woman along with them to boot! Patched up by a posse and sent to prison, he does his time and returns years later seeking revenge. A routine but very well made Western, as well it should be – director McLaglen was a sagebrush specialist, as was screenwriter Burt Kennedy , cinematographer William Clothier was a favorite of John Ford, and the producer was none other than The Duke himself, John Wayne ! The cast is peppered with sagebrush vets like Harry Carey Jr., Robert Wilke, Don Megowan, and Emile Meyer. A minor outing with major talent before and behind the cameras that’s sure to please any Western buffs. Fun Fact: A brunette Angie Dickinson is given an “introducing” credit as Arness’ love interest (though it’s actually her fourth credited film); three years later, she costarred with Wayne in the classic RIO BRAVO .

NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (MGM 1971; D: Dan Curtis) – Second feature film spinoff of the popular 60’s Gothic soap opera (following HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS ) sans Jonathan Frid (the vampire Barnabas) and Joan Bennett (matriarch Elizabeth), but featuring many of the show’s cast – David Selby, Kate Jackson, Lara Parker, Grayson Hall, John Karlen, Nancy Barrett, Chris Pennock, Thayer David – in a tale about ghosts and reincarnation, revolving around the beautiful but evil 19th Century witch Angelique (Parker). This underrated entry is slow to develop, building with an unsettling sense of dread; worth sticking with for horror buffs. Feature film debut for Jackson, who got her start on the soap before rocketing to stardom as one of TV’s original CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and the later hit series SCRECROW AND MRS. KING. Fun Fact: Robert Cobert’s appropriately eerie score incorporates several familiar music cues from the show, including the haunting “Quentin’s Theme”, which became a #13 hit in the Summer of ’69 for The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde:

 

A Love Letter to STAN & OLLIE (Sony Pictures Classics 2018)


I told you Dear Readers I was going to see STAN & OLLIE when it came to my area, and last Saturday night I did just that. Taking the 22 mile trip down the highway to Swansea, MA to catch the 9:40 showing, I have good news and bad news. The good: STAN & OLLIE is one of the best Hollywood biopic I’ve ever seen, a loving tribute to the classic comedy duo. The bad: well, I’ll get to that a bit later.

The film follows Laurel and Hardy as they embark on a 1953 tour of the UK. The duo is older, in need of money, and Stan is working on obtaining funding for their screen comeback – an adaptation of the Robin Hood legend. Ollie is in poor physical condition due to his massive weight gain, but Stan has persuaded him to do the tour. They’re booked into a succession of second-rate houses, with a rather sparse turnout but the veteran troupers press on, adding some funny new gags to their repertoire.

The new film falls through, as the producer’s unable to secure funding for a Laurel & Hardy movie, but Stan continues to work up new gags for it, stringing Ollie along to keep his spirits up. The team’s wives come abroad to join them, Ollie’s devoted Lucille and Stan’s Ina, though the women aren’t really fond of each other. Things get ugly at a party in their honor, when Stan’s old resentment over Ollie making a film without him (1939’s ZENOBIA) while Stan was involved in a contract dispute with Hal Roach rears its ugly head, and harsh words are exchanged. The two stop talking to each other… until Ollie suffers a heart attack while they’re judging a bathing beauty contest.

The old friends mend fences in a touching scene, but doctors insist Ollie retire from show biz immediately. Stan is forced to try and continue the tour with a new, untried partner, but can’t bring himself to do it. Stan and Ina pack and get ready to return stateside, when a knock on the door finds Ollie, dressed and ready to return to the stage, despite his illness. It’s a chore, but he makes it through, and as they depart for the Irish leg of the tour, Stan lets Ollie know the new film isn’t going to happen. Ollie says he already knew, but let Stan believe he didn’t, because the show must go on!

Some dramatic license has been taken in STAN & OLLIE in order to give the film some conflict. As I told you in last week’s post on WAY OUT WEST, that 1937 comedy serves as the jumping off point for the new biopic. Stan argues with producer Hal Roach on the set, demanding more money and ownership of the Laurel & Hardy films. Didn’t happen. Stan was too much of a professional to cause a scene on a film set, though he did leave Roach during a contract dispute. Since Ollie was under a separate contract, Roach cast him in ZENOBIA opposite former silent star Harry Langdon. There was no animosity because of this, and no later public spat, but hey – can’t have a film without a little conflict, now can we!

Ollie was certainly ill, and did indeed suffer a heart attack on tour, but Stan wasn’t in the best of health either, having troubles with both his prostate and diabetes. There was indeed a ‘Robin Hood’ movie in the planning stages, but it was back in 1947. Be that as it may, STAN & OLLIE works mainly because of stars Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy. These two actors are pitch perfect as the duo, recreating many classic scenes and gags, and while Reilly has been singled out for his performance (deservedly so), let’s not give short shrift to Coogan as Stan Laurel. They are a delight, and both men are entitled to a large round of applause for bringing Stan and Ollie back to vivid life.

Equally good are Nina Arianda as Lucille and Shirley Henderson as Ina; the two women act as almost a second comedy team! Rufus Jones does good work as real-life tour promoter Bernard Delfont (he was the real-life brother of famed  producer Sir Lew Grade), Danny Huston shines in his brief turn as Hal Roach, and film buffs will enjoy cameos by Keith MacPherson as L&H’s perennial screen nemesis James Finlayson and Richard Cant as Harry Langdon.

Jeff Pope’s screenplay has called a “love letter” and “valentine” to Laurel & Hardy, and those are pretty apt descriptions. Though that necessary conflict arises, Pope shows how the boy’s undying affection and friendship for each other conquers all, as when Stan climbs into Ollie’s sick-bed to help keep him warm. I particularly enjoyed a small,  wistful moment when Stan, walking the streets of London, looks up at a movie poster of ABBOTT & COSTELLO GO TO MARS, knowing he and Ollie will never get back to the big screen again. John S. Baird’s direction is subtle and unobtrusive, the hallmark of a good storyteller. STAN & OLLIE is not only for fans of Laurel & Hardy in particular, or classic films in general, but for fans of good, heartfelt filmmaking.

And now for the bad news (besides the film not getting any Oscar nominations!): while the multiplex had large crowds for AQUAMAN, GLASS, MARY POPPINS RETURNS, SERENITY, and VICE, the showing of STAN & OLLIE I attended played to an audience of one – namely Yours Truly. I didn’t expect a huge turnout, but neither did I expect I’d be getting a private screening! I felt a twinge of sadness about this (okay, more than just a twinge),as STAN & OLLIE is a good film about two great comic talents and deserves to be seen, preferably on the big screen. So if it’s playing at your local theater, do me a favor… go out and support the film. As a lifelong Laurel & Hardy fan, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Stan and Ollie deserve it.

The Real Stan & Ollie on their final tour

Stan & Ollie: OUR RELATIONS (Hal Roach/MGM 1936) & WAY OUT WEST (Hal Roach/MGM 1937)

Like many of you Dear Readers, I’m eagerly awaiting the new STAN & OLLIE biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, which hasn’t hit my area yet (and visit yesterday’s post for my thoughts on that film’s Oscar snub). I’m a huge Laurel & Hardy buff, and I spent last week warming up by watching “The Boys” in a pair of their classic comedies:

OUR RELATIONS wasn’t the first time Laurel & Hardy played dual roles (their 1930 short BRATS casts them as their own children, while 1933’s TWICE TWO finds them as each other’s spouses!), but it’s loads of fun! Stan and Ollie are two happily married suburbanites, while their long-lost twin brothers Alf and Bert are the seafaring “black sheep” of the family. Mother has informed Ollie the rascals wound up being hung from the yardarms, but it turns out Alf and Bert are alive and well, pulling into port on the S.S. Perriwinkle. The pair are conned out of their money by fellow sailor James Finlayson (who else!) under the guise of “investing” it for them (as Fin says when they leave, “Barnum was right!”). The ship’s captain (Sidney Toler, the future Charlie Chan) sends them to Denker’s Beer Garden to pick up a package for him – an expensive engagement ring for his sweetie. Couldn’t have picked two better guys for the job, right?

With but a dollar between them, Alf and Bert run into a couple of golddigging floozies (Lona Andre and the always welcome Iris Adrian ), who spot the ring and take the boys for a couple of high rollers –  and procede to run up a huge tab at the guy’s expense! The burly waiter (Alan Hale Sr.) takes the ring as collateral while Alf and Bert go to Fin to get their money back. Stan and Ollie soon arrive at the Beer Garden with their wives (Daphne Pollard, Betty Healy),  and now the fun really begins, with both sets of twins winding up at a posh nightclub before everything comes to a head on the waterfront, with Alf and Bert in cement overshoes as some gangsters (Ralf Harolde, Noel Madison) try to get the ring Bert unknowingly slipped into Stan’s pocket…

OUR RELATIONS is a classic slapstick comedy of errors with gags galore, like when the duo touch each others noses and go “Shakespeare – Longfellow” whenever they say the same thing simultaneously. Or sharing a beer with their one measly dollar, asking for two straws, and Hale brings a flagon that’s all foam (Stan asks for two spoons instead!). There’s a riotous scene involving Stan, Ollie, and perennial screen drunk Arthur Housman stuck together in a phone booth that was later reworked in the Three Stooges short BRIDELESS GROOM . And of course, plenty of Tit for Tat between Mr. Laurel, Mr. Hardy, and Mr. Finlayson!

Besides those previously mentioned, eagle-eyed comedy fans will want to keep a sharp lookout for Johnny Arthur, Dell Henderson, Gertrude Messinger, James C. Morton (as the mallet-wielding bartender), former Tarzan James Pierce, and Tiny Sanford. IMDb says Charlie Hall appears briefly at the pawn shop, but I guess I missed him! The story is credited to Richard Connell (best known for his oft-filmed short story THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) and comedy vet Felix Adler, with adaptation by Charley Rogers and Jack Jevne, with Stan providing plenty of uncredited material, as he always did. Harry Lachman’s direction keeps things moving briskly, and the whole shebang is credited as “A Stan Laurel Production”.

WAY OUT WEST is also ‘A Stan Laurel Production’; both were designated as such by Hal Roach to appease his star comic (who’d been serving in that capacity unofficially anyway) after an argument. Anytime you put classic comedians in a Wild West setting, fun is sure to follow, and WAY OUT WEST is no exception. Stan and Ollie are on their way to the rowdy town of Brushwood Gulch to find young Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), whose father has died and left her the deed to a gold mine. They’ve never met her, and saloon owner Mickey Finn (Finlayson, of course!), Mary’s ‘guardian’, conspires to pass off his main attraction wife Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne) as Mary and get the deed for themselves. When the Boys discover the ruse, chaos ensues as a mad scramble to return the deed to its rightful owner begins…

This scenario (from a story by Rogers and Jevne, with Rogers, Adler, James Parrott, and an uncredited Stan writing the script) allows Laurel & Hardy to engage in some of their most memorable gags, including Stan’s famous “Thumb Trick” – and admit it, all you L&H fans out there have tried it! We first meet The Boys on the road to Brushwood Gulch, where they have to cross a river, which proves disastrous for poor Ollie! The “block and tackle” scene is simply a masterpiece of comic construction (not to mention destruction!). Best of all is the musical interludes with The Avalon Boys singing group (featuring a young bass singer named Chill Wills !), as Stan and Ollie do a cute comic dance routine to “At the Ball, That’s All”, then later join in on a rendition of “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, with Stan lip synching towards the end, dubbed by first Wills, then Lawrence!

James W. Horne took the director’s chair for WAY OUT WEST, as he did in so many other L&H romps. James C. Morton is again a bartender (complete with mallet!), Stanley Fields an ornery Sheriff, and Harry Bernard, silent star Flora Finch, Mary Gordon, and Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones contribute uncredited bits. WAY OUT WEST serves as the jumping off point for the new STAN & OLLIE movie, and I for one can’t wait to see it. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, and you can bet I’ll have a review for it ASAP… or I’ll eat my hat!

 

Double Your Fun: Laurel & Hardy in BLOCKHEADS (MGM 1938) and SAPS AT SEA (United Artists 1940)

Hal Roach first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy in 1927, beginning a long and prosperous screen comedy collaboration. The pair became the movie’s most beloved, and funniest, screen team, a point  that’s hard to argue against after a recent rewatching of BLOCKHEADS and SAPS AT SEA, two films that each clock in at less than an hour, but pack more laughs than many longer, larger budgeted films of the era – or any era, for that matter!

In BLOCKHEADS, L&H are soldiers during WWI, and Stan is ordered to stand guard in the trench until the troop returns from battle. Twenty years later, he’s still there! Found by a pilot he shoots down, Stan is taken to an Old Soldiers’ Home, when Ollie (once again a henpecked husband) spots his picture in the newspaper. Ollie rushes to see his old pal, and finds him sitting in a wheelchair with his leg tucked under him. Thinking Stan’s lost a limb, Ollie picks him up and brings him home to meet his wife, and of course mayhem ensues as they attempt to climb upstairs to Ollie’s thirteenth floor apartment, encountering trouble at every floor, and a final melee with Ollie’s wife, neighbor Patricia Ellis, and jealous husband Billy Gilbert !

A battalion of comedy writers (Felix Adler, James Parrott, Charley Rogers, Arnold Belgard, and former silent star Harry Langdon) are credited with the script, but let’s not forget the behind-the-scenes contributions of Stan Laurel. Stan held court during the writing sessions for L&H’s films, supervising the entire project, and many of the quick-hit gags sprung from his fertile comic mind. It’s hard to say who came up with what, since all were great gag writers, but they come fast and furious: Stan in the trench, eating beans, tosses his empty can onto a pile (a virtual “hill of beans”!); the aforementioned wheelchair sight gag; perennial nemesis James Finlayson battling Ollie; an obnoxious brat (Tommy Bond, Butch of the OUR GANG shorts) kicking his football on one of the floors; and Stan smoking his “hand pipe” (first used in WAY OUT WEST). One of my favorite gags is when Stan tells Ollie, “You remember how dumb I used to be?…Well, I’m better now”, followed by a series of mishaps that causes Ollie to repeat, in his own inimitable way, “You’re better now”!

Billy Gilbert as the big-game hunting jealous neighbor adds his own blustery brand of buffoonery. Like Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy, Gilbert made a great foil for the boys in many of their shorts and features. Minna Gombell takes the role usually filled by Mae Busch as Ollie’s combative wife. John G. Blystone is the credited director (he also worked with the boys on SWISS MISS), but Stan had final say on all things Laurel and Hardy. After BLOCKHEADS, the team and producer Hal Roach left MGM (though Stan and Ollie would return five years later under drastically different circumstances).

Roach moved his output to United Artists, and his last with Laurel and Hardy is one of my favorites, 1940’s SAPS AT SEA. In this one, the boys work in a horn manufacturing company, where all the noise causes Ollie to have a nervous breakdown (“Horns! Horns!). He’s sent home to get some peace and quiet – no chance of that with Stan around! Ollie’s doctor (Finlayson again) recommends an ocean voyage, which Ollie refuses, but Stan has a brilliant idea (for a change); they could just rent a boat and stay in the harbor, getting as much fresh salt air as they would by going a-sea!

After some chaos involving wayward plumbing (silent legend Ben Turpin cameos as the cross-eyed plumber in his final film appearance) and Stan’s music teacher (Eddie Conrad) stopping by to give him music lessons (driving Ollie berserk!), the boys head to their dilapidated rented scow ‘Prickly Heat’, with a goat named Narcissus in tow (because Dr. Fin recommended Ollie drink plenty of goat’s milk!). Escaped killer Nick Grainger (Richard Cramer, playing it straight), chased down to the docks by police, sneaks aboard and hides on the boat, but Narcissus chews through the line, causing the boat to drift out to sea.


Grainger and his gun (nicknamed Nick Jr.) take control, dubbing the boys Dizzy and Dopey, and ordering them to rustle up some grub… or else! Having no food on board, Stan and Ollie decide to serve Grainger a “synthetic” meal, consisting of string spaghetti, sponge meatballs, paint tomato sauce, soap grated cheese, and the like. The killer watches them make the deadly concoction, then forces them at gunpoint to eat it themselves! More mayhem occurs when Stan begins playing his trombone, causing Ollie to go berserk again and subdue the criminal, just as Harbor Patrol comes across the adrift boat, followed by a funny coda and “another nice mess” Stan gets Ollie into!

Director Gordon Douglas , a graduate of the OUR GANG shorts, keeps things moving swiftly, and writers Adler, Langdon, and Rogers return, but as usual Stan Laurel is the genius behind the scenes. Some of the gags are old (the ‘mama’ doll under the rocking chair, for instance), but Stan and Ollie make them all seem fresh. SAPS AT SEA is their last really great comedy; when they signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox, creative control was taken out of Stan’s hands, and their later films suffered for it. Thank goodness their films under Hal Roach still survive, masterpieces of comedy delivered by the best in the business. The world is a better place thanks to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy!


A Pair of Aces: Laurel & Hardy in SONS OF THE DESERT (MGM 1933)

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Laurel and Hardy are still beloved by film fans today for their marvelous contributions to movie comedy. Rooted firmly in the knockabout visual style of the silent screen, the team adapted to talking pictures with ease, and won the Best Short Subject Oscar for 1932’s THE MUSIC BOX. The next year the duo made what’s undoubtably their best feature film SONS OF THE DESERT, a perfect blend of slapstick, verbal humor, and situation comedy benefitting from a fine supporting cast and the undeniable chemistry between Stan and Ollie .

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The boys are at a meeting of their lodge The Sons of the Desert when it’s announced all members must swear a sacred oath to attend the annual convention in Chicago. Timid Stanley is afraid his wife won’t let him go, but blustery Ollie insists, boasting about who wears the pants in his family. Of course, Ollie’s just as henpecked as Stan, and his wife laughs in his face, not to mention crowning him with a vase! Ollie concocts a scheme to trick the wives by feigning a “nervous breakdown”, and gets Stan to have a lodge brother pose as a doctor (Stan gets a veterinarian!). The bogus doc claims the only cure for Ollie is a cruise to Honolulu (!), and Stan is designated to accompany his friend.

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The ‘subterfuge’ (a word that baffles Stan) works, and soon the boys are living it up in Chicago, with lots of drinking, dancing-girls, and tomfoolery going on. They meet up with an obnoxious practical joker from Texas who calls his sister in Los Angeles as a gag. Ollie begins to flirt with her over the phone, that is until he realizes he’s talking to his own wife! Looks like the joke’s on him!

Headlines in the newspaper back home state the Honolulu ocean liner the boys are allegedly on is sinking in a typhoon, and the panic-stricken wives, thinking their husbands are heading for Davy Jones’s Locker, hightail it to the docks. The boys return home after the girls leave for the docks, and are even more panic-stricken when they read the news of their imminent demise! They hide out in the attic, while the wives go to a picture show to calm their nerves. You know it, they see a newsreel featuring their spouses prominently cavorting in Chicago. Stan and Ollie end up on the roof in a rainstorm (after being struck by lightning!!), and a cop, catching them shimmying down the drainpipe (where Ollie gets stuck in the rainbarrel), marches them to their wives. Ollie comes up with a wild tale about being shipwrecked and having to “ship-hike” home. Stan breaks down and confesses (even after Ollie threatens to tell his wife he smoked a cigarette in Chi-town!), and is rewarded for his honesty with chocolates and TLC. As for Ollie… well, after his wife pummels him with every dish and piece of crockery in the house, Stan comes over and tells him, “Honesty is the best politics”. Ollie beans him with a remaining pot for his ill-timed advice!

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All this allows Stan and Ollie to indulge in some of their wackiest bits; I especially love the slapstick silliness involving Stan, Ollie. Mae Busch, and a tub of hot water when Ollie’s playing sick. Then there’s Stan innocently munching on wax fruit in the Hardy’s living room. Laurel’s malaprops (calling their lodge leader “the exhausted ruler” for example) are always welcome, but it’s his big-worded soliloquy in the attic (and Ollie’s reaction) that got me laughing. Hardy’s bullying of his little pal is offset by his cowering before his wife, and it wouldn’t be a Laurel & Hardy film without Ollie getting the chance to tell Stanley, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”.

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“The ever-popular Mae Busch” (to quote Jackie Gleason) is Ollie’s wife, and she’s at her shrewish best here. In fact, you can see a lot of Ralph and Alice Kramden in the relationship between Mae and Ollie. Dorothy Christy plays Stan’s gun-toting, duck hunting wife, and she holds her own in her only film with the boys. Comedian Charley Chase is the raucous conventioneer from Texas, and he’s a hoot. Chase starred in his own two-reelers and features for Hal Roach , and after moving to Columbia, he directed some of the Three Stooges best 30’s efforts. If you’ve never seen any of Chase’s solo work, do so immediately; you’re in for a treat!

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Familiar Faces in the cast include Lucien Littlefield as the ersatz doctor, and if you look close you’ll find Stanley Blystone, Ellen Corby, young Robert Cummings , Charlie Hall, and producer Hal Roach himself. Actor Frank Craven wrote the story, embellished by Laurel and Hardy and five others, including director William A. Seiter, a Mack Sennett vet who also worked with comedy teams Wheeler & Woolsey, Abbott & Costello, and the Marx Brothers. SONS OF THE DESERT is by far my favorite Laurel & Hardy feature, a timeless classic that gets better every time I view it. There’s an international Laurel & Hardy fan club called “Sons of the Desert” that’s still active,  with thousands of members in the U.S. and abroad. I wish there was a chapter near me, I’d sign up today!

Another Fine Mess: Laurel & Hardy in JITTERBUGS (20th Century Fox 1943)

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Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the screen’s most beloved comics. Their Hal Roach comedy shorts contain some of the screen’s funniest moments, capitalizing on their unique comic personas. But by the 1940’s, Stan and Ollie had separated from Roach, and were plying their trade in features at 20th Century Fox. No longer in control of their material, the roles they played could’ve been filled by any pair of comic actors. That’s what makes later L&H efforts like JITTERBUGS so depressing.

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Stan and Ollie are two itinerant musicians (“The Original Zoot Suit Band”) conned into aiding con artist Chester Wright into hawking “instant gas pills”. The scam gets uncovered in the small town of Midville, where Chester accidentally steals pretty young Susan’s purse. Since he’s smitten with her, he returns it, and discovers Susan is being swindled by some gangland goons. The con plays a con on these cons, aided by Stan and Ollie. Stan dresses in drag as Susan’s aunt, and after some complications, the gangsters are rounded up, Chester and Susan get together, and everything’s hunky dory.

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It’s strange to see Laurel & Hardy in this 40’s milieu, acting like 40’s hepcats, surrounded by energetic jitterbuggers. Like I said before, the parts could’ve been played here by any pair of comic actors. The uniqueness of what made Laurel & Hardy so special is nowhere to be found. The boys look older, but definitely not wiser here. The gags they participate in are stale as old bread, but the duo’s natural funniness does manage to shine through in glimpses. Vivian Blaine (Susan) had a fine singing voice, wasted here with some forgettable ditties. She had more success on the Broadway stage, creating the role of Adelaide in GUYS & DOLLS, which she also played in the film version.

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Bob Bailey (Chester) never made a big splash in films, either. He was a radio star known for the series YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR. The cast is loaded with Familiar Faces: Douglas Fowley, Noel Madison, Lee Patrick, Robert Emmett Keane, Anthony Caruso, and Francis Ford. Director Malcom St. Clair had a long, undistinguished film career; his best known credit is probably THE CANARY MURDER CASE, an early talkie with William Powell as suave sleuth Philo Vance, featuring Jean Arthur and Louise Brooks.

Screenwriter Scott Darling has 196 credits listed on the IMDb! He wrote the ongoing silent serial THE HAZZARDS OF HELEN, all 119 chapters totaling over 23 hours. That alone would get him in the record books, but Darling didn’t stop there. He’s responsible for a ton of B-movies, some of them quite good: CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA, MYSTERY OF MR. WONG, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON , WEIRD WOMAN, COBRA WOMAN, THE SPIDER WOMAN, DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS, KIDNAPPED, BLUE GRASS OF KENTUCKY, and his last, DESERT PURSUIT. In October of 1951, the prolific writer was going through a painful divorce. His car was found parked on a beach, his wallet in the ocean surf. Scott Darling’s body was later found in the Pacific Ocean, a suicide.

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JITTERBUGS is not among Scott Darling’s, or Laurel & Hardy’s, best work. It’s sad to see the two great comedians wasted in an inconsequential movie like this. Any of their silent movies or 30’s comedies will bring you much more joy than sitting through JITTERBUGS. Don’t waste your time on this one; go find a copy of SONS OF THE DESERT instead.

 

 

Pre Code Confidential #5: HOLLYWOOD PARTY (MGM 1934)

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One of the most bizarre films of the Pre-Code (or any) era is HOLLYWOOD PARTY. This practically plotless hodgepodge stars Jimmy Durante as jungle movie hero Schnarzan, whose films are tanking at the box office. The public has grown tired of his battles with “moth-eaten, toothless lions”, so his producer decides to buy new ones from the adventurer Baron Munchausen (radio star Jack Pearl doing his schtick). Schnarzan throws a big Hollywood party for the Baron, hoping to win his favor, but screen rival Liondola (dialect comic Georges Givot), disguising himself as the Grand Royal Duke of Peloponnesia, crashes the bash and tries to buy the lions for himself with the help of Oklahoma oil baron Harvey Crump (the perpetually perplexed  Charles Butterworth).

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All this is just an excuse for a series of unrelated comic bits featuring some of the era’s top funnymen. Durante, as the nominal star, gets the bulk of the material. He’s a roar in a “Schnarzan” trailer with his half-naked costar, the fiery and funny Lupe Velez. A reincarnation skit features Jimmy as Adam at the Garden of Eden and Paul Revere’s horse! He even gets to clown around with the one and only Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney), which segues into a color Disney cartoon, “Hot Chocolate Soldiers”.

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Ted Healy and his Three Stooges show up, with Moe, Larry, and Curly as autograph hounds at the door and do a bit about Neanderthal craniums with three eminent professors. Mack Sennett veteran Polly Moran is Butterworth’s social-climbing wife, who gets involved in some amorous (and racy!) situations with Durante and Givot. Young lovers Eddie Quillan and June Clyde pitch woo and sing the comical “I’ve Had My Moments”.

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But it’s Laurel & Hardy who manage to steal the film, showing up in the last half as a pair of ragamuffins who sold the lions to Baron Munchausen. Seems the Baron gave them a check for fifty thousand tiddy-winks, and they want their lions back! After some shenanigans at the front door with butler Tom Kennedy, they crash the party and meet Lupe Velez at the bar. This turns into a classic “tit for tat” bit involving Stan, Ollie, Lupe, and a bowl of raw eggs (which the team later reprised in THE BULLFIGHTERS). Stan and Ollie let one of the lions loose, and Schnarzan engages in a fierce battle, only to awaken from what’s been a dream Durante had after reading a Tarzan book!

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HOLLYWOOD PARTY features tons of scantily clad women in musical sequences singing and dancing to some pretty forgettable songs. It was released about a month before the Code went into effect, and edited upon rerelease by the censors. What survives is still funny, and of interest to fans of early 30’s comedy. Also in the cast are Leonid Kinskey, Edwin Maxwell, Jed Prouty, Arthur Treacher (as a butler, of course), Robert Young (doing a bit as a radio announcer), and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers (if you look close, you’ll spot her!).

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Richard Boleslavsky usually gets the director’s credit, but research has shown the film had multiple hands working on different sequences. George Stevens handled the Laurel & Hardy scenes, and Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, and Sam Wood all took turns in the director’s chair, but who did what is up for speculation. This gives HOLLYWOOD PARTY a disconnected feeling, like a series of two-reelers slapped together, but somehow it works. It’s a zany look at Hollywood Bacchanalia before the code went into effect, and film buff’s delight. If you’re a fan of any of the comedians I’ve mentioned, it’s definately worth checking out.

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