Fun Fact: in 1940, during the brief stint as an up-and-coming Hollywood star, Peter Cushing (far left) made a skimpy appearance in the Laurel & Hardy feature A CHUMP AT OXFORD.
Less Fun Fact: Fiona is quite ill with depression at the moment. We’ve been concentrating our viewing on lighter fair, and Laurel & Hardy seemed a good fit. You often hear it said that such-and-such a comedian could cure depression, but usually this is not so. During her last major illness, eight years ago, Stephen Fry’s quiz show QI could sometimes make Fiona smile, or even reluctantly laugh, but it did not effect a cure. However, a good Laurel & Hardy film is about the most reliable comedy there is, if your funny bone happens to incline in that direction (some poor souls are not amused at the boys’ antics: we make no judgement on these unfortunates, but pass on in silence). Though not as big an L&H fan as I (Fiona really digs the Marx Brothers), Fiona was up for trying an experiment: Stan and Ollie Versus Clinical Depression.
Unfortunately, for our first try, choosing A CHUMP AT OXFORD was probably a mistake. The duo was usually better in shorts than features, and ACAO was originally a short feature which was then padded with a twenty-minute prologue having nothing to do with the rest of the picture. However, this sequence does feature “knobby Scot” James Finlayson, who provoked an involuntarily, slightly painful laugh, from my poor partner. Finlayson has only to appear and a smile can be sensed around the edges of the face.
After the disjointed opening, the film repairs to the dreaming spires of Oxford, and Cushing appears as one of a gang of nasty students, ragging Stan & Ollie with prolonged practical jokes. More interestingly than amusingly, several of these have an element of the macabre. Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy are made to get lost in a maze that’s straight out of THE SHINING (and nothing much to do with Oxford), and then Cushing helps one of his chums dress up as a wraith and chivvy the boys about at midnight. It’s a sort of dress rehearsal for CAPTAIN CLEGG.
Fiona becomes fixated on the film’s title. “But there’s two of them,” she protests, in a low-affect deadpan that would be funny if deliberate. A depressed person taking issue with a Hal Roach film title sounds like a normal person delivering tragic news: “It’s metastasized,” “War is declared,” “Winterbottom’s done it again.”
All this stuff seems based on a poor understanding of the kind of situation Laurel & Hardy are funny in. They’re so dumb that practical jokes played against them strike the audience as unfair — too easy! It’s more amusing to see the boys creating their own problems, and also fun to see them creating problems for officious enemies or perfectly innocent bystanders, who can be relied upon to react angrily and thus bring more misfortune on themselves. All without any real malice from the boys, who are generally just screwing things up through sheer incompetence. Cushing and his gang with their studied malevolence don’t fit into this scenario at all.
When Cushing next appears, he’s disguised in a voluminous false moustache. Oddly, when this is removed, he has a smaller, real moustache underneath, although his upper lip was quite nude when last we saw it. In the course of the night he’s somehow acquired this decoration. I wonder if the ‘tache might have been grown for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (by horror legend James Whale), released the previous year? In that film, Cushing has a small role, but originally had a much larger one. In the split-screen scenes where Louis Hayward, playing royal twins (one good, one evil!) acts with himself, Cushing played stand-in, appearing in the cast-off halves of the screen, while Hayward’s halves were retained. Alas, the Cushing offcuts have not survived so far as we know.
Towards the climax of ACAO, which involves some pretty funny knockabout stuff, Stan gets caught in a window, and THE SHINING is recalled once more. A blow on the head cures him of lifelong amnesia and he reverts to his true self, an English lord. This leads nowhere in particular, but we get to see Stan play an English lord, which is worth seeing. It made Fiona smile a bit.
A trifle dissatisfied with ACAO, we looked at DO DETECTIVES THINK? a silent which isn’t that great either but has Finlayson again and some more examples of the Laurel & Hardy Uncanny —
Incidentally, Cushing enjoyed quite a long collaboration with another much-loved comedy duo, Morecambe and Wise — beloved in the UK (and the favourite TV show of Cary Grant) but largely unknown elsewhere. Enjoy —
An entry for the Peter Cushing Centenary Blogathon.