The Sunday Intertitle: Hooves of Doom

NO MAN’S LAW is a 1927 western romp starring Rex the Wonder Horse, whose oeuvre I have not really investigated until now. More intriguingly still, it’s a Hal Roach joint, and so features players such as James Finlayson and Oliver Hardy, who plays villain Sharkey Nye. Ollie was about to make his first film in actual partnership with Stan Laurel (a movie I hope to see on the big screen next weekend), but at this point he was still playing a lot of baddies. He’s been given an eye-patch and a rather fearsome scar disappearing up under it, allowing us to vividly imagine the horrible empty socket…

Looking the part as he does, all Ollie has to do is avoid using any of the gestures that would later become trademarks of his comic persona. It wouldn’t do if Sharkey Nye suddenly started coyly fluttering his necktie, for instance. Fortunately, he has no necktie, so Ollie isn’t tempted in the direction.

The problem arises when Nye catches leading lady Barbara Kent (of LONESOME fame) indulging in a spot of skinny-dipping. Kent has been equipped by the scenarists with an unsuitable character name, Toby Belcher, which makes her sound like a Restoration roué who should be played by Hugh Griffiths, but she’s been equipped by Nature with a lissome form which the ultra-clear lake water does little to conceal. This isn’t the problem, by the way. I have no problem whatsoever with this.

The problem is that Ollie is now called upon to espy the bathing damsel and perform a reaction suggestive of malign lust. This is an emotion not usually called for from “Babe” Hardy, and I’m not sure it’s in his repertoire. What he decides to do to suggest malign lust is hitch up his belt over his belly with a firm tug, which is the Universal Oliver Hardy Symbol for girding one’s loins for battle. It’s more usually followed by slicing off the top of somebody’s derby or pelting them with a lot of rice pudding. To make it suggest immanent, rapacious lechery when it has those other associations (from later films) is a big ask. I mean, the pants-hitch is a perfectly sound dramatic choice, and if it were anyone else doing it, I think we’d accept it without question as a valid encapsulation of malign lust. But how could Ollie know that future audiences would be watching his career out of sequence?

Anyway, Rex is on hand to drive the leering Nye away and save young Belcher’s honour. At film’s end, Nye is still unreformed, and indeed even deeper-dyed in villainy, and so Rex takes the law into his own hooves and simply tramples the big fellow to death. This is a bit disconcerting, and not just because it’s Ollie’s chubby, cherubic fist we see uncurling in death. Hyperintelligent animal heroes are all very well, but we prefer it, I think, when the dog summons help when the leading lady is tied to the railroad track, rather than leaping on the baddie and tearing his throat out. Likewise, a horse hero should, I feel, confine himself to racing to the rescue, expressive whinnying and the like. Equine homicide I disbar.

It’s an interesting notion, though — there have been several films about intelligent, killer cars, but nobody so far as I know has made a western horror film about an evil horse. They could call it something like EVIL HORSE.

(Probably it will turn out that several such films exist, most of them also featuring Cary Grant singing.)

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6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Hooves of Doom”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Tempting to imagine that Hardy used the evil pants-hitch in a comedy as an inside joke; perhaps a laugh for some Roach crew who’d worked on the Rex epic. Then, when it worked as a sign of Ollie’s grand commitment to Tit for Tat (emphasis on the combination), it became part of his repertoire.

    Another tale: The tie-twiddle, Hardy claimed, came about when he’d forgotten a particular shot ended a bucket of water to the face. With camera cranking, his first improv thought was to blow his nose on his tie; then decided that was too vulgar and just kept playing with his neckwear while affecting embarrassment.

    My what-if fantasy: Oliver Hardy instead of Spencer Tracy as the proud but embattled patriarch in “Father of the Bride” — and Stan as the groom’s father, even more unnecessary and giving Ollie reason to worry about the gene pool as they struggle with their small roles in a grand, upper-middle-class ritual. The post-Roach films all cast the boys as tramps or just above; they would have been fine as riper Sons of the Desert in a post-depression America where status and conformity were more demanding than ever.

  2. Minnelli’s best comedies verge into nightmare, and L&H have that strain too. But was just discussing them with my editor, and he pointed out the way MGM made them look more real, forbidding them white makeup, which aged them. A little reality is very dangerous to L&H.

    I also formed the theory that it’s OK for Groucho and Chico to grow old, since they’re disreputable middle-aged men from the start, but Harpo is a kind of child, so his aging is distressing to the audience. Same with Stan and Ollie.

  3. Rex himself played an evil, racist horse in the quite frankly jaw-dropping THE DEVIL HORSE in 1926. It’s another Roach movie, and features a romantic subplot between Rex and a lady horse by the name of Lady. It’s quite the thing.

  4. Crikey! Who’d have thought it- such versatility in a single steed! He’s like a hooved Barrymore.

  5. John Seal Says:

    Clearly this was the weekend to be disturbed by Oliver Hardy, as I found myself in a state of shock on Sunday after watching him and Stan don blackface in Pardon Us.

  6. I guess they were bound to do it at some point, everyone else did (Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford…)

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