The Sleeper Awakes

Guest-post from Jaime Christley —

Recently I got sidetracked from my viewing queue by one Leo McCarey / Charley Chase short, then another, then another. Presently following a McCarey compulsion as far as it will go; clearing out several rarities per week. (I’ve seen all the major sound features except SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, if that one is considered “major”.)

Oh and PART TIME WIFE; can’t seem to find that one.

I no longer get much out of arguing auteurism pro or con, but the concept is quite a bit more interesting as one catalogs McCarey from 1929 and walking backwards from there: job titles like “Director” get a bit cloudy with the addition of “Supervising Director” (McCarey has been both), and it’s common knowledge that Laurel and Chase conceived and wrote the largest part of their own stories and gags. 

Still, when I think McCarey is really feeling his oats, the difference is palpable, especially in the Chases. It helps that I don’t find Chase all that funny (but I don’t dislike him, far from it), so I find myself grouping the more successful 1- and 2-reelers by how much a film is managing to achieve equilibrium with/against what I’ve come to think of as “Hal Roach hijinks”… i.e. the notion that actors behaving funny is funny enough. (I’m recalling a very early Mack Sennett short that ends with a guy wearing a funny disguise biting down on a curtain rod.

An auteurist like me has to make peace with the fog, as well as the dominance of bigger voices and “truer” authors. And I believe in Stan Laurel’s genius, he probably did as much for the cinema as anybody. Nevertheless the hunt for McCarey-ness continues apace, and I even feel, here and there, vindicated. The unassuming and seemingly minor-register BROMO AND JULIET, during this survey, has been the closest to a triumph, even as the reasons why I think it’s a near-masterpiece elude me. It’s just one of those cases where the souffle rises rather than doesn’t.

I think of it like this: take this frame from MUM’S THE WORD. Credit Chase for devising a meet-cute prompted by Martha Sleeper shooting him in the butt (she was fighting off a purse thief). (Chase liked to have Jimmy Jump get shot in the butt. I guess he thought you don’t get hurt back there?) But those onlooking passengers in the background, sort of audience surrogates watching the seeds of a future romance … that’s something McCarey would make sure was part of the bit.

Jaime Christley

11 Responses to “The Sleeper Awakes”

  1. The McCarey klatch who enjoyed the discovery (I guess it was presumed lost?) of PLAIN AND FANCY GIRLS last year, on YouTube, also claimed the re-discovery of the talented Sleeper. It’s taken me a couple more tries but now I’m inclined to agree that she was pretty special.

    More to come, I hope!

  2. A lot of the women in the Laurel & Hardys and Chase films are really good! I love Katherine Grant.

  3. I love Grant too – the poor thing. She does a bunch of vaudeville-style hoofing and contortions to try and amuse a baby in HELLO BABY! from ’25.

    A broad – sorry – idea I am developing is that Laurel liked to cast really strong and capable comediennes who could hold their own against the lads. Chase and Sleeper are paired a bunch, but she’s a sly one; she goofs and pulls faces but …. I dunno… something ninja about her.

    Vivien Oakland is my idea of the axiomatic L&H foil. Absolutely incredible, luminous.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Most comics used girls primarily as prizes to won or as wives / mothers-in-law to fight with. Women in L&H films were most often setting tasks or boundaries on the boys. Not mere authority figures, but stern mothers intent on making them behave like adults. It’s no job for stock ingenues or shrews.

    In “Blotto” we see Stanley at home. He wears a smoking jacket and tries to read a book under Anita Garvin’s hawklike stare. The effect is that of a confused but obedient dog dressed up and posed. Anita has made him LOOK like a grown-up, and now he damn well better BE a grown-up.

    The end of “Sons of the Desert” revisits that idealized picture of a domesticated husband, except now it’s a reward (better than being shot with a duck gun). Do as you’re told and you might even be allowed a cigarette!

  5. Certainly I agree with roles assigned and roles being slippery from year to year. I don’t even know if I have enough material to develop a thesis. I just think, on the evidence, that L&H, in their stronger pictures (and when it was relevant), preferred the so-called gentler sex to dish out as much as, or more, than they were meant to take. I don’t dock points from the Chase films for preferring agendas that were more traditional or indiffierent to battles of the sexes. On the contrary, I think the viewer is right to be infatuated with Martha Sleeper’s dexterity, be it more gender-conforming, and thrilled by a righteous battle-axe like Vivien Oakland.

    In short, I take no issue with social mores and norms and all of that; I just think, when an actress distinguishes herself in a man’s game, some ought to say something. It’s just a matter of, in my view, there’s something you can’t do anything about, and some things you can.

  6. I don’t really know what I was saying in that last comment, apologies.

  7. I enjoyed it, and I think I followed your line of thought!

  8. David you’re like my Max Perkins, I’m just sitting on top of my refrigerator tossing pages of awful scribblings and you’re telling me there’s something in them!

  9. Not a problem!

    I really wish Part Time Wife would turn up, that one seems crucial.

  10. I believe it’s a “an archive has it” case – UCLA? It’s permanently missing one reel but as I understand it, otherwise totally coherent and really good.

  11. I think maybe MOMA? It has had New York screenings. Seems to have early versions of some Awful Truth business, including couple with dog.

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