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.)