Archive for Detained

The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2020 by dcairns

An evening of Laurel without Hardy and Hardy without Laurel sounded uncertain — I was reminded of the cheap tapes and DVDs that would package together whatever low-quality public domain bits they could scrape together and publish, without a shred of honest, as “The Best of Laurel and Hardy.” But, viewing as an amateur historian, and without the residual feeling of having been cheated, this was pretty great.

This is the intertitle, folks.

THE SERENADE (1916) stars Plump & Runt — an early attempt at putting Ollie in a double-act based on physical opposites: this time, a fat guy and a short guy. Well, that doesn’t work. Absorbing the twosome into a larger troupe, as musicians in a slapstick band, also doesn’t help things. When Stan & Ollie appeared as musicians early on, they made sure they were the only funny ones except for irate conductor James Finlayson.

Hmm, Babe made thirty-eight of these suckers, so I guess they thought they’d established things… I have zero recollection of ever reading about this series.

There are one or two ACTUAL SHOTS in this, such as the introduction of Runt (Billy Ruge) from behind his own feet. And some neat trick shots. Lots of stuff of Ollie blasting people out of frame with his mighty tuba, a kind of early sonic weapon. It isn’t any damn good, but it has spurts of invention.

Larry Semon rips off EASY STREET in THE RENT COLLECTOR (1921) with Babe Hardy in the Eric Campbell part, looking like Paul Sorvino in a spray-on beard. Hardy played heavy a lot in his early films, but whereas the examples I’ve seen were notable for how similar to his later performance style Ollie’s characterisations were, in this one it’s more interesting to see how unformed the persona is.

(There’s that wild west one where villainous O.N.H. spots the heroine skinny-dipping, and displays lustful scheming by hitching up his pants with a side-to-side rotation of the waistline, a pure Ollie gesture employed in unexpected and very unfamiliar circs.)

Larry Semon is funny-looking (hire Paul Rubens for the remake), and distinctive, though when he adds a jacket to his derby and baggy dungarees he again seems to be ripping off That Other Clown.

Some inventive special effects, jump cuts and undercranking and even overcranking, so you could fairly say, as the saying goes, it’s both good and original, but the parts that are good etc…

NB: Larry Semon definitely faked his own death. DEFINITELY.

Ollie has a henchman, another fat guy who’s even fatter. Two fat guys NEVER works.

Then we moved on to Stan Laurel in DETAINED — the title is funny, somehow. An escaped convict forces Stan into that stripy prison attire he’d be seen in several times in later years, resulting in his immediate incarceration — in other words, it’s Keaton’s CONVICT 13, and promptly devolves into a series of spot gags featuring Stan’s nascent idiot persona. He grins a lot, especially at us, and is much more, uh, proactive, than his later incarnations. There’s an electric chair scene played in a vaulted dungeon which is probably a recycled set from the Chaney HUNCHBACK — see also Stan’s DR. PYCKLE AND MR. PRYDE.

Some of Stan’s “freak gags” appear — his neck is literally stretched by a noose. Hal Roach might have actually been right about those — they’re always unsettling and rarely funny. Still, the tunneling to freedom stuff does show Stan annoying another, larger convict, and the foreshadowing of THE SECOND 100 YEARS is very clear. Towards the end, he does some running about in a panic, and some weeping, so it feels like he’s getting born.

Argh, take it away!

MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (1925) is a vehicle for Clyde Cook, paired with the reliably gruesome Noah Young, as a couple of burglars. Stan directed this one. and thriftily recycled chunks in future shorts — at first it looks like he’s using the burglars sketch his father wrote, and which he kept trying to turn into a successful short, but then it throws in a mad scientist (James Finlayson in fulsome side-whiskers) and grave-robbing, and a certain ingenue named Fay Wray, and turns into a practice run for HABEAS CORPUS.

Cook plays a hapless idiot, and Young plays a domineering idiot — you see where this is going — it’s like a rehearsal for mature Laurel & Hardy comedy, with a shopsoiled Chuckle Brother and a murderous gargoyle cast as the boys. Absolutely fascinating. Not a laugh in it. But I’m really glad I saw it. It has the quality of a dream, where all your familiar friends have been replaced by unsuitable stand-ins.

The byplay between Cook & Young is actually skilled, and I like comedy of terror a lot, so I had a fairly good time with this. Maybe no laughs but some muted snorts of appreciation.

And then comes WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923), one of Stan’s parody films, which are often outrageously funny (remember Rhubarb Vaselino?). This one, though incomplete, is a joy. The ridiculous gags mainly consist of throwing everything at the situation — whatever’s easiest. This being a Fairbanks Robin Hood parody, we get anachronisms and absurdities from the off. (Well, the actual off is missing, but from the off that’s left.)

Stan enters on horseback, but it’s a puppet horse he’s wearing, with floppy fake human legs draped over the saddle. British comedian Bernie Clifton used to wear an outfit like this, only he rode an ostrich I believe it was. You can ride anything using this technique.

Stan is being chased by an army of knights, all wearing their horses in the same manner. It’s very MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, only he found a more expensive way of doing the coconuts, which wouldn’t have worked in a silent movie, I guess.

Much battling on recycled sets ensues — Mae Laurel is glimpsed, I think — and the gags come (extremely) thick and fast. When an enemy is booted from a window, he lands on some power lines just for added cruelty and anachronism. The incessant piling-on of jokes means that Stan doesn’t get to make that much of an impression as an actor — you could substitute anybody you like, including Bernie Clifton, and it would make not too much difference. But it’s a riotous and unrelenting guffaw-generator, completely stupid and wonderful from (truncated) beginning to end, and fully justified the whole evening’s conceit.

Neil Brand’s piano throughout this programme brought the films to life, not in a ghastly electro-galvanistic way, which nobody would thank him for, but by infusing zest and charm and basic coherence where it needed to be and wasn’t always to be found, and brought into being the final short’s very specific musical requirement: a ragtime version of The Wedding March.

Frame grabs by Mark Fuller, mostly, to whom appreciation is due as always.

Stan & Ollie & Leo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2018 by dcairns

The mystery of who teamed Laurel & Hardy is probably insoluble. Leo McCarey claimed credit. Hal Roach claimed credit but allowed Leo some, too. And there are a couple of other names that should be mentioned.

McCarey deserves his place at the table because he supervised most of the silent collaborations and directed a couple and contributed lots of the best story ideas. And he was capable of modesty, insisting that he learned everything he knew from Tod Browning, whom he assisted, and Charley Chase, whom he directed. McCarey said CHASE was the real director on those films. That kind of giving away of credit is rare, so when McCarey says “I teamed them,” he has some credibility.

Roach seems to lie a lot, or at any rate say things that don’t make sense. He presided over the studio where Stan & Ollie appeared in numerous films together without anybody noticing the chemistry between them. I think he lucked into the greatest comedy team of all time and his splendid contribution was to mainly leave them alone to get on with it. Some of the films he has a director credit on are good, but the director is not that important a figure in these films, where there’s a highly creative star/writer, and also a supervisor charged with overseeing the whole process.

A Roach studio employee recalled that when Roach pitched an idea, nobody could ever understand it. And the ideas Roach describes in Randy Skretvedt’s book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies conform to that pattern, especially his nonsensical storyline proposal for BABES IN TOYLAND which makes me tired and ill just thinking about it.

I just watched HURDY GURDY, which was Edgar Kennedy’s first talkie, to see if he has “a voice like a sissy” as Roach alleged. Roach claims he got Kennedy to talk deeper after seeing this movie. But Kennedy in HG is the same bellicose sea-lion he ever was. MAYBE the fault was corrected before the film was finished, but there are plenty of other Roach statements that seem questionable. So I’d say Roach is an unreliable narrator who happened to outlive everyone else and got to repeat his lies more often and more recently than his competitors. He always insisted that Stan couldn’t think up gags, he just remembered them from the music hall, and had no sense of story, allegations denied by absolutely everyone who ever knew Stan.

The other trouble with Roach is that he wasn’t satisfied with having sort of presided over L&H’s union, or giving them the freedom to make their magic. He wanted to get involved and prove that his ideas were as good as anyone else’s. This was fatal.

Stan, of course, was the primary creative force in the film-making, and as long as he had authority the films were good, though he obviously needed collaborators, gag men, a director, and Babe Hardy. But Stan didn’t want to form a double-act and was planning to head behind the camera when the team-up was more or less imposed on him, so the actual idea of Laurel & Hardy can’t go to him.

But the other name deserving of mention is Fred Guiol. He directed DO DETECTIVES THINK?, which is the first film pairing Stan & Ollie in their trademark hats with their trademark personalities. Skretvedt has seen his original draft of WHY GIRLS LOVE SAILORS, an earlier short, in which Guiol proposed casting the boys as inseparable partners. And he directed THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, which plants the boys in the same cell, providing one of the few practical reasons ever provided for their sticking together.

It’s notable that Leo McCarey’s first story credit on an L&H film is PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP, in which the boys do not have their traditional costumes and personalities.

So Guiol — a talented gag man, moderate director, and for decades after a producing partner to George Stevens, was right there on three key occasions where the boys developed their act. He wouldn’t have had the authority to declare them a team and make other directors use them as such — Roach and McCarey were surely involved in that decision.

Incidentally, lost bits of Stan’s solo movie DETAINED have just been found, and we can see Stan trying out gags that recur in THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS.

One thing we can safely conclude Leo contributed to the team-up was the escalating tit-for-tat gag, which seems to have multiple antecedents in his own life, from his father’s staged riots in the boxing ring, where all the local newsboys would throw in their shoes and fight to retrieve a matching pair, to an incident with a bow tie started by Mabel Normand, escalating into a clothes-ripping frenzy that destroyed the collective evening dress of an entire New York night club. Even if the slow-burn comedy of retaliation were McCarey’s sole contribution to L&H, that would be enough to earn him immortality.