Archive for Do Detectives Think?

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Dropping Bricks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by dcairns

Having posted about Stan Laurel as “Ferdinand Flamingo” last week, it seems only right to mention his star turn as Ferdinand Finkleberry in DO DETECTIVES THINK?, a Laurel & Hardy movie I seem doomed to return to perpetually. Interesting that Ferdie is types as being slightly less awful at detection than his partner, played by Ollie. A dubious ranking.

Interesting also that the name Ferdinand was used twice, as if Stan or the title-writer felt it was specially apposite. In the talkies, of course, and even in many of the silents starting in 1928, Stan goes by his own name, as does Ollie — as the partnership brought out the platonic ideal versions of the actors’ comic personalities, hiding under pseudonyms came to seem like an obstruction. I’m not sure why Ferdinand was ever considered right for Stan, though. To me it suggests flamboyance, which you might get in an early Laurel vehicle if he’s parodying Valentino or someone, but by the time of this film, that wasn’t even a memory.

While I’m counting Ferdinands, indulge me as I count bricks also. Some backstory. L&H were on TV a whole lot when I was a kid. Then they went away — some kind of rights dispute. Some years into this fallow period, a program of shorts was screened at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. My best friend and I attended this open-air showing on a whim, and sat in light drizzle watching DIRTY WORK and laughing so hard it felt life-endangering. (We had a similar rediscovery when we saw a selection of Looney Tunes at the Filmhouse, presented by Chuck Jones. A transfiguring experience.)

One thing that really killed me was the seemingly endless succession of bricks falling on Ollie’s head — a bit of durational comedy that got funnier the more over-extended it got. So on this latest viewing I decided to count the bricks.

To my amazement, the initial, seemingly eternal cycle of falling masonry comprises only four bricks, bouncing sharply off Ollie’s cranium in as many seconds. And yet, to the unsuspecting and susceptible viewer, this seems to last an unbelievable age, with more and bigger laughs crammed into those moments than you can recall expelling in your previous existence on earth.

After the sequence of four bricks at regular intervals, Ollie believes the assault is over and — extremely foolishly — looks up. And receives a fifth brick in the face. Then he gives Stan a slow-burn look of resentment. He picks up a brick and — a very Ollie gesture — dusts it off, preparatory to raising it in a threatening manner. At which point God punishes him with a sixth brick. When Stan, also foolishly, ventures closer, Ollie gives him a vicious crack on the shin with that brick he was holding, and is punished again with a veritable downpour of brickwork, a whole chimney’s worth, impossible to count.

I’m still astounded, though, that what I remember as about twenty bricks was a mere six. Good work, boys.

 

Prisoners in Cell Block L&H

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by dcairns

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My dodgy photo of a very good photo of Laurel & Hardy on a visit to Scotland — this is on display at Bo’ness Library as part of an exhibition showcasing Silent Stars in Scotland.

Laurel & Hardy shorts at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema always play to a packed house, and a packed house dotted with derbies and fezes, at that. Ace pianist John Sweeney joined the fest for the first time to provide accompaniment upon the “music box.”

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I had seen two of this year’s trio of (very) dumb shows fairly recently: I wrote about the early pairing DO DETECTIVES THINK? here. It’s a lovely example of the more macabre style of terror comedy (see also the sublime OLIVER THE EIGHTTH).

When the Hippodrome ran DOUBLE WHOOPEE, it inspired me to check out Jean Harlow’s other work with the boys, so I saw BACON GRABBERS then. Watching it afresh, I really felt Ollie’s frustration at having to rely on Stan’s inept assistance. Since Ollie doesn’t realize that he himself is an idiot, Stan’s foolishness is a thwart disnatured torment to him.

Silent movie maven Bryony Dixon explained to me that the show’s somewhat mysterious title stems from it being basically plagiarized, by Stan, from a Fred Karno music hall sketch he’d appeared in. Since Karno had sued Charles Pathe and Max Linder for stealing Mumming Birds and adapting it into AU MUSIC HALL, the boys were being cautious in giving it a new name.

Many of the Laurel & Hardy shorts have quite peculiar titles which have little to do with the contents– one plus side of this is that whenever I think I’ve seen them all, it turns out there’s one I’ve never had the pleasure of. This turned out to be the case with THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, in which the boys break out of prison and then back in. This was the movie for which Stan shaved his hair, according to Fest director Ali Strauss, and when it grew back it was all tufty…

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It kind of fizzles out, but it has some great stuff. I liked an exchange between Stan and another convict. “How long are you in for?” “Forty years.” Stan smiles and passes an envelope. “Mail this for me when you get out.”

What did Stan and Ollie DO, to earn sentences clearly in excess of forty years??? I have to assume that with their usual luck, they simply appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time and got mistaken for someone else. Still, soon they’ll be at LIBERTY.

The program came complete with newsreel footage of a 1930s Glasgow pantomime featuring two (fairly good) L&H impersonators, and afterwards I chatted with Tony McKeever & Douglas Muir, no slouches in the looky-likey department themselves ~

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