Thursday, February 9, 2017

Pardon Us

Pardon Us, Laurel and Hardy's first feature film, was shot in 1930, but not released until 1931.  A parody of MGM's grim The Big House (1930), a gritty prison film, the movie is not particularly funny -- it is, however, extremely peculiar and, perhaps, worth a glance due to its idiosyncratic elements.  James Parrott directed with fairly elaborate production values -- there are crowd scenes, an elaborate prison set, and some overhead tracking shots made from a crane mounted on a dolly.  I have the impression that the movie was shot concurrently with The Big House and may have used the sets, extras, and, even, some of the camera set-ups employed in the big budget dramatic film.  (This theory is suspect:  Laurel and Hardy were so popular that their early sound movies were often filmed three or four times seriatim -- once in English, then, for French, German, and Spanish audiences.  This would suggest an elaborate and complex shooting schedule inimical to filming Pardon Us between set-ups for The Big House.)  Stan Laurel was the de facto producer of the features that he made with Oliver Hardy (although the film is a Hal Roach Production) and concluded that the movie wasn't funny enough -- he withheld the film from distribution for a year and re-edited the picture to "tighten it up".  ("Tightening up" a Laurel and Hardy feature is an oxymoron -- even at their most disciplined, these films are exceptionally disjointed, often little more than collages of vaudeville routines sometimes interspersed with song-and-dance numbers.  Pardon Us is no exception.)  As a result of Laurel's intervention, there exist at least three version of the film -- two 64 minute cuts are known to exist with different endings; the initial premiere version of the film, 70 minutes long, also can still be seen.

The film's plot is rudimentary and simply a structure on which to string gags and satiric parodies of serious films then current.  (Since modern audiences don't know The Big House this aspect of these films is hard to appreciate -- the prison scenes in Pardon Us are harsh and have cruel aspect; however, I presume, these sequences are tongue-in-cheek parodies of melodramatic excesses in the movies satirized.)  Laurel and Hardy have difficulty crossing an LA street -- they are almost hit by a couple of cars and Laurel stumbles on the curb.  They buy ingredients to brew beer with Hardy announcing that any excess production will be sold to the public.  In the next shot, we see Laurel and Hardy handcuffed and being dragged into a penitentiary.  Laurel has a loose tooth that causes him to make an inadvertent buzzing sound after he speaks -- the sound is an unvoiced linguolabial trill (or "raspberry").  This derisive sound is a plot contrivance used in various ways in the film to get the boys in trouble or to identify them to pursuers when they are on the lam.  The duo are punitively put in a cell with a tough fellow prisoner because the Warden perceives Laurel to be mocking him.  They end up in solitary confinement -- a very long and strange shot in which Oliver Hardy in voice over rapturously describes a farm landscape while Laurel listens from the adjacent cell:  the picture is simply a still-life of the two locked doors in the dungeon of the prison.  (The raspberry sound and the shot of the locked doors held for two minutes while Hardy describes a landscape are obviously experiments with the new medium of sound film.)  The boys later escape.  Excitement is ginned-up by impressive shots of blood hounds hurling across the landscape -- but none of this goes anywhere in terms of narrative.  (We next see two of the dogs apparently as Laurel and Hardy's pets.)  "Corking up" in black face, the boys work on a plantation picking cotton.  This sequence in the film is shot as a kind of idyll with African-American farm laborers singing to one another in the fields.  Back at their cabins, the movie continues in the mode of a musical -- the field workers sing call and response tunes to one another and Hardy, who has a beautiful tenor voice, also croons an extended tune.  The warden happens by and the boys are captured again.  In the Big House, the film pauses for another musical interlude, a barber shop quintet of prisoners singing another sentimental tune about being on the farm "back home in Michigan."  Laurel and Hardy go on a  hunger strike but are tricked into going to the mess hall.  (Again, there is an extended shot in which a guard describes a Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings in great detail -- another rapturous if static experiment with the new medium of the "talking" picture.)  A prison riot ensues and Stan Laurel who has been handed a machine-gun inadvertently uses the weapon to subdue the prisoners, thus resulting in a pardon for himself and Ollie -- this is the part of the film that I vividly recall from seeing the picture as a little boy.  I have written that Laurel and Hardy feature films are best considered as two-reel comedies sutured together.  Here I amend that opinion -- in a film like Pardon Us, coherent units of narrative are generally less than six or seven minutes long.  After a sequence of that length, the scene shifts in a disorienting way, a new genre may be introduced, or the action may be interrupted by a song-and-dance number.  A vaudeville routine involve Jimmy Finlayson as a harried teacher is central to the prison scenes -- but this scene seems imported into the movie from a different source and doesn't fit well with the surrounding context.  The cotton plantation idyll is lyrically filmed and refers to some species of movie that no longer exists and that probably couldn't be shown any more in any event due to its offensively racist content.  (I don't think the minstrel-show material in this film is particularly egregious-- it's well-intended and the African-American laborers are portrayed with some dignity but, of course, the black-face antics are jarring for modern viewers.) The film's extended sight gags wear out their welcome soon enough -- there is an excruciating five or six minute scene in which Laurel tries to curl up in a narrow and flimsy wire-bottomed bunk bed with Olly; the bed is simply too narrow and the homo-erotic implications too obvious and the sequence looks so painful to execute -- Laurel's contortions are cringe-worthy -- that the sequence seem to portray some sort of awful and extravagant torture and can't be construed as funny under any possible interpretation of that word.  Followed by a scene of Laurel and Hardy being locked into disturbingly dark and coffin-like solitary confinement cells, these sequences further, amplify the rather dank and unpleasant character of the comedy.  (The funniest sequence in the film involves a maniacal prison dentist who yanks out Ollie's tooth as a matter of a mistaken identity and, then, pulls out one of Stan's teeth as well, predictably wrenching the wrong tooth from his jaw.  That this sadistic scene is the funniest thing in the movie, and it is actually quite hilarious, gives the reader a sense for how nasty a picture this is.)  The version that I watched was recorded on my DVR from Turner Classic Movies and listed as an hour-long.  But the movie, aired on April 1, 2016, is, in fact, 64 minutes duration -- this meant that when Stan Laurel pulls a Thompson Machine Gun from under the table at the mess hall, brandishes it, and, then, begins to cry, the film simply stopped.  From my childhood, I recall a very violent and aggressively edited riot scene complete with smoke and fire-bombs and Stan dancing around with the machine gun spasmodically writhing in his arms.   None of this was on display in the version that I saw with the DVR simply ending the picture exactly when the climax was about to occur.  I pitched a shoe at my TV and, then, threw a magazine and, even, a pillow -- but the  DVR didn't relent and wasn't persuaded to show me any more of this odd old movie.   

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