Monday, 28 April 2014

The Hoose-Gow (1929)

Starting a fight in prison may be common enough in prison movies, but starting a rice pudding fight is something else entirely, something that requires a special level of idiocy. Step forward Laurel and Hardy, who achieve just that in The Hoose-Gow (the name derives from juzgado, the Spanish word for courtroom). We get a brief intro, establishing that Stan and Olly have (unwittingly, they say) been caught up in an armed robbery. Beyond that, there is little in the way of story, which does leave the film feeling a little rambling and unfocussed, not helped by the flat uninspired direction, which leaves the performers to take up the slack. 

Luckily, they are up to the task, with plenty of slapstick, kicking, punching, gouging with pick-axes, tearing of clothes, accidentally chopping down a watch tower, and other assorted self-sabotaging stupidity and childish antagonism (as well as a reworking of the salt shaker lid gag from You're Darn Tootin').

No matter where Stan and Olly are, they never fit in, and this is no exception, with Olly's naivety and genteel manners, and Stan's timidity clashing sharply with the wily, rough looking convicts. 

Just when the film feels like it is running out of steam, along comes regular foil James Finlayson as the top hat and tailed prison governor, and the second half of the film kicks in. After inadvertently puncturing the radiator of his car, Stan and Olly ill-advisedly decide to plug the holes and absorb the water with rice, leading to the aforementioned bust up. 

Like so many of the food fights or bouts of destruction in Laurel and Hardy films, the whole thing starts off feeling stylised, almost ritualised, with people waiting for the other person to have their turn, even though they must realise they are about to get something in their face, before the pace and intensity gradually picks up. 

The Hoose-Gow is not the best Laurel and Hardy short, not least because it feels like they (presumably along with the rest of Hollywood) are still trying to figure out how to make sound and dialogue work in films. However, it is still a very funny and thoroughly entertaining way to spend 20 minutes.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Helpmates (1932)

Helpmates is one of the best of Laurel and Hardy's short talkie films, a textbook example of them doing what they do best. The blueprint is a familiar one: a simple task for the pair to carry out, which means there is ample room for them to mess it up, in a permanently destructive manner.

In this case, while his wife is away, Olly has held a particularly raucous party. Next morning, it's panic stations, as a telegram arrives, informing him of the imminent return of the love of his life. Clearly not thinking straight, Olly, turns to the one person he thinks can help get his house back in order – Stan.

The direction is straightforward, apart from some cinematic touches at the beginning, with the camera panning around the post-party wreckage, and Olly giving a lecture on the evils of partying – which we pull back to reveal is being addressed to himself in the mirror. However, when the gags are this good, the performers this engaging and the running time so short, this lack of anything flashy is not a problem.

The humour comes from the classic Laurel and Hardy formula of slapstick and wordplay, with the pacing deliberate and calculated, compared to the sometimes frantic pace of their silent work. Gags are set up and allowed to work at a natural, unrushed pace, sometimes repeated and built up to an excruciating but hilarious climax.

It is interesting to note how much of the situation Olly brings on himself. Obviously, throwing the party was his idea in the first place, and expecting to involve Stan and not experience some complications is naïve at best. But, beyond that, along the way, there are also small lapses in concentration (tripping over a sweeper), oversights (leaving the gas on) or losses of temper (throwing a plant pot) that have wider consequences.

Nevertheless, he is not an unsympathetic character, largely because, thanks to one brief scene of dialogue, and a less than flattering photograph,
we are left with no doubt about what a truly awful human being his wife is. Different Laurel and Hardy films focus on different aspects of their personalities and lives, but when the focus is on domestic life it is rarely a blissful existence, although, again, this is usually their own fault.

When Olly finally gets out to the station to pick up his wife, he is wearing an ornate military uniform, complete with feathered hat and ceremonial sword, the duo having destroyed every other item of clothing he owns. When he returns, he has a black eye

but more significantly, the sword, the symbol of his manhood has been bent out of shape.

This is not the only time they have trashed a home, but unlike the work they did on James Finlayson in Big Business, this is entirely accidental. Nevertheless, here they are again desecrating that most sacred of middle class status symbols, the well-kept, well-decorated and well-furnished home, and while many of their fans, not just in the US, but around the world would be suffering from the effects of The Great Depression, maybe having lost homes of their own as a result.
Joan Crawford is once reported to have said "I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door", and it is probably true that the appeal of many celebrities is that they are so utterly different from us normal folk. This is not the case for Laurel and Hardy though, as their appeal feels more like something we can identify with, folk engaged with constant and sometimes futile struggles against everyday life and everyday people, struggles often entirely of our doing. Even if we cannot learn anything from Stan and Olly, we can take heart in knowing that it is not just us.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Take the Money and Run (1969)

Take the Money and Run is the directorial début of Woody Allen and is essential viewing for anyone wanting to trace the evolution of the man as an artist. More importantly, it is a very funny film in its own right, and one that has elements that pre-dates a range of comedies from Airplane to This is Spinal Tap.

Shot as a fake documentary, the film traces the life of Virgil Starkwell, the archetypal loser criminal. Virgil goes from bullied child, to falling in with a bad crowd, to a series of bungled crimes and prison time. Footage of him in action is intercut with interviews with the likes of his long suffering wife, a shrink, and his cleverly disguised parents

In one aspect, it is apparent that perhaps Allen is still learning his craft, as nearly all of the scenes feel like sketches, and loosely connected ones, rather than parts of a whole story. This is understandable given that this is what he would have been used to writing on TV, as well as in stand-up and his pieces for the New Yorker, which much of the dialogue sounds very similar to with its offbeat non-sequiturs. However, so many of the sketches are brilliantly funny, which surely should be one way of judging the success of a comedy film.

Take the Money and Run is one of the first examples of a “mockumentary”, and I think it is the first made as a feature film for cinema release. It is certainly sets the template for how the comedy works in this genre, with the serious nature of the documentary style constantly clashing with the stupidity of the characters, or the surreal silly circumstances on screen, such as Starkwell's complaining over his choice of wardrobe for a bank job (“I have happened to have ironed your beige shirt. Do you wanna wear that?” “Who wears beige to a bank robbery?”)

Aside from Allen’s own later film Zelig, the most obvious example to take up this style would be This Is Spinal Tap. However, while both of those films are ostensibly set in the real world (or a realistic depiction of it), Take the Money and Run frequently veers into the sort of surreal tangents later to be seen in Blazing Saddles, or Airplane, with jokes such as Starkwell in a car trying to chase and run down a blackmailer inside her own living room, or an experimental drug with the side effect of turning him into a Rabbi.

The use of voice-over (something that would crops up frequently in Allen films) allows us to quickly speed through any back-story and set up the scene for a gag without losing momentum. In addition, using Jackson Beck to perform the voice-over is a stroke of genius, as his deadpan deep baritone delivery adds gravitas, and works to play up the parody of the documentary style.

There are other touches that would crop up again later throughout his work, such his underrated skill for physical comedy (perfected a few years later in Sleeper), as well throwaway references to things such as psychoanalysis and Judaism. Also worth a mention is Marvin Hamlisch's score, which, with its recurring themes and motifs, helps go some way to creating a coherent feel amongst the chaos of the script.

The film also stops just in time, as even Allen's unpredictable non-sequiturs start to get predictable. This is less of a problem in later films where he has fleshed out characters and a meatier story, but here, where there is nothing but gags, a slight monotony sets in during the final few moments.

Take the Money and Run was originally supposed to end on a downer, with Virgil being gunned down in slow motion, a la Bonnie and Clyde, but was talked out of it by Ralph Rosenblum, the man hired as editorial consultant. Rosenblum also helped shape and tighten the remaining footage, and Allen was suitably impressed with his work to collaborate on a further five films, including Annie Hall