Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Bohemian Girl (1936)

Although The Bohemian Girl is somewhat innocuous and underwhelming compared to the best Laurel and Hardy films, it is still fun and enjoyable. The duo’s sketches more than make up for the silly plot, and what it lacks in surreal invention, or destructive slapstick, it makes up for in warmth and gentleness.

The film is based on an opera written by Irish composer Michael William Balfe, but Stan and Olly still play their familiar hen-pecked roles, albeit with the twist that this time they are Gypsies living in 18th- century Austria. Olly's wife kidnaps Arline, the young daughter of a nobleman who has been persecuting the Gypsies, but soon runs off with another Gypsy, leaving our heroes holding the baby.

Of course, it does not matter if they are Gypsies, Laurel and Hardy are still the same basic characters, dim witted, hen pecked, bickering, and the best of friends. Olly actually comes across as slightly more pathetic than usual, oblivious to, and then in denial of his wife's cheating, and her ridiculous story of where the child came from.

Foregoing the, often destructive, slapstick that they do best, the humour is based around more low key set pieces, with word play (when Olly asks for some of Stan’s banana, Stan gives him the peel), clumsiness and stupidity. While these are very funny, they do sometimes feel like they have come straight from a vaudeville stage. The direction is largely flat and unimaginative, and apart from a few touches such as Stan pointing directly into the camera close up to demonstrate his hypnotism scam, the film does do not really make use of the medium.

Mae Busch, reprises her regular role as the formidable Mrs Hardy, although her take on the character here is less based on righteous indignation than a mean spirited desire to humiliate Olly. Despite this her scenes are still great fun to watch. Elsewhere, Julie Bishop, playing the grown up Arline has a genuinely touching scene, singing, "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” to her adopted father, and James “D’oh” Finlayson has an amusing cameo with an in-joke one-liner for fans involving his eye.

The rest of the cast are pleasant if forgettable, as is the chorus singing. The portrayal of Gypsies as pickpockets and thieves may seem a bit dubious to some nowadays, but it is such an obviously stylised Hollywood portrayal of them that it is hard to take offence. In addition, it does allow for the vital plot point that drives the story, as well as scenes with Stan and Olly attempting to be pickpockets with mixed results. In a switch to the usual situations, Stan excels, while Olly makes a hash of it.

In the closing few minutes we get a jarring break from the mild fun and sentiment, as we see Olly stretched on a rack and Stan squashed in a press – and, unlike when it happens in a Roadrunner cartoon, as the final scene fades to credits, the pair are still horribly deformed

This seems a little hard to justify in the context of the story, as this fate is the thanks that Stan and Olly get for looking after Arline for over a decade. According to Laurel and Hardy biographer Simon Louvish, the idea came from Stan, and was hated by producer Hal Roach, who was too distracted by studio business to get it stopped. There are other examples of Stan’s morbid surreal streak, such as his grossly swollen belly at the end of Below Zero, and while not to everyone’s taste, I like that side of the duo, which gives them an extra depth beyond slapstick, and gives them an unexpected dark undertone.

The Bohemian Girl is also notable as part of a rather sad footnote in Hollywood history, concerning actress Thelma Todd, who initially had a substantial role in the film. Todd had starred in several Laurel and Hardy films, as well as working with the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, among others. On 16th December 1935, two months before the release of the Bohemian Girl, she was found dead  in the garage of her home, poisoned by the fumes from her own car. A jury returned a verdict of accidental death, due to no evidence of a suicide, and (unproven) rumours of murder and Mafia links have persisted ever since. As a result, all but one of her scenes were re-shot and her character was renamed as the Gypsy Queen's Daughter, with actress Zeffie Tilbury playing the Queen taking most of her lines.