Wait, Were We SUPPOSED To Laugh At That?

I luvz me some classic movies, I really luvz me some silent comedy, & I really, really luvz me some Laurel & Hardy. So when TCM ran 4 of their early silent shorts last Sunday (Do Detectives Think?, Putting Pants On Philip, You’re Darn Tootin’, and Two Tars)[1], I was all over that like ugly on an ape.

Now, what’s interesting about the great comedy team of Stan & Ollie is that they didn’t start out as a team in vaudeville or burlesque (viz. the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, the Three Stooges, or Abbott & Costello).  Often, their early films together had them cast independently of one another, such as Lucky Dog, where Ollie plays a mugger who robs Stan.

Mark Evanier does a fine job of succinctly detailing these early efforts.[2]

The films TCM is showing are, for the most part, after they became “The Boys”.

The one big exception is Putting Pants On Philip.

Like most of their movies, it’s a simple idea:  Ollie’s horn-dog nephew from Scotland, Stan, arrives in town wearing a kilt & creating a commotion; Ollie tries to get him to wear pants.

They’re not playing their usual characters (though Hardy comes closer to “Ollie” than Laurel does to “Stan”), but it was in Stan Laurel’s mind their first real movie together as a team.

And it is funny:  There’s not one but two literal “running gags” with terrific payoffs at the end.

But while I had seen the short years decades ago, I had forgotten one major joke in the middle of the picture:  Ollie drags Stan to a tailor.  Stan is ticklish & doesn’t want to be measured under his kilt for his inseam.

Hilarity ensues.

Finally, there is a wild mini-chase that ends up with Ollie pinning Stan down off camera then emerging with his clothes mussed & an answer (“34!”) to the inseam question.

Then Stan steps out.

His bonnet off kilter.

His bow tie askew.

His jacket loose.

And he has a weepy, tearful expression like someone who’s just been…just been…just been…

…raped.

And they build off that gag.  He has a big melodramatic breakdown like many a Poor Girl Whose Reputation Has Been Soiled and Her Virtue Compromised.

And it’s funny…

…when you think of it as a parody of over-the-top melodrama.

But then you think…wait…we’re laughing at somebody making fun of somebody being raped.

And granted, the “victim” is just an over-acting actress, but still…

We’re laughing at a parody of a depiction of shame, pain, and misery following a sexual assault.

Now, we laugh at horrific stuff all the time.

Keeping the topic focused on just The Boys’ oeuvre, there’s a difference, however, between laughing at the pain Stan & Ollie inflict on themselves through their own ineptitude vs. laughing at a vicious murderer out for revenge.

Whenever I show a classic (i.e., pre-WWII) movie to an audience, I’m always a bit nervous in case I’ve forgotten or am unaware of any cringe-worthy elements I should warn them of.

A while back we showed Thoroughly Modern Millie, a delightful musical spoof on silent melodramas, but I had forgotten the bad guys were Asian stereotypes.[3] I was worried my wife might take offense, but luckily Soon-ok has a sense of humor & proportion about such things.[4]

But if an audience isn’t prepared for the cultural regression in an older film, if they aren’t aware going in that some of the attitudes will seem dated and quaint (if lucky) or offensive (if not), it can really throw them for a loop when they encounter it.

I’ve written about culture drift before, but we won’t go into that again here.

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[1]  Next Sunday the 13th they’ll run Habeas Corpus, Big Business, Double Whoopee, and Angora Love; check local listings.

[2]  They were made for Hal Roach Studios & released through MGM.  Hal Roach Studios gets the mad love it deserves for being consistently funny, but most people overlook how technically & aesthetically innovative they were.  Do Detectives Think? has several great gags shot at night under artificial lighting because the gags wouldn’t have worked shooting day-for-night, and for James Finlayson’s nude scene they made use of one of the first hand held camera shots in order not to reveal anything strategic.  Someday, somewhere, somebody is going to Google “James Finlayson nude scene” and this will be the first thing that pops up.

[3]  Of three Chinese characters with speaking roles, only one in the movie was played by an actual Chinese; the other two were Korean and Japanese.  Go figure…

[4]  And, truth be told, Asian films make just as big a mish-mosh of European / American culture:  I forget which of the Once Upon A Time In China films it was that has 19th century British sailors battling Spanish Conquistadors for possession of Hong Kong…

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