Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Laurel and Hardy-A Chump at Oxford (1940)

This is our first Laurel and Hardy post. It has taken us a while to get to one of the greatest comedy teams of all time. Stan(1890-1965) and Ollie (known affectionately as Babe) (1892-1957) will be back for many more posts. Along with the 3 Stooges, they are personal favorites and I am proud to be a member of the Boston Brats chapter of the Sons of the Desert (the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society).

A Chump at Oxford is one of my favorite L & H features and the penultimate made for Hal Roach studios, their home studio and scene of their best comedies. (the 1941-5 features made for Fox and MGM were sadly below average). In high school , I smartly used this film as an essay in English and recieved an A for it (one of my few As-it payed to review Stan and Ollie). While we have much of the patented L & H slapstick, we also get an interesting role for Stan as he gets to use a new persona as Lord Paddington towards the film's climax.

Before we sample some of the film's highlights , here are some backround points of interest. The film was originally released as a 42 minute featurette , then expanded to 63 minutes , (for European release) adding the pre- Oxford employment sequences. The creative talent involved was top-notch. In 1941 the full version was released in the states.
The director , Alf Goulding was an ex-vaudevillian who introduced Hal Roach to Stan's talents back in 1918. He was a personal friend of Stan , however this was his first directorial job with the boys.

The screenplay was by three comedy pros. Harry Langdon , a comedy superstar of the 20s now reduced to shorts and writing assigments had worked an 2 previous L &H comedies. Charley Rogers , was another comic/writer and a fellow countryman of Stan's. He had on many of the Roach films. Felix Adler was a veteran gagman and worked for years at Columbia with the 3 Stooges and other comics. The title was a takeoff on a popular Robert Taylor film , A Yank at Oxford.

The cast had many familiar faces. At Oxford , one of the boys' favorite foils Charlie Hall was aboard (as a student!) along with Forrester Harvey (their valet, Meredith) , a young Peter Cushing and Wilfred Lucas (the warden in Pardon Us) as the dean. In the earlier scenes two old favorites , Anita Garvin and James Finlayson returned as the Van Deveres , the boys' employers. (they both went back to the Roach silents and were comedy pros). We also had the bonus of the wonderful music of Marvin Hatley , always a highight in a Roach film.(a few touches of swing music pop up along with the usual breezy score).

We open with the boys riding in style in the back of a chauffeured limo. It turns out the chauffeur is giving them a lift. After a catastrophe trying to ride on the back of a water truck the boys arrive at the Employment office in the back of a wrecker. The only jobs available call for a butler and maid at the Vandevere party. Ollie grabs the assignment and Stan is recruited to play Agnes the maid as he did in Another Fine Mess (1930) which also featured James Finlayson. The boys are met with dubious reactions by the Vandeveres, but they're in a bind and decide to give them a try. The folowing sequences borrow from L & H's silent classic From Soup to Nuts using some classic kitchen and servant gags. Ollie's efforts at seating the guests turns into a mele while Stan makes the error of following Finlayson's orders to take those cocktails (he gets himself drunk) and serving the salad undressed (in his underwear!). Finally Fin can take no more and escorts the boys out of the house with his rifle-his shot hits an unsuspecting cop! (L & H regular Harry Bernard).

The boys' next job is as sanitation workers. As they take a lunch break outside a bank , Stan's errant banana peel causes a bankrobber to trip during his getaway , making the boys heroes. (this is a great way of using one of the oldest gags in the book). Their reward is an education at Oxford and here is where we start the original film.

On arriving at Oxford , the boys are put thru a series of pranks by the aforementioned "students". First they are sent thru a maze of shruberry that leads to their quarters. The maze provides some fun gags and of course a "spook" appears to scare them off and we get the old extra hand gag (the spooks' hand lighting up Stan's pipe, twiddling thumbs, etc.). Finally the boys find their quarters , only it turns out to be the Deans' rooms. The boys have some fun with a seltzer bottle , trying to squirt the Deans' picture only to have the real Dean step in. A fight with the Dean ensues climaxing in a pillow fight and the "students" getting found out for their pranks on Stan and Babe.

The students promise to get revenge on L & H , who finally get their proper rooms. Their valet , Meredith regonizes Stan as Lord Paddington , the schools' greatest athlete and scholar who dissapeared years ago. Ollie gets a good laugh over this! When the students come after the boys Stan gets conked on the head by his window and in his daze assumes the persona of Lord Paddington! He quickly dispatches the nasty students out said window including Ollie who leaves a sizable hole in the ground - the Dean winds up in the hole with Ollie.

The last part of the film has great acting from Stan as he gets to ham it up as the stuffy , sarcastic Lord. Ollie has been made his "lackey" and the Dean fusses all over the return of his Lordship. Ollie's exasperation is classic! When the Lord gets to critical of Ollie's abilities and double chins , Ollie prepares to leave for the states. When Stan gets conked on the dome once more he returns to his simple character , much to Ollie's delight! The last shot has Ollie laughing in delight ,embracing Stan and checking his chin! These moments show the wonderful humility and lovable characters that were Stan and Babe. This is what made their films so special.

After Saps at Sea (1940) , L & H left Roach. Roach had been downsizing his comedy roster and was concentrating on features. Stan and Babe wanted to form their own production company.

Sorry to say they were eventually signed up with Fox and MGM for some dismal films without the care and love that Hal Roach gave them. These assembly-line comedies treated the boys as pure simpletons and had none of the humility of the Roach films. Thankfully , the bulk of their films were made for the Roach banner and contain their best work. There will be more to come.
A Chump at Oxford is available on DVD from Amazon. Sad to say , not many of the Hal Roach product is available on DVD , let's hope that will corrected in the future.

Till next time , Keep Laughing.

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