December 12, 2013
Pardon Us – US, 1931
It is said that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s first feature film, Pardon Us, began as a two realer and kept growing until it was seventy minutes in length. Whether this is the stuff of clever studio executives or the actual truth, we may never know. What is clear is that Pardon Us marks the beginning of a transformation for its two stars. Sure, the majority of their films would continue to be shorts for another four years, yet the film, released just two years after the Marx Brothers’ debut, The Cocoanuts, is a sign that they, as well as their audience, were ready for more.
In many ways, the film is an extension of what they had done previously. The film includes a variation of their much-perfected routine involving the two of them trying to find a way to sleep in a space that is clearly only suitable for one of them, and it continues their use of slapstick techniques, in lieu of such things as plot and consistency. This is not a knock on the film, but rather an observation that, for some comedians, their early films were an extension of what they had done previously, be it a song and dance number or any of the other types of acts that had frequently filled the vaudeville stage. It is therefore inevitable that at some point in the film the two of them will continue their habit of breaking the fourth wall: Laurel will shrug his shoulders and look toward the audience with a puzzled expression on his face, and Hardy will find himself with a face full of mud or paint and do his unmistakable rendition of a slow burn. In truth, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pardon Us again has them using their own monikers and playing a variation of the characters their audience knew well and clearly adored. Here the two of them are freshman bootleggers who set out to make a profit during the Depression. As luck would have it, they have the misfortune of offering their wares to a police officer and soon find themselves behind bars. It was an honest mistake – Stan thought the officer was a streetcar conductor. After getting on the prison warden’s bad side through a series of misunderstandings, the two find themselves sharing a cell with the inmate known as “The Tiger (Walter Long),” a tough-as-nails Irishman who seems to run the place and has grand schemes for escape. Surprisingly, he and his gang all have excellent singing voices, and in one scene we watch as they sit in the prison yard and sing about someday returning to Montana. The number has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but it is moving nonetheless.
The film is a collection of humorous bits, some that time has dimmed somewhat and others that have not been impacted by comedy’s turn toward more raunchy, less subtle material. One of the film’s best bits involves what may have been an early inspiration for Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist played by Steve Martin in 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors. Also worth mentioning is a scene in which the prisoners attend class. The class is taught by Laurel and Hardy regular James Finlayson, the master of the double take, and includes both a song and an intelligence test. One guess how our heroes do.
It is unrealistic to expect films from the 1930’s to conform to modern-day sensitivities regarding race, yet I suspect that some viewers will be put off by the sudden appearance of characters in blackface. In hindsight, there is no denying the damage that Hollywood inflicted upon itself through its use of both blackfaced and yellowfaced actors. However, not all blackface was done with the intent to belittle or mock. Films such as the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, Buster Keaton’s famous 1921 short The Play House, and his later film College all include instances of blackface that I do not believe are meant to insult or degrade anyone. In fact, in the case of A Day at the Races, being in blackface enables Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to take part in a musical number, the music of which they obviously have great admiration for. Similarly, in Pardon Us, blackface is a device that gets its characters from Point A to Point B, and in the meantime, allows them to serenade the audience with a rather sweet lullaby that was obviously dear to their hearts.
The film was directed by Laurel and Hardy veteran James Parrot, and it is apparent that he knew his stars’ styles and mannerisms rather well. His camera is always in exactly the right place to capture a joke, and he allows the actors the right amount of time to complete their more subtle comic moments. It couldn’t have been as easy as it looks. Apart from an odd edit at the end that breaks whatever continuity the film temporarily had and makes one wonder if a scene is missing, the film as a whole remains a joy. Laurel and Hardy were a perfect comedy team, and Pardon Us is the perfect showcase for their immense talents. (on DVD as part of RHI Entertainment’s Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection)
3 and a half stars