January 30, 2014
The Bohemian Girl – US, 1936
In The Bohemian Girl, Laurel and Hardy play gypsies, and if you know anything about Hollywood’s sad adherence to stereotypes throughout the silent period and the early sound years (and some would say to the present day), it will not be a surprise to hear that they are portrayed in the worst possible way. In fact, the gypsies in the film are perhaps the most narcissistic group of people you’ll ever lay eyes on. Their lives seems to consist of nothing but singing about how great gypsy lives are, dancing incessantly, and periodically wooing fellow gypsies with sweet-sounding melodies that hammer home the message, “You’ll remember me.” The words are sadly prophetic.
The film begins somewhat promising, as we get a variation of that oft-repeated story of Oliver Hardy and one of his angry, prone-to-violence wives, this time played by Laurel & Hardy regular Mae Busch. Mrs. Hardy is quickly revealed to be having an affair, but Hardy, as a result of his romantic naiveté, refuses to believe it, not even after witnessing her kissing the guy. However, the film soon squanders whatever goodwill it had built up – and it wasn’t much at that – when night comes. Time, we’re told, for the gypsies to fill their coffers. And so viewers are “treated” to the unnatural sight of our two heroes pickpocketing one poor soul after another – thereby reinforcing another sad stereotype of gypsies. At one point, Laurel even enlists the help of a good-natured, but ill-informed officer in their scheme, and he and Hardy rob a man of practically everything he has.
As the film progresses, we’re treated to more ill-advised attempts at humor involving, but not limited to, torture racks, whipping sessions, and kidnappings. Laughing yet? In addition, the film asks you to accept that a darling young child named Arline (Darla Hood), so lovingly doted on by her ruthless aristocrat father, would reveal her name after she’s kidnapped, yet say nothing of the identity of her father. In fact, why stop there? The film asks you to believe that a little girl could be kidnapped and then not only smile at her kidnapper, but also allow herself to be paraded around as someone else’s daughter without so much of an attempt at protesting. That is a hard sell even in a comedy such as this one.
The film’s best bits are fleeting. There’s a short scene in which Hardy arranges a pair of pajamas for his “daughter,” a clever scene in which Laurel tries to find something hidden under Hardy’s mattress while Hardy is sleeping on it, and a brief scene showing the sacrifices the two make for Arline as she grows up. There’s also a rather sweet moment in which an adult Arline, now played by Jacqueline Wells, sings about a wonderful dreams she had and Hardy sits listening, all the while beaming like a proud papa would. His look is perfect, and it is a reminder of the level of respect he must have had for fellow singers.
There is not much else to say about The Bohemian Girl. After all, it is a film so short on plot that it breaks up the narrative time and time again with pointless song and dance numbers involving characters that viewers have no reason to care about and rhythms that hardly seem “gypsy.” Late in the film, Laurel and Hardy regular James Finlayson makes an appearance as a dumbfounded guard, providing a temporary lift in the film’s rather morbid storyline. The levity lasts until he himself starts calling out the guards and ordering for the whipping of the film’s heroine to begin. Again, Laurel and Hardy are better than this. They are at the top of their game playing likeable, hardworking stiffs. They suffer when playing against type, such as when they played two shipmates trying to dispose of a body in the 1934 short The Live Ghost. In a way, it is easy to see the appeal of a film like this one. For some actors, the chance to play against type is rare and greatly appreciated, and in many cases, familiarity with a particular kind of role does indeed lead to contempt. However, as Chaplin discovered when audiences initially rejected his expectation-breaking 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, sometimes going against expectations has a price. (on DVD as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection)