February 13, 2014
Our Relations – U.S., 1936
For their fifth feature film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy came as close as they probably could to hitting the reset button. I say this because Our Relations is a film that relies much more on a narrative story than a collection of random bits of comedy. It is also worth noting that for the first time both of the two legendary performers keep their signature expressions, in particular, Hardy’s slow burn and Laurel’s shrugs and high pitch squeals of woe, to a minimum, and if I had to guess, I’d say that what is included of them is there just to satisfy the kinds of people that would be disappointed if Alfred Hitchcock didn’t make one of his famous, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.
In Our Relations, Laurel and Hardy play two pairs of identical twins – Stan and Alf, and Oliver and Bert – and it is a tribute to these great actors that the characters are always distinguishable. Stan and Oliver are upper-class gentlemen, both married and both with impeccable manners. Alf and Bert, on the other hand, are sailors, polite ones, but ones a little less refined. Towards the beginning of the film, Hardy gets a letter from his mother informing him that Bert and Alf have died after attempting mutiny. Not wanting to see their stellar reputations destroyed, Stan and Oliver decide to burn the letter. Little do they know, of course, that on the edge of town a boat is docking with their twin brothers on board, safe and sound – and apparently with a rather spotless record.
It is not hard to guess that what follows will involve a series of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and zany adventures, and that is indeed what we get. The women in their lives can’t tell them apart, and apparently, neither pair has told anyone about the others’ existence, for not a single person in the film ever thinks of the twins as a possible reason for all chaos that ensues. The film is fun, although it is not laugh-out-loud funny. It is a film that relies on situations rather than physical gags, and only a scene involving three people and a very small telephone booth is truly reminiscent of the kind of comedy audience had grown accustomed to seeing in a Laurel & Hardy film.
That said, it is indeed nice to see Stan Laurel playing a smarter, more clever version of himself for a change, and Oliver Hardy seems to have been inspired by the chance to play a slightly different role than audiences were used to seeing. As Bert, he gets to be a little less refined, much more flirtatious, and more driven by his feelings than logic. Laurel and Hardy regular James Finlayson has a much larger part than I can recall him having had before. Here, he plays Finn, the ship’s chief engineer, a man who schemes to separate Bert and Alf from their money, and Finlayson makes the most of the extra time.
In the end, Our Relations feels a bit like an experiment, an attempt to move the two actors toward narrative films, similar to the way the Marx Brothers’ moved away from the Vaudeville-inspired segments of their earlier films with 1935’s A Night at the Opera. Laurel and Hardy’s effort is not entirely successful, yet it gives a glimpse of the acting range of its stars and hints at a new direction for the two. It is interesting for what it is. (on DVD as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection)