Thursday, April 24, 2014

Review - Swiss Miss

April 24, 2014

Swiss Miss – US, 1938

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s 1938 film Swiss Miss is a film that never quite finds its footing. It features two competing stories that never blend together the way they should and that often seem at cross purposes. The first story involves a famous composer named Victor Albert (Broadway star Walter Woolf King) who rents out a Swiss hotel so that he can compose what he hopes will be his masterpiece, and for kicks, he orders that the entire hotel staff, as well as his manager, dress in stereotypical Swiss garb and serenade him as he triumphantly arrives in a horse-drawn carriage. (The origin of the orchestral accompaniment remains a mystery.) This storyline immediately presents a problem. There are no guests for him to interact with, and if he is true to his word, his activities will consist of nothing more than sitting by a piano and composing. Where’s the humor in that? Enter Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, two mouse trap salesmen attempting to peddle their wares in a land that – according to Laurel, at least – should be teeming with rats – on account of the all the cheese, of course.

One expects Laurel and Hardy to find their way to the hotel where the good composer is staying and proceed to make it rather impossible for him to compose, yet the film avoids this route. Mistake #1. Instead, the film puts Laurel and Hardy at the mercy of the hotel’s chef, who develops quite a personal vendetta against them. Through a series of mishaps, the two end up having to work off a rather large restaurant bill, and every time they break a dish, their sentence is extended. This storyline offers the film its second chance at constructing a more standard narrative, one that would have potential for an array of restaurant hijinks and pratfalls. Again, the film opts not to match the audience’s expectations, although to be fair, it does spend a bit more time developing this storyline than it does on the composer.

So essentially the film presents us with dueling stories: the composer upstairs trying to write and Laurel and Hardy downstairs trying not to break anymore plates. All that is needed now is something or someone to be the glue that pulls these two stories together. Enter Victor’s German wife Anna (Grete Natzler). Anna is a singer whose success and the press’s generous coverage of it has diminished her husband to being a mere footnote in newspaper reports of their performances. He wants her to return home and let him work; she wants to stay and what? Bother him? And in the tug-of-war that follows, she decides – for no reason at all – to make him jealous by asking every male in the establishment if he likes her. It is this bizarre scheme that finally merges the tale of the frustrated composer and the two unfortunate traveling salesmen.

The film is occasionally amusing, and several gags elicited chuckles out of me, although there were no really hearty laughs. There’s a nice bit involving Laurel’s attempts to trick a Red Cross St. Bernard out of his brandy and a creative bit involving Stan and Oliver trying to transport a piano to a tree house that is on top of a mountain. This involves crossing a rather rickety extension bridge that few people in their right minds would attempt to use. There are also a few pre-code moments that will make attentive viewers marvel at how such dialogue got past the censors.  Also enjoyable is the evolving nature of Stan Laurel’s character. In this film, he is the leader of the group, and. as expected. he is always leading the two of them in exactly the wrong direction.   

In the end, Swiss Miss is not a terrible film. It just never completely knows what to do with its competing stories and its vast array of characters. What it finally elects to do feels more like a cop-out than a masterstroke. What is apparent throughout the film is the newfound pull that Stan Laurel had regarding the Laurel & Hardy brand. He had recently signed a new deal with MGM, and it was in the contract that their films would be shot on more expensive sets and exotic locations. Mr. Laurel seems to have been eager for Laurel & Hardy films not to remain static, and so the standard L & H formula is tinkered with here. And in all honesty, it is nice to see these characters continuing to evolve at this late stage in their careers instead of resting – forgive the pun – on their laurels. If only the finished product had been a little better. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

No comments: