August 28, 2014
Bonnie Scotland – US, 1935
In my younger days, I had the good fortune to learn about improvisational storytelling, and the unplanned stories that would eventually come out of my head often resembled fairy tales, many of them even beginning with those famous words once upon a time. Later, I would use this skill to entertain preschool and school-age students. Kids generally liked my stories, and they would often request that I create more of them. However, in the beginning, I had to overcome a major obstacle. Many of my stories began well, but fizzled out as they edged toward their conclusion, essentially ending with a thud rather than a moment of inspiration. My acting teacher had a simple solution for this: kill the narrator. He explained that one effective way to do this was for the villain in the narrative – usually a giant or a monster - suddenly to notice the narrator and decide to do away with him. He was right. It was an ending that made little kids laugh and adults chuckle, yet it was best used as a last resort, during times when the human brain couldn’t think of a better resolution. I mention this because I have a sense that, like me during those awkward moments of improviser’s block, no one associated with Laurel and Hardy’s subpar 1935 film Bonnie Scotland quite knew how the film should end.
The film has one of the flimsiest plots of any of Laurel and Hardy’s films, and that is saying a lot. It starts out being about the reading of Stanley MacLaurel’s grandfather’s will and ends up being about a confrontation between British and Scottish colonialists and a group of rebels in India. In between, there are subplots involving Lorna MacLaurel (June Lang), an heiress to the MacLaurel fortune, being sent against her will to India, Stanley and Ollie accidentally joining the Scottish army (Would that even have been possible for an American?), and a love triangle involving Lorna and the two men that love her, Allan Douglas (William Janney) and Colonel Gregor McGregor (Vernon Steele). The stories rarely intersect, and by the end of the film, it is still unclear whether Stanley even knows that Lorna is his niece.
Here and there, there are moments to cherish, such as when Stanley and Ollie are asked to furnish their credentials and pull out their mug shots instead of their passports. This leads to a clever bit of banter in which Stanley suggests they return to the United States and try to get their old cells back. If they doesn’t work, he explains, they can always try to find a state with “no exposition laws.” Clever. There’s also a nice bit involving their cooking a fish in an unusual way, and a dance number that will remind some viewers of the classic one from Way Out West. Laurel and Hardy regular James Finlayson make good use of the few scenes he has by mugging for the camera and expressing varying degrees of frustration. And in one of the film’s most clever scenes, a group of soldiers play a trick on Stanley and Ollie by staging a musical mirage. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a keeper.
The promotional material for Bonnie Scotland boasts of the film having “60 Minutes of Fun.” This sounds like a good thing until you realize that the film is actually over 80 minutes long, which begs the question: Which parts of the film do not qualify as fun? My guess is that at one point there were two versions of the film – a more concise, compact sixty minute version and the extended, feature-length version that currently exists, for it contains a number of moments that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor. In fact, the cynic in me sees the film’s entire final act as a last-minute add on, for this part of the film bears very little resemblance to what we have seen leading up to it.
However, that may just be wishful thinking, for in truth very little of the film works as well as it should. Laurel and Hardy’s scenes are shorter than usual, and many of their comic bits start off well only to end prematurely or to lack the proper payoff. For example, a gag involving a snuff box and a set of bagpipes goes nowhere, a joke involving Hardy sneezing away all of the water in a stream falls flat, and a recurring gag in which Stan accidentally puts a little giddy-up into his march feels like a missed opportunity. The pair has better success with their tongue-in-cheek vernacular humor, but even some of these moments are weakened by frequent cuts to characters that are not nearly as interesting to watch.
Ultimately, the film goes nowhere, and it takes an unnecessarily long time in doing so. At one point, I expected the film to follow Stanley and Ollie as they attempted to help Lorna be reunited with the man she loves. It went in another direction. Then I expected it to focus on someone’s dastardly attempts to get a hold of the MacLaurel family fortune by luring Lorna astray. Again, the film resisted this. Now I have no qualms about a film that defies the audience’s expectations and goes against the grain. In fact, in most cases, I welcome it. Here, however, I’m forced to concede that going against convention can sometimes lead a film into territory so unfamiliar that it is impossible for a screenwriter to find the way back, and perhaps that is what happened to Bonnie Scotland. The film’s screenplay, written by Frank Butler, Jefferson Moffitt, and at least five other writers (including Stan Laurel), pushed Laurel and Hardy so far into absurdity that there was simply no easy way to pull them back successfully. Just what is a filmmaker to do in this case? After all, he can’t kill the narrator. There appears to have been only one course of action: Hit The End and hope for better luck the next time. (on DVD as part of TCM Archives Laurel and Hardy Collection)