Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review - A Chump at Oxford

October 30, 2014

A Chump at Oxford – US, 1939

What would you do if you found out that audiences were clamoring for full-length films, yet all you had was one that ran forty minutes and lacked a traditional narrative? I ask this because in 1939 it was the dilemma of Hal Roach, the producer of many of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s best films. The film in question was A Chump at Oxford, and at the time of its scheduled release, another Laurel and Hardy film, Flying Deuces, was drawing big crowds at the box office. That film had a running time of 65 minutes, and so it is possible that Roach began questioning the wisdom of releasing a film that was shorter by over twenty minutes. In the end, he withheld A Chump at Oxford until 1942, and when it was finally released, it had grown by 21 minutes.

In the original film, Laurel and Hardy, again playing versions of the same characters they played in all of their films, are street cleaners who just happen to be in the right place at the right time to stop a bank robbery. (Although in the robber’s defense, they were really only trying to help him get back to his feet.) Upon learning of their yearning for an education, the owner of the bank offers not just to send them to school, but to give them the finest education that money can buy. And with that our lovable pair is on their way across the Atlantic to Oxford.

From there, I half-expected the film to focus on the misadventures of two uneducated Yanks trying to make it at one of the most prestigious universities in the world  - somewhat akin to Rodney Dangerfield’s entertaining Back to School. I was wrong. Instead, Oxford is to be the setting of a series of slapstick gags, the complexity of which will astonish first-time viewers. The best of these bits involves Laurel and Hardy resting on a bench as the hand of an unseen prankster has a go at them. The scene undoubtedly required extensive rehearsal, and it remains a marvel of choreography. Also worth mentioning is the film’s final act. I won’t spoil it, but the situation that plays out enables Stan Laurel to play a role that fans were not likely to have seen him in before – that of a pompous jerk who refers to his long-time friend as “fatty” and tells him to tuck in both of his chins.

The initial version of the film is compact and entertaining, and after watching it, I wondered just what could be added to extend its length. Having seen the extended cut, I can confidently declare it to be one of the most creative reworks of a film that I have ever seen. In its original form, the film is a series of funny gags without any real purpose or character arc. In that version, the foiled burglary merely serves as a device to get the boys to the next gag, and the successive gags, as humorous as they are, do not seem to be leading anywhere significant. In other words, they resemble the kinds of exploits the comic pair had been known to have in their short films. The extended version changes this by adding a narrative thread that both gives the film a purpose and helps it establish a sense of camaraderie with the audience. Laurel and Hardy are not simple funny characters getting into one fix after another; they are two unfortunate souls who, like so many in the 1930s, find themselves moving from place to place and from job to job in search of those ever elusive things called security and a fair shake.

To pull this off, Roach and Laurel borrowed from the Laurel and Hardy library and opened the picture with a retooling of one of their earlier shorts, From Soup to Nuts. As in that short, the pair find jobs as servants of a wealthy couple – Oliver as a waiter and Stan as a maid who bears a striking resemblance to Harpo Marx. This job doesn’t last of course, but the experience is alluded to later as another of their failed attempts to get ahead in the world, and it leads to a discussion about just what is keeping them back. They both agree: It’s their education. From there, the film begins to resemble its original incarnation, but careful viewers will notice subtle changes here and there – new dialogue that fills in the gaps in the storyline, edits that put events in a more meaningful order, and additional screen time devoted to establishing the bond between the two long-time friends. This is important, for in the film’s final act, this bond is humorously severed, and we pull for it to be restored.

Through it all, the pair is at their comic best. Stan Laurel has some excellent bits, one of which involves his confusion when asked to “serve the salad undressed.” And yet, perhaps his best moments come at the end when he is allowed to adopt an entirely new persona, that of someone known as Lord Paddington. I love the way this character always demands to know where his tea and crumpets. Oliver Hardy has some memorable moments as well, in particular his ill-fated attempt to seat his employers’ guests and his reactions to the story a porter named Meredith spins about his former employer. And I remain convinced that few people have been able to do a slow burn as effectively as Oliver Hardy.

Did A Chump at Oxford have to be reworked? Probably not. In fact, left in its original form, the film would likely have been remembered as one of the pair’s more impressive shorts, which isn’t a bad thing at all. However, with its extended version, the film is elevated to the top tier of Laurel and Hardy films. It is poignant, humorous, and downright moving, and it triumphs in a way that few comedies of its kind do. I don’t often champion director’s cuts or reworks, but this is one instance in which I’m awfully glad someone decided to tinker around with a finished product. If only more people could work magic on this scale. (on DVD as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection)

Original Version: 3 stars
Extended Version: 3 and a half stars

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