October 16, 2014
Nothing But Trouble – US, 1944
For a few minutes, Laurel and Hardy’s 1944 film Nothing But Trouble has potential, but only for a few minutes. In these brief moments, we get the possibility of seeing the comedy duo run amok in the kitchen. We hear of the long line of cooks and butlers in their respective families (and we see the pictures to prove it) and long for them to get the chance to prove to the world just how far the apple truly falls from the tree. Instead, we get a half-baked concoction that is part drama, part Prince and the Pauper, and part intended comedy, yet perhaps its greatest accomplishment is the growing sense of discomfort that the film can provoke as it progresses.
This unease is due in large part to the inclusion of two rather fruitless plot devices. The more egregious of these involves a plot to assassinate an exiled king who is little more than a child. This part of the film is played straight, and I have yet to see a film succeed when asking an audience to laugh one moment and take everything seriously the next. In other scenes, the endangered king uses the threat of child abuse and starvation as a means of hanging out with Stan and Oliver, and I couldn’t help wondering just who in their right mind would find these scenes either funny or clever.
Also, working against the film are jokes that run counter to present-day sensibilities. In one particularly cringe-inducing moment, Oliver is explaining his experience cooking for Japanese soldiers, presumably as a prisoner of war. When asked what the Japanese thought of his cooking, he replies that they preferred a dish of their own – something called hara-kiri. Laughing yet? The film fairs better in its depiction of spoiled rich folks during a period of very low unemployment. In one scene, Stan and Oliver enter an employment agency and are immediately set upon by people eager to hire them without so much as a quick glance at their resumes. The woman that eventually hires them sneaks them out a window and whisks them away in her car. Later, when the woman’s husband returns home, she playfully insinuates that she has a surprise for him in the kitchen. He looks in and cheerfully utters, “Servants!” He’s like a kid on Christmas morning.
Had the film stuck with this plot device and just presented a series of humorous escapades involving the duo’s attempts to make it in their profession, it may have worked a great deal better than it does. However, by 1944, it seems clear that studio executives no longer had confidence in pure slapstick, and so they piled on a series of unwise and unsuccessful attempts at both youthful frivolity and film noir schemes. There’s even an unnecessarily long scene involving the king’s attempts to play American football. One guess who scores the winning touchdown. And when the film does indeed focus on Laurel and Hardy, it gives them very little to work with and not a lot of screen time for these scene to develop naturally. As a result, some of the film’s most promising gags are over before you know it, and you’re left shaking your head at the missed opportunities. In particular, a promising scene involving the duo’s attempts to steal a steak from a lion at the zoo feels rushed, and a later scene in which Laurel and Hardy attempt to cut the steak for their new employer starts off promising but fizzles out long before the scene is actually over.
In the end, Nothing But Trouble is nothing to write home about. It contains a few nice moments and produces a few earnest chuckles. However, it is hard to look at the film and not come to the conclusion that studios had simply run out of ideas for the long-time team. In fact, for long stretches of film, Laurel and Hardy seem to be playing supporting characters, and just who wants to see a Laurel and Hardy film in which they play second-fiddle to much less appealing characters? (on DVD)
2 and a half stars