December 18, 2014
A-Haunting We Will Go – 1942, US
Ah, the magician, that eternal provider of childlike wonder and awe, that crafter of the impossible and the improbable. I say this right out of the gate because what follows should not be misconstrued as being disparaging or disrespectful of magicians. Simply put, though, magicians are not usually very memorable. Talented, to be sure, but what is often most memorable about a magic show is the illusion, not the illusionist. And an illusion is best seen live from the seats of an auditorium, where we can ooh and ah at the complexities involved in crafting what is essentially a trick played on an audience that willingly suspends disbelief. Seen in this environment, an illusion can be nothing short of astonishing. In a movie, however, any magic trick will undoubtedly fail to impress for the simple reason that practically everything we see in Hollywood is a magic trick.
The makers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s 1942 film A-Haunting We Will Go obviously felt differently, and perhaps for good reason. Fifteen minutes into the film, the pair runs into Dante the Magician on a train bound for Dayton, and one of the first things he does is perform a magic trick involving the ace of spades. Later, not content with that single bit of showmanship, the film devotes even more time to Dante’s actual act. This time we see a smorgasbord of illusions - a floating lady, a pair of magic telephone booths, a dancing rope, all of these intended to amaze and excite. Except they don’t; in truth, they can’t. We’re not there, and what we see is not magic. It is special effects.
To be fair, Dante the Magician, born Harry August Jansen, was quite a celebrity in 1942. According to Wikipedia, he was a star of Vaudeville, Burlesque, theater, film, and later television. He thrived at a time when variety theater was all the rage, and he is said to have traveled the globe, no doubt uttering his famous line Sim Sala Bim wherever he went. It is said that his passing marked the end of what was perhaps the greatest time in history to be a magician. Bearing this in mind, it is not hard to imagine audiences in 1942 being thrilled at the sight of such a legendary performer on the silver screen. Perhaps they were even able to overlook the film’s many flaws as a result.
And therein lies the problem. Time can have a cruel effect on past icons, and in the case of A-Haunting We Will Go, not even the presence of a great magician like Dante can lift the film from the depths of mediocrity. The film, it must be said, is a mess, a combination of half thought out ideas and only partially developed storylines. Like many of Laurel and Hardy’s later films, there is material that could have made for a much better film had it not been diluted by the presence of a number of extremely dull characters, one of which is unfortunately Dante himself.
The film begins part-gangster film, part comedy, and it can never truly figure out what it wants to be. The plot revolves around a gangster who has to find a way to get to Dayton and claim an inheritance. The only problem is that he’s a wanted man. Luckily, his mobster buddies whip up a scheme to transport him in a casket. Now as they need are two people to escort the casket on a train. Soon our loveable duo is on the job, and if you thought this set up would provide at least a few laughs, you would be wrong.
Just as the train is about to depart, who should arrive on the scene, but Dante’s handlers with their trunks and boxes – and a coffin. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is all heading, and yet it goes there in such a flash that it is hard not to consider it a missed opportunity. As the film progresses, one again Laurel and Hardy are pushed aside so that other characters can be given precious screen time, and this is a critical mistake, especially given the film’s scant running time of just over 60 minutes.
Whenever such a travesty occurs, one can only hope that the featured characters are worth the effort, that they are somehow larger than life and can invigorate the film with energy and comic zeal. Yet all the film can muster up is a poorly developed storyline involving a former convict trying to make good for the love of his stage performer fiancée. It is even less interesting than it sounds. As the film progresses, the film devolves further, becoming just a series of dry scenes in which characters try their hardest to punch energy into lifeless dialogue and stale scenarios. Not even the film’s whodunit finale is able to sustain much interest. In fact, the film is only really watchable for the occasional spark provided by the film’s famous stars, and such moments are few and far between.
Are there any moments in the film to truly cherish? I would say no. In fact, as I reflect upon the film, only two things stand out. The first is the rather fun scene involving Dante’s transporting telephone booths; the second a running gag in which Stan cannot seem to hold an umbrella under his arm without wrecking havoc on poor Oliver. Beyond that, there’s not much to recommend the film for. It stands as a giant miscalculation and one of Laurel and Hardy’s most forgettable films. (on DVD)