February 12, 2015
The Dancing Masters – US, 1943
I imagine the pitch for The Dancing Masters went something like this: “Picture this, boss - Laurel and Hardy as the heads of a dance school, Oliver dancing in a swami outfit, Stan in a tutu. It’ll be hilarious!” I imagine it this way because there is no other explanation for the jumble of odd bits and pieces that is The Dancing Masters. This is a film with no direction, plot points borrowed from other films, frequent narrative stops and starts, and an ending that hurts to even think about – and not from laughing uncontrollably. In short, this is easily one of the comic pair’s least memorable films.
As the title suggests, Laurel and Hardy play dance instructors at a school that is struggling financially – although apparently all it takes to keep it running is the tuition of a single student. One of their students is a young woman named Trudy, played by Trudy Marshall. Trudy is in love with a young inventor named Grant (Robert Bailey), who just happens to work for Trudy’s father. These four characters are so inseparable that when Trudy’s parents go on a business trip, Trudy invites not just the man she loves to come over and hang out but also her dance instructors. I half expected them to be giving a lesson, but they’re actually there for the drinks. Think about that for a minute. A young woman’s idea of a party involves the man she adores and her dance teachers. There’s simply no way to rationalize this, not even in a film of this sort.
Before all this, however, Laurel and Hardy must deal with a gang that has decided to go into the insurance business. Their business plan is simple. They will make people buy insurance from them or else. Needless to say, they soon visit Laurel and Hardy’s dance school. This is not a new plot device, for several Laurel and Hardy films have had them contending in some way with criminal gangs or thugs. Most of those films made sure to use the storyline extensively. Not so this one. Apparently, someone felt Grant and Trudy’s relationship was a very interesting storyline than Laurel and Hardy’s attempts to cope with the gang’s extortion. Sadly, they were wrong.
This is unfortunately a pattern for the film. It has the annoying habit of leading viewers to believe it is going in one direction only for it then to go in an entirely different – and less interesting - one. And so we get countless new storylines and little to no meaningful resolution to any of them. They just end. To give you some examples, there’s a hidden bar that exists simply to allow Stan and Oliver to pull someone into a fountain; there’s what seems like a plan to marry Trudy off with one of her father’s employees which lasts about a scene and a half; and there’s a minor bit about Stan and Laurel’s possibly losing their dance school if they don’t come up with the rent. They never do, but lucky for them, the landlord does not reappear in the film.
The film fares somewhat better when it just allows Laurel and Hardy to work their usual magic. There’s a recurring bit involving their potentially coming to blows that yields a few laughs. I also enjoyed a few moments of the pairs’ comic banter, in particular a bit about the combination to a safe and a rather funny monologue that Laurel delivers about using their savings to pay the rent. However, all too often the film has nothing of consequence for them to do. The main story doesn’t really involve them, and the film’s finale, which should be humorous, comes across as uninspired and desperate. In truth, it’s not even realistic for a film of this kind. Only towards the end does the film find its groove. In these precious moments, we watch as Oliver tries to cause Stan to have an accident so that they can collect insurance money. However, even this part of the film is over before you know it.
The film was again directed by Mal St. Clair, and while he was able to hold together his previous film with Laurel and Hardy, Jitterbugs, another film with a number of plots, he is not able to prevent The Dancing Masters from becoming completely unglued. In fact, to keep the film moving along, St. Clair relies too heavily on bell and whistles, and all they do is telegraph obvious completions to gags that are not very funny to begin with. The script, by Scott Darling, gives Laurel and Hardy’s supporting characters very little to do, often reducing them to smiling, positive faces or to greedy, one-sided villains. Bailey, here appearing in his second Laurel and Hardy film, does not fare as well as he did in his first one, Jitterbugs. In that film, his character had a recognizable personality; here all he is asked to do is look polite and grin.
I’m tempted to say that this is a Laurel and Hardy film in which Laurel and Hardy themselves are not really essential to the plot, yet without them the story would be so unbearably dull that it is hard to imagine any studio executive ever giving the film the green light. “What?” he might say. “A film about a woman who is in love with a shy inventor and a plot to steal his invention? Who wants to see that? Ah, but add Stan Laurel in a tutu, and you’ve got yourself quite a picture.” If only that were true. (on DVD)