Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review - The Bullfighters

March 19, 2015

The Bullfighters – US, 1945

Laurel and Hardy’s 1945 film The Bullfighters gets one thing right from the get-go: It puts the focus back on the comic geniuses after previous films had placed them in more supporting roles. The two of them are in practically every scene, and even when the film gives them a brief respite, what the film’s other characters say and do revolve around them. All of this is positive. Therefore, it may come as a shock that The Bullfighters is a major disappointment.

Just what is wrong with the film? Oh, let me count the ways.
  1. The film has an overly morbid plot. In the film, Laurel and Hardy play two private detectives who have been sent to Mexico to fetch an escaped con, played by Carol Andrews. This has comic potential. However, the film abruptly dispenses with this plotline and concentrates on Richard K. Muldoon (Ralph Sanford), a man wrongly sent to prison for five years based solely on the testimony of one Stan Laurel years earlier. Naturally, he’s a little angry. Just the mere mention of Laurel and Hardy sends him into a rage, and he swears that if he ever catches sight of them again, he will skin them alive, “first the little one, then the fat one.” Laughing yet?
  2.  The film does not trust the audience or its own script. I say this because a film that trusts both of these has no need for bells and whistles. It doesn’t need a whistle going up in pitch to convey the effects of a kiss of the film’s protagonists, and it doesn’t need to employ the sounds of chickens clucking during a scene in which a trio of people crack eggs on each other. It also doesn’t need to pound the audience over the head with overbearing music in order to convey exactly how exciting or humorous a scene is. A film that trusts its audience is comfortable just letting the gags and musical score work their magic on the audience.
  3. The film has too many head-scratching moments and reused gags. In the film’s most egregious moment, Mr. Muldoon yells, “Turn the bulls loose.” A moment later, a number of enormous annoyed bulls enter a closed-off arena and start running around as if they were looking for revenge. So what do the spectators at the arena do? They jump INTO the arena and start trying to be bullfighters. Now I’m aware that every year hundreds of average people risk their necks running with the bulls, but there is a difference between that and what we see them do in the film. Unlike people who run with the bulls, the people who jump into the arena have no escape route and actually actively try their amateur hands at bullfighting. They even tease the bulls. Needless to say, I didn’t buy it for a minute. In addition, the film reuses gags that were not very funny the first time they were used. There’s a running gag in which women kiss Stan, and he becomes so overwhelmed that he falls to the ground. This eventually leads somewhere, but it yields little in the way of payoff. There are also a series of scenes in which people split their pants, none of which provoked much later from me. But don’t take my word for it - the extras in the film all found it hilarious.
  4.  The film includes an odd musical interlude that leads to a superfluous lesson in “Mexican” dance. The number is performed by Diosa Costello, who is clearly a talented dancer, yet nothing in the film justifies the scene’s inclusion. Costello’s character, Conchita, does almost nothing in the film apart from jabbing Hardy in the keister with a bullfighting sword. In fact, the most interesting thing about the dance scene is that St. Clair shows the audience only two of the three moves that Conchita demonstrates. I can only guess that the other one was deemed too risqué for the 1940s.
  5. The film misses out on a big ending. As the film progresses, it sets Stan Laurel up perfectly for a moment of comic genius, and then it completely squanders the opportunity. In the film, Stan Laurel is the spitting image of a Spanish bullfighter named Don Sebastian, who is said to be the greatest bullfighter in Spain. When Don is delayed by customs, Stan is coerced into taking his place – first at public gatherings and then finally in the ring itself. Knowing what awaits him there, Stan gets drunk. Imagine the comic possibilities here - a drunken Stan Laurel in the ring with a bull! Sadly, the film elects to have the real Don Sebastian show up just in the knick of time, robbing the film of this promising moment. Sure, it’s still Stan Laurel the actor in the ring, but it’s not the same. However, I’ll give the film this. The scene includes a bull doing a double take that I’m sure made James Finlayson proud.
  6.  The film opts for an unsettling final scene that may remind viewers of the closing moments of Laurel and Hardy’s 1936 film The Bohemian Girl. This is not a compliment. In other words, what is intended to be clever is instead unsettling and more than a little grotesque. In the film’s topsy-turvy world, it completes the transformation of a wronged man into a barbarian, and there’s very little fun in seeing that.
This is truly lesser Laurel and Hardy, and it unfortunately ranks as one of my least favorite of their films. It has a few mildly amusing moments having to do with mistaken identity, and I enjoyed the performance of Richard Lane as “Hot Shot” Coleman. However, these things do not make up for the film’s lackluster script and uninspired direction. A disappointment all around. (on DVD)

2 stars

*The Bullfighters was Laurel and Hardy’s final American film.

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