December 4, 2014
Great Guns – US, 1941
I feel great pity for the supporting actors in Laurel and Hardy’s later films. After all, imagine the joy that they must have felt upon hearing the news that they had been cast alongside the legendary duo, the excitement of those first days on the set, and the difficulty they must have had keeping a straight face as the comic pair dispensed one comic zinger after another. In one sense, it must have been a dream come true. Yet I pity them nonetheless. These same actors were often hampered by scripts that called upon them to be the polar opposites of Laurel and Hardy on screen. If Laurel and Hardy were laughing it up, they often had to keep a straight face. If they were doing slapstick routines or delivering comic banter, their characters usually just took it all in. They stood to the side either smiling approvingly or calmly watching as Stan and Oliver worked their magic without fully engaging in it.
In Laurel and Hardy’s 1941 film Great Guns, the team are paired with Dick Nelson, here making his big screen debut. It should be said that Nelson makes much more of an impression than most of his supporting-actor predecessors despite not being asked to do much. It helps that Nelson has an everyday man quality about him and that his character, Dan Forrester, is a young man who is not very well versed in the ways of the world. This makes Nelson’s portrayal of him as being slightly naïve and apt to miss things in plain sight rather logical. See, throughout much of his life, Dan has been told that he is so unwell that the slightest exertion or exposure to germs could send him to his death bed. Despite this, we can sense his zest to see the world and do his part for Uncle Sam. In the film’s opening moments, we learn that Stan and Oliver are employed by Forrester, and when he is drafted into the army, the two of them sign up as well, but only to ensure that he is properly looked after. After all, they remind the audience frequently, Dan is a very weak man.
Joining the army was not a new theme for Stan and Oliver. They had joined the US Army is 1932’s Pack Up Your Troubles, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in 1939’s Flying Deuces, played Navy men in 1936’s Our Relations, and portrayed veterans of World War I in Block-Heads (1838). By the time Great Guns was made, they had begun to show their age, and it only made sense for the pair to be portrayed as patriotic figures whose services Uncle Sam politely declined, as happened later in Air Raid Wardens from 1943. The theme is also not unique to them. In fact, Great Guns appears to have been made as a response to the overwhelming success of Buck Privates (1941), which starred another famous pair, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In Great Guns, Laurel and Hardy do manage to enlist, but the mistake is clear from the get-go. In one scene, their regiment is inspected, and a senior officer comments on what a fine group of men they are. Then Laurel and Hardy show up.
The plot of Great Guns can be summed up very easily. “Sick” boy gets drafted. Employees go along to take care of him. Boy meets girl. People try to keep them apart. There in four simple sentences is the storyline, and if it looks familiar, it should. This has been the standard plot of countless films, books, and plays involving rich characters who fall in love with people whose fortunes are far less than their own. And to be honest, other than the presence of Stan and Oliver, there isn’t much to distinguish this particular telling of it. There is even the standard plotline involving a second suitor, this one Dan’s superior, Sergeant Hippo. Interestingly, the sergeant is played by Edmund MacDonald, and MacDonald injects the film with so much energy and charisma that it is easy to forgive his rather blatant James Cagney impersonation. In fact, I couldn’t help wondering whether the role had originally been offered to Cagney or if the casting call had been for an actor with a Cagney-like appearance.
As a whole, the film is moderately successful, despite being rather formulaic. As with most Laurel and Hardy films, it has its fair share of engaging moments. One of the best of these involves Stan and a light bulb that just doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. I also particularly enjoyed a scene in which Stan and Laurel dress up as businessmen (typhoons as Stan puts it) and try to convince Ginger Hammond, the woman Dan loves, to give him up. Hammond is played by Sheila Ryan, and in the scene, she, Laurel, and Hardy ham up the screen with their purposefully overdramatic delivery of the sort of lines that we’ve seen in countless dramas with this storyline. The scene is so wonderfully over-the-top that even Stan starts applauding his buddy’s delivery and commenting on how amazing Gloria’s performance is.
Unfortunately, the film has one particular scene that will make modern-day audiences cringe. The scene involves exploding gunpowder and the effect it has on Sergent Hippo’s face, and the unease comes as a result of Laurel and Hardy’s questionable comments about Hippo’s new appearance. Knowledgeable moviegoers will likely understand what happens just by reading that description. The scene is a product of its time, and, truth be told, this is not the first Laurel and Hardy film to include such a scene. Having acknowledged that, however, the inclusion of the scene seemed much less forgivable this time around. After all, it is one thing for a film from 1931 to include them. Seeing one in a film made ten years later on the eve of World War II left me disappointed that Hollywood still hadn’t evolved.
Great Guns is lesser Laurel and Hardy. It had fewer laugh-out-loud moments, and it seems clear that the pair’s comic zaniness is being kept in check, although I doubt this is intentional. The film continues the trend of putting the boys in situations rife with comic potential and then saddling them with scenarios that limit them creatively. And then there is the small matter of the film’s grand finale. In an effort to end big and send the audience home happy, the film ends in a flurry of energy. However, it achieves this energy by taking its characters so far off their logical trajectory that storylines that a great deal of time had been spent setting up do not receive proper conclusions. The result is that instead of producing joy and awe, the film ends with a whimper, with a scene intended to give the impression that everything is now okay for all involved. It is an example of telling instead of showing, and what movie has ever been truly effective employing that strategy? (on DVD)
2 and a half stars stars