Laurel and Hardy

A kiss is just a kiss… Laurel and Hardy in “The Fixer Uppers” (1935)

Stan and Ollie are in Paris for some reason. They eke out some kind of precarious existence selling Christmas cards door to door, cards cards designed by Ollie with ludicrous doggerel by Stan. While trying to sell cards to Madame Gustave (Mae Busch), they discover that she’s distraught by the neglect of her husband. Stan, as it happens has heard a story about a similar case resolved by arranging for someone to make a husband jealous. Or he might be remembering the plot of the 1927 comedy Slipping Wives. In any case, it is agreed that Ollie will make Monsieur Gustave jealous, and marital passion will duly be rekindled.

This plan is quickly enacted but with the unforeseen (yet foreseeable) consequence that Pierre Gustave (Charles Middleton) challenges Ollie to a duel. And did Madame mention that her husband was the deadliest shot in all Paris? Well, she does belatedly.

Stan and Ollie go to a bar to wile a way the hours leading up to Ollie’s annihilation before Stan suggests the fairly simple expedient of just not showing up for the duel.

Meanwhile, a good-natured drunk who lives in the same building as the Gustaves (played of course by Arthur Housman) has been cut off by the barman and therefore asks Stan and Ollie to front his drink orders for the evening. This far more experienced tippler soon drinks our heroes into a state of unconsciousness. The cops help to get them “home” – but the only clue to “home” turns out to be the card that Pierre Gustave delivered to Ollie as part of the challenge.

The Gustaves look like being reconciled until Stan and Ollie are found in the nuptial bed, unclear how they got there. Madame (understandably feeling a bit guilty), tries to save Ollie by putting blanks in the gun and asking Ollie to play dead. Eventually there’s a chase scene, an attempt at hiding in the street, and a final shot of Ollie being taken away in a trash cart.

The supporting cast is something of a dream team here. Mae Busch is deliciously melodramatic here. Arthur Housman reprises his permanently drunk act from Scram and The Live Ghost to reinforce a sense of sympathetic incorrigibility. Noah Young has a small role as the barman, and we’re suddenly reminded that he used to play “heavy” antagonists in early Laurel and Hardy films before he was replaced by Walter Long.

And then there’s Charles Middleton. Charles Middleton appeared as a commandant in both of Stan and Ollie’s French foreign legion movies – Beau Hunks and The Flying Deuces. He is best known as the original Ming the Merciless from the original Flash Gordon serials. Charles Middleton made extensive use of a rather operatic delivery accompanied by a sort of vibrato – a tremulous quivering that was perfect for communicating the idea of “mad with power”. This is a man who could explode any moment. Just watch him talking about how the true legionnaire laughs in the face of extreme danger and privation and you, like Stan and Ollie, will take a nervous step backwards.

The scene I enjoy most from this short film comes early on, when Mae Busch demonstrates the kind of kiss that will provoke restorative jealousy by kissing Stan. The kiss that follows is impossibly long. I’ve checked with some on-line well-informed enthusiasts and I’ve been confirmed in my suspicion that this scene is making fun of the Hays Code which had recently proscribed on-screen kisses of more than three seconds continuous duration. Accordingly, every three seconds, the camera jumps to Ollie’s incredulous reaction. Eventually we see Ollie checking his watch – soon after which Stan passes out.

So this is a way of parodying and subverting the Hays code by exposing the clumsy detail of censorship. There’s something very apposite about a sequence making fun of Hollywood’s fear of sexual passion in the context of a film about insane jealousy. Stan and Ollie mean know harm. We know they mean no harm. If Charles Middleton knew them like we did, he’d know the impossibility of either of them acting as philanderers or home-wreckers. One thing about the Hays Code and the mentality of those who framed and enforced it, is that it assumes the worst of everyone. The dedicated censor assumes a world perpetually on the brink of moral meltdown.

Much of the joy and the pathos and the love and the pain and the beauty of the world of Laurel and Hardy universe consists of two people who tend to assume the best from people living in a world where everyone assumes the worst. It’s a wonder this doesn’t get them killed more often.

I’ve some thoughts about other Laurel and Hardy films.

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