The swanky downtown hotel is all of a flutter because the bad-tempered prince of some European despotism is about to arrive, along with his unhappy country’s prime minister. The worst aspects of a certain kind of American fascination with royalty are on display here. These snobs who grovel in front of fancy titles deserve to be taken down a peg or two. They will be.
Laurel and Hardy arrive from an agency as last minute replacement staff and are initially confused with this illustrious pair. After much fussing over pens, Stan eventually signs with a cross. Once the confusion has been sorted out, Stan and Ollie are fitted out with hotel liveries.
(Throughout the film, the tedious despot keeps accidentally falling into the filthy elevator pit to become bruised and besmirched and we don’t care.)
Ollie has a whistle fitted into his costume? How can you have a whistle sewn into your coat without blowing on it? Honesty? How? Unfortunately, the whistle summons a taxi-driver who is of course, perennial antagonist Charlie Hall who resents being whistled to the front door on a fools errand. There is Tiny Sandford, the same slow moving cop from Big Business around to keep a suspicious eye on Stan and Ollie (especially Ollie), and some nice tit for tat uniform mutilation involving Stan, Ollie and Charlie.
The film is perhaps most notable for the appearance of Jean Harlow – platinum blonde bombshell – muse of Howard Hughes – and sensational tabloid fodder for the rest of her hauntingly and predictably short life. There is a famous anecdote involving Margot Asquith and Jean Harlow in which the Margot suggests archly that the “T” is silent in the her own first and the Jean’s second name.
As Jean Harlow steps out of the cab, the camera lingers for a while on her extraordinary face before turning to Ollie. The preening and fidgeting and idiotic grinning that Ollie exhibits is priceless, offering my favourite few seconds in the film. Of course, his celebrated Southern gentility kicks in and he offers to escort Jean Harlow to the front desk with excessive ceremony.
Typically, of course, Stan slams the door of the cab rather carelessly and Jean Harlow loses most of her dress – a circumstance which goes unnoticed until they are actually at the front desk. It occurs to me that this joke probably would only work in the context of a silent film. You can only ignore the sound of a dress being shredded in the context of a world in which sound is either absent altogether or is very selectively applied.
When Jean Harlow’s state of undress is realised, it is significant that Stan and Ollie’s reaction is not voyeuristic delight, but a frantic if inefficient effort to spare her blushes. For an old romantic like Ollie, her exposed legs are not an enticing spectacle but rather signify the failure of his chivalric mission.
It is not that Stan and Ollie (considered as cinematic characters) are complete sexual innocents (as is sometimes implied). It is rather that their attitude to sex expresses itself in terms of the most elaborate and prolonged form of flirtations based on extreme shyness. I’d say they were “Shandean”.
The stakes are very low in this two-reelers. Some very rich people are humiliated and have their clothing damaged. Stan and Ollie move on to another job.
None of it really matters – and why should it?
I’ve a few thoughts on some other Laurel and Hardy movies…