Here is silent comedy at its most surreal. Flying Elephants offers a Flintstones version of the Stone Age in which a King Ferdinand has ordained that all males between 13 and 99 have to get married within the next 24 hours or face death. Or banishment. Or both.
The men all carry clubs and the women wear skimpier version of the shaggy skins worn by the menfolk. James Finlayson (still being credited as Jimmy Finlayson) plays the father of the intended bride (Blushing Rose – Viola Richard) and he has a bad toothache.
Oliver Hardy plays a big hairy guy who is over confident about his ability to win the affections of any woman in the Nevada Desert just by showing off the size of his club and engaging in small talk. The title of the film, incidentally, refers to Oliver’s passing the time of day comment that the elephants have started to fly south – a circumstance which is then illustrated by a remarkable few seconds of animation. Apparently, elephants used to fly just a few thousand years ago. Never mind the lack of archaeological evidence for it – if it was crazy – it probably happened in prehistoric times.
Oliver’s amorous endeavours result in him being repeatedly clubbed on the head, to the point where, with Pavlovian conditioning, the mere sight of an attractive woman makes him flee from associated pain. Stanley, meanwhile, is wearing a blonde wig and is skipping about, full of the joys of spring – too dippy pastoral to seem ready for the responsibilities of marriage. Incidentally, as a younger performer, Stan Laurel had in his repertoire a peculiar scissor shaped leap in the air that registered various forms of excitement. It is continually employed in Putting Pants on Philip but you can also see it here. When Stan attempts to drag a woman back to his cave he is comprehensively outwrestled by a woman who has clearly wrestled professionally.
Stan and Blushing Rose fall in love in the space of a few skips, but James Finlayson insists on Stan’s proving his worth by demonstrating his fishing ability. This involves some moderately successful experiments with bait as well as some inevitable accidental blipping some guy on the head. In the meantime, however Ollie manages to extract Finlayson’s agonising tooth by the simple of expedient of tying the tooth to a piece of string which is wrapped around a rock and then throwing it off a cliff. Despite being hurled off a precipice and dragged down a rocky ravine, Finlayson is happy enough to have lost the tooth somewhere and somehow in the process to embrace Ollie as a friend and for Ollie to assume the role of suitor to Rose. Actually, the friendship and wedding ritual gestures and tweakings and head collisions are some of the best things in the film.
Stan and Ollie fight over Blushing Rose. A goat butts Ollie off a cliff and Stan and Rose are free to wed. They sit on a chair which turns out to be a bear and then try to escape in a cart which flips over and traps Stan, Finlayson, Rose and the Bear inside. The End.
Nobody hates elongated plot summaries more than I, but this is such a fast moving comedy that it’s a miracle that this much incident could be squeezed into less than eighteen minutes. Flying Elephants is relentless, and it shows Laurel and Hardy, before they were quite yet Laurel and Hardy, functioning at a pace that they would never return to as a proper partnership. There is no time here for the slow burn, for the pained reaction, for the dedicated investment in a single joke that would mark the best of their mature comedy.
But Flying Elephants is great for what it is – condensed and accelerated lunacy – and if you think that Airplane is a better movie than Annie Hall then you will love it.