Our heroes are employed by a rather shabby circus in a variety of capacities. James Finlayson is ringmaster has a great shouty time of it for the brief time we see him. Stan and Ollie initially appear as a pantomime horse carrying Lady Godiva – falling apart amusingly before doing everything wrong that’s possible to do wrong with a cannon ball, resulting in the collapse of the big top.
The circus goes bankrupt. In all honesty, given the sparse audiences we’ve witnessed, Stan and Ollie’s clumsiness probably only accelerated the inevitable. The boss can’t afford to pay any wages, so everybody pulls a bit of paper from a hat and walks away with a bit of the circus. Stan gets the flea circus and Ollie gets Ethel.
Ethel grins and pouts and dances and outwits Ollie with ease, managing to trap Ollie in a crate intended for herself.
What is Ethel exactly? The title of the film is “The Chimp”, but she looks far more like a gorilla. Meanwhile, she’s repeatedly referred to as a monkey. Nobody in the film seems to care very much.
Whatever she is, she’s Charles Gemora in a suit. Charles Gemora would don the same suit in Swiss Miss in a memorable scene involving an attempt to carry piano over an Alpine rope bridge. In fact, whenever you see a Gorilla in a 1930s comedy, it’s probably Charles Gemora.
Although Ethel is, strictly speaking, Ollie’s responsibility, she has a far more natural rapport with Stan. Gemora is really very good in the role, and apparently spent some time studying great apes in order to perfect his career as “guy in gorilla suit”. Ethel’s affection for Stan is obvious, and it would be 46 years before we would see similar affection for a gorilla on our screens. Stan is no David Attenborough. But perhaps, Attenborough is no Stan Laurel.
Meanwhile, L&H antagonist Billy Gilbert (whom we’ve just witnessed as the snooty recipient of the music box) plays a boarding house landlord who is neurotically jealous, regarding the possible antics of his errant and absent wife. By a truly unfortunate co-incidence her name is Ethel. Billy Gilbert also has a thing about gorillas/chimps/monkeys/non-human simians in general staying in his house, so Ethel has to stay outside. Though not for long. The situation is further complicated by “MGM”, a lion from the circus who appears to be a completely free agent at this point.
The climax is reached when Billy Gilbert hears Ollie tell “Ethel” to get back to bed and his jealous rage demands loud and melodramatic satisfaction. Billy stands over a bed declaiming while Ethel is covered by blankets. The look on Stan and Ollie’s face when Billie appeals to Ethel as the mother of his children is perhaps the split-second highlight of the film. Somehow the gorilla/chimp/guy in suit gets hold of a gun and everybody runs around in panic as Ethel starts firing. Then it turns out that three reels of film have run out so the movie ends.
This is nobody’s favourite Laurel and Hardy film, and it’s awkwardly extended to thirty minutes, although given the strange plot, it would be a hard film to cut. The relationship between Stan and Ethel, however, contributes to the evolving depiction of Mr Laurel as someone who is not as other men – an idiot savant – whose obvious human defects are balanced by a peculiar and intuitive affinity for the rest of created nature.