Laurel and Hardy

“Let me hear you sing that again….”: Laurel and Hardy in “The Bohemian Girl” (1936).

The is the second Laurel and Hardy feature film to inhabit a comic opera version of fancy-dress Europe. The first was of course The Devil’s Brother/Fra Diavolo (1933). Swiss Miss (1938), on the other hand, takes place in central European operettaland as well, but it’s actually set in the twentieth century with the locals merely dressing up in traditional costume.

In all three of these films, Stan’s character gets drunk.

They don’t make ’em like this any more – and in important ways they shouldn’t, because nowadays the Roma community is in a better legal position to assert the right to be represented as something other than as incurable kleptomaniacs. Furthermore, the film as a whole is somewhat overshadowed by the tragic and mysterious death of that wonderful comic performer Thelma Todd by carbon monoxide poisoning while the film was still being made. She has one scene preserved in the film, and sings “Heart of Gypsy” while other gypsies do whirly dances all around her. Then she’s gone forever.

The “plot” of this one is astonishingly simple. Arline is the daughter of a Count who is stolen by Mae Busch (Mrs Hardy) and her lover Antonio Moreno (Devilshoof) in revenge for Devilshoof’s flogging. The Count has a violent and uncontrollable hatred for the entire Roma community and will have any or all of them flogged for infringing on any part of his immense estates. Busch and Morena abandon Arline to Stan and Ollie but some years later she is restored to her true father, moments before she is about to be flogged herself. It’s all that simple.

This thin scaffolding nevertheless accommodates some very amusing routines.

One rather nice joke involves Stan doing some hilarious lip-synching to improbable octaves – a scene that prepares the way (like John the Baptist) for the very great and deservedly famous Lonesome Pine performance. It allows Ollie to say “sing that again” rather than “say that again”, for a change.

Stan also gets drunk while bottling wine – not for the first or last time. Stan is very good act getting drunk on screen. It should be noted that Stan acts drunk – not a drunk. Arthur Housman played characters who were drunk all the time, who never had a sober waking moment. Stan plays characters who rarely drink and who therefore get drunk very easily. Towards the end of the film, his Dutch (Czech?) courage enables him to keep an entire platoon at bay armed with a whip.

James Finlayson appears for a few minutes near the very end as captain of the guard and to exclaim in response to a poking “Doh! – my GOOD eye!” Mae Busch is at her most malevolent, yelling at Ollie, betraying him openly with Devilshoof and decamping with all the funds without anything resembling shame or remorse.

For the first half of this film, Ollie is far dumber than Stan. As a grifting they do go, Ollie seems incapable of performing the proper routines that Stan has mastered and has to be rescued by Stan’s superior dexterity. Stan is also the first to notice that Mae Busch does not exhibit the hallmarks of conjugal constancy. When Mae shows Ollie five year old Arline and tells him that the child is his – Ollie accepts the notion immediately and joyously. Ollie is rather touching throughout this film – he’s a devoted father who accepts his responsibility for the girl unequivocally, even after reading the “Dear John” letter from his absconded wife informing Ollie that he’s no kin to the girl.

At the end of the film, the Bohemian Girl herself, back in the arms of her biological aristocratic Dad, remembers far too late that the men who have actually taken care of her since childhood are being tortured. In the dying seconds of the film we see that Ollie’s been stretched and Stan’s been crushed and a Laurel and Hardy film yet again illustrate the fact that benevolence and simplicity are generally punished not just in the real world but in silly operatic made up worlds as well.

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