Laurel and Hardy

No time for Levity. It’s Laurel and Hardy in “Beau Hunks” (1931).

An oddity this one. It’s a four reeler, which is a format Stan and Ollie never attempted before or since. It’s too long for a “short” and too “short” for a feature. It seems that the studio decided that even in its unfamiliar shape and uncommercial length – Beau Hunks was too funny to cut.

And it is extremely funny. Our story begins with Ollie singing his big heart out with a sappy look on his face. Meanwhile, Ollie is cutting an advert for fertilizer out of a newspaper in such a way as to puncture the seat of a chair and expose a spring. Eventually, in a very slow-burning and elaborate gag, Ollie will sit on this spring, be propelled to the ceiling and end up destroying the very piano he was playing at the beginning of the film.

“Jeannie Weenie”, the object of Ollie’s delicious transport is actually a photo of platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, who had already worked with Laurel and Hardy prior to her achieving megastardom with Howard Hughes. Singing her praises, Ollie remarks that Jeannie has been all over the world and is loved by everyone.

Ollie is soon informed by letter that Jeannie loves another and they are never to see each other again. The French Foreign Legion is obviously and immediately the only option – not only for Ollie but for Stan also. This film is a good illustration of the absolute co-dependency between these two men that Ollie casually and intuitively assumes. If Ollie is to say goodbye to the world, then so is Stan. No married couple have ever made so absolute a commitment to each other as Stan and Ollie, which is why the confused discussion of same-sex marriage is so relevant. Later in the film, there’s a replay of the Stan and Ollie foot massage routine, where it becomes deliciously obvious that Ollie cannot tell where he stops and Stan begins. This co-dependency has a sinister edge, however, which achieves a kind of grisly extremity in The Flying Deuces (1939), a feature length remake of Beau Hunks.

This kind of film could not be made nowadays, and nor should it. The Saharan tribes are represented in the most cartoonishly orientalist fashion imaginable. What perhaps redeems the movie, and makes it watchable, is the fact that the French Foreign Legion is represented cartoonishly also. Stan and Ollie’s commandant gives a speech about the extremity of suffering and sacrifice that a life with the Legion entails, concluding with the remark that a true legionnaire laughs in the face of death and misery before breaking into hysterical laughter himself. The commandant is none other than Charles Middleton, most famous as “Ming the Merciless” in the Flash Gordon serials. Stan and Ollie back away from the desk nervously. The commandant at the beleaguered Camp Arid is similarly hysterical and not a little dim. He suspects a trap when Stan and Ollie knock at the door, but instantly opens up the main gate when they call out that they’re legionnaires.

The title of the film itself is nod to the obsolete ethnic slur “bohunk” which was apparently a way of insulting a Czech in America in the 1930s (should you ever want to go back in time and insult a Czech). This is a world of ludicrous ethnic stereotypes, in which colonial warfare and the thin blue line of French imperialism (and the boys would subsequently form part of a thin red line in Bonnie Scotland), is treated in an essentially ludicrous fashion. What’s really being mocked are cinematic clichés. The purpose of the film is to parody every aspect of Beau Geste. Why are these men fighting in North Africa? To forget. They are all of them losers. There is no commitment to the French colonial project here – no commitment to anything of any kind.

The best joke in the film is the joke that not only has everyone in the legion joined up to forget a woman – they’ve all joined up to forget the same woman – Jeannie Weenie. Even the main Arab antagonist has a copy of the same picture that he keeps close to his heart. As Stan sagely reminds Ollie.

“She’s been all over the world. Loved by Everyone.”

I’ve a few thoughts on some other Laurel and Hardy movies, incidentally.

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