Laurel and Hardy

“Putting Pants on Philip”. Laurel and Hardy and “Coming to America”.

The athletic young Stan Laurel had, in his comic arsenal, a peculiar scissor-shaped leap in the air, used to denote a state of high excitement and/or fear. He deploys it in a variety of films but never more than in Putting Pants on Philip. Young Laurel is coming to America for the first time and his ability to integrate is challenged by two considerations. Firstly, he insists on continuing to wear a kilt, and secondly, he is compelled to chase pretty women whenever he sees them. Perhaps 1920s Scotland was relatively deficient in women deemed sufficiently pretty or perhaps (more plausibly, rural Scotland’s pretty women are further apart from one another) or perhaps Scotland is anxious to get rid of its most inconvenient son.

In any case, the dockside does not reveal America at its finest or most welcoming. Stan is subjected to a humiliating public examination and the boorish and insensitive crowd finds Scottish national dress hilarious. Ollie himself is mortified when he realises that the immigrant that everyone (including himself) is happy to mock, is the very nephew he’s been dispatched to collect.

Fifteen minutes of kilt jokes ensue. Watching this film, you can’t help feeling that it is America (Culver City?) that is small and parochial, not rural Scotland. Culver City must be truly starved of entertainment if a Scotsman in a kilt can bring the whole town to a standstill. (Although I’ve always been puzzled by the idea of an immigrant steamer that runs directly between Glasgow and Los Angeles). And when Ollie appeals to law enforcement to get the crowds to stop laughing at his nephew, the officer merely joins in.

Unfortunately, Stan/Philip accidentally sneezes off his own underwear (for sure that could happen!) resulting mass fainting when the kilt flies up – as it must needs fly up on a regular basis. It is decreed that Philip must be subjected, for the common good, to the shackles of trousers – which he’s never worn in his entire life. There’s a scene of homophobic panic in a tailor’s shop as Philip refuses to submit to inside leg measurements. The struggle to get these measurements involves a protracted wrestling match. Philip has felt violated ever since he set foot on American soil and is himself a walking, leaping violation. This is a rare Laurel and Hardy film insofar as Stan’s face in close up is as poignant as Ollie’s. Philip’s sense of hurt and humiliation is palpable and the camera is allowed to linger on it. This movie is therefore both a madcap farce and thoughtful commentary on the challenges of immigrant integration at one and the same time.

There’s another much older man in traditional Scottish costume wandering around who doesn’t seem to attract gawpers in the same way and who exists only to confuse Ollie. Ollie tries to tell that leaping in the air and chasing them is no way to meet women, and attempts to demonstrate old school southern gentility as an alternative – a technique which proves equally inefficacious.

By about half way through this movie, Ollie has moved from being one of Stan’s persecutors to being his chief and only protector. We’ve all of us had the anxiety dream about being unclothed in a public setting. Stan/Philip doesn’t seem to know of “shame” as a disinhibiting control mechanism, and so all of that embarrassment becomes tranferred to Ollie. Ollie makes all of Stan’s shame his own, and is mortified on his nephew’s behalf.

Within this “funny foreigner” comedy, however, there’s a lot of heart in these twenty minutes. The audience feels for Stan and his sense of loss and confusion in a strange new world. He may be inappropriate around women, but there remains an innocence to Stan’s character which suggests that if he ever catches up with any of them, he will merely embarrass himself with direct professions of affection. The peculiar leap in the air is an intuitive demonstration of how good it feels to be alive, to live in a world with so many pretty women in it, suddenly so relatively close together. Pants shackle him.

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