Laurel and Hardy

“The Harder They Fall, the Bigger I Am”: Laurel and Hardy in “The Dancing Masters” (1943).

Yes, that is a very young Robert Mitchum, in case you were wondering. He plays a gangster who has been ordered by his boss to go around selling a brand new lucrative racket called “Insurance”. From the outset, Ollie is impressed by the scale of the payouts on offer should any serious injury occur to either he or Stan. Actually just Stan. Then Mitchum disappears and never reappears. In fact the whole gangster plotline disappears.

Bob Bailey, the grifter with a heart from Jitterbugs is back, and this time he’s an inventor working in a factory owned by the dad of the girl he’s sweet. Some time ago he did an undisclosed favour for Stan and Ollie and they’ve been devoted to him ever since. Despite being fired, he shows up at his girlfriend’s house when they both think ma and pa have flown to Washington. This being a very innocent age, this illicit tryst consists of sodas and sandwiches and Stan and Ollie tagging along as chaperones. Of course, the Washington flight has been overbooked (“don’t you know there’s a war on”) and so ma and pa return early. Stan and Ollie have to hide under the nuptial twin beds while Grant (Bob Bailey) is discovered in the living room without his trousers (“I can explain everything”).

Later on Grant arranges for a demonstration of his “invisible ray” (which isn’t – you can see it clearly), carried out by a heavily disguised Stan and Ollie in the back garden of Pa Moneybags. Stan is wearing a false beard and talks fluent foreign gibberish. Although the power of the ray is certainly proven, the ray also sets fire to Pa Moneybag’s house. I’m not sure that this was really Stan’s fault. Anyhoo – without Stan and Ollie having much to do with it, Pa eventually decides to sponsor Grant’s war-winning death ray and the young and attractive people live happily ever after. Which is all that really matters of course.

There is some nice comedy involving a rotating bookcase/fully stocked bar. Stan discovers a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Ollie assumes it’s about heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, recalling having seen the legendary Willard-Johnson fight in 1915.

Perennial Marx brothers foil Margaret Dumont appears in the film as Ma Moneybags. She’s not given enough to do.

At one point the whole grandfather clock auction scene from Thicker than Water (1935). But partly because we’ve all seen Thicker than Water and no what’s going to happen the sight of the auctioneer’s shop fills us with more dread than mirth. It’s also a self-plagiarised scene without any sort of consequential drama. Stan and Ollie lose the money needed to save their dance studio from eviction but never refer to this loss again. Ollie suddenly remembers his insurance policy and tries to think up new ways to “accidentally” injure Stan. But only to help out Grant with his invention.

The final dramatic runaway bus sequence at the end has really nothing to do with anything and nor are either of them to blame for its taking place. The driver (female, as it happens ‘cos it’s wartime), notices a dog covered in cake and screams – assuming it’s rabid. She and all the ground floor passengers have time to jump off but Stan and Ollie on the top deck do not – especially as Ollie has his foot stuck. At the last minute, Stan jumps off the bus but Ollie is still trapped when this vehicle somehow drives onto a beach-side roller coaster (I’m sure coaster gauges and bus axles aren’t compatible). The obvious fakery of the back projection used for most of the runaway bus sequence as well as the fact that the bus on the coaster is clearly a toy renders the whole thing finale fairly harmless. (Compare this with a silent film like Liberty (1929) which really does persuade you that they might plummet to their deaths any moment.)

By the standards of post Roach Fox films, The Dancing Masters certainly isn’t the worst. This is another film in which they essentially “live for others”. Even when faced with complete ruin their only thought is for Grant and Trudy. They are, however, absolutely back in character. Stan’s proverb mangling is back, and in addition to “The harder they fall, the bigger I am…” we get “You know you can’t keep an egg in two baskets…” Indeed, the dialogue here is definitely an improvement over such sorrier films as Great Guns and Air Raid Wardens.

It is always nice to watch Stan and Ollie dance. After an initial scene in the dance studio, in which Stan gets his foot glued to the wall (“Again?!”), we never return to the titular premise of the film. It is odd, really, that neither Fox nor MGM sought to make significant use of either Ollie’s singing voice or Stan and Ollie dancing ability. Their studio is, strangely, packed with young attractive and appreciative looking dance students. It seems that there’s nothing young women want more than the chance to dance like Laurel and Hardy. And why not?

If you’ve seen every Roach film and you’re looking for another Laurel and Hardy film to watch, then The Dancing Masters is definitely one of the three or four you should consider. Can I say fairer than that?

I have some thoughts about other Laurel and Hardy films.

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