US (1931) Dir. James Parrott
This film marked for the first ever feature length outing for the most eximious of all the comedy duos, Laurel & Hardy. However while it is a prime slice of their legendary comic antics it lacks the grandeur and focus of their later feature films, making it something of an inauspicious debut away from their usual short film fare, a result of the many production issues of which it fell foul.
Story wise this prison based farce is typically as flimsy as it gets – Stan and Ollie are arrested for selling beer during prohibition and sent to prison. There they meet designated tough guy Tiger (Walter Long) who encourages the boys to break out with him, but their freedom is short lived, thanks to a speech impediment Stan incurred from a loose tooth.
This last gimmick is the film’s recurring gag – although it has a habit of disappearing until convenience requires it to return – but works as a cute plot device for some easy reaction laughs. Otherwise the humour is found in the slapstick silliness the boys are renowned for, which is delivered in spades. A climactic scene involving the duo’s valiant but disastrous attempt to save the prison governor’s daughter (June Marlowe) from a burning building is the most physical and inventive of the lot, which surprisingly was deleted from early cuts of the film.
Beginning life as The Rap, this film was originally planned as a spoof on the recent hit prison drama The Big House. The boys’ legendary producer Hal Roach wanted to use the same sets from that film but Louis B. Mayer would only agree if Stan & Ollie appeared in an exclusive MGM film (Mayer’s company only distributed their films). Roach refused and had a replica set built instead but this proved too expensive for a short so they extended the run time to feature length.
The original cut of the film didn’t fare that well with test audiences, who felt there were pacing issues and tightening was required. Some scenes were excised while others were re-shot, and Stan Laurel also had a new ending added, which is not included in this version. Probably just as well as it sounds rather anti-climactic in comparison to the much more satisfying one we do get.
Because of the re-shoots there is a very disjointed feeling about this film, with skits seemingly interjected for the sake of keeping things moving. The classroom scene for example springs to mind. I don’t know if US prisons in the 30’s had classrooms like this where the inmates are treated like kids but this one does. The inestimable James Finlayson plays the teacher and is on usual form reacting and over reacting to the stupidity of Stan and Ollie, while the script provides a few laughs from the wordplay which would later become a more prominent factor in Laurel & Hardy films.
Possibly the most contentious aspect of this film can be filed under “It was like that back then”. While on the run Stan and Ollie hide on a cotton plantation and blend with the coloured workers by painting their faces black. Such an idea is frowned upon today but in the 1930’s it was taken at face value (pardon the pun) as a comic mechanism, since the revelation of the boys’ white skin was a prominent gag. This made up some ten minutes plus of screen time and took in two musical numbers, including Ollie joining in with the singing of “Lazy Moon” but ultimately this whole segment feels like padding.
The fact this was a short film extended to a longer one is extremely evident by the sketchy nature of the presentation and the haphazard editing. But it features enough characteristics of the boys’ comic genius and slapstick routines to keep us watching and sufficiently entertained. The good thing is that everyone learned from this experience and subsequent feature length outings were much more slicker and focused affairs with the stories having greater prominence.
Because the best was yet to come, Pardon Us remains something of a curio in the Laurel & Hardy canon especially when held up against their more famous and accomplished works. But it also is assured a place in history as their first feature length film which cannot be taken away from it, thus it warrants a look for that reason alone.