US (1938) Dir. John G. Blystone
One of the later efforts Laurel and Hardy made with Hal Roach, Swiss Miss proved to be something of a watershed moment for the boys and their relationship with the man who produced many of their greatest films. While creative tension can often produce great art this is one instance where it sadly had the opposite effect.
In a small Swiss mountain village, noted Viennese composer Victor Albert (Walter Woolf King) arrives at a hotel to compose his next masterwork, hoping the remote location will provide the peace and quiet he needs. Victor’s upset wife, singer Anna (Della Lind) later shows up and wants a role in his new musical but he refuses her, so she gets a job as a chambermaid at the hotel to be around him.
Meanwhile two mousetrap salesmen (Stan and Ollie) arrive hoping to make a killing based on the logic that the Switzerland being the major cheese manufacturer means more mice! After being conned into selling their business for fake money, the duo are forced to work at the hotel to pay off their hefty food bill, where they meet Anna and Ollie falls in love.
A rather placid storyline even for Stan And Ollie but Hal Roach, who was concerned that the budgets were getting out of control, tampered with many of the ideas Stan Laurel came up with, some of which would have made a huge difference to the plot and one of the film’s more memorable moments – the piano on the rope bridge scene which also involves a gorilla!
The original script is said to have involved a convoluted love triangle for Anna’s affections between Albert, Ollie and the hotel chef (Adia Kuznetzoff). Anna and Albert were having marital problems and this song-writing trip was the last straw. Anna disguised herself as a chambermaid to be near Albert, who sees through the disguise but pretends to be in love with the chambermaid to tease her.
At the same time Ollie and the chef are also vying to Anna’s attention, with the latter devising a plan to rid Ollie, Stan and Albert by planting a bomb in a piano which the lads are transporting for Albert. Roach removed pretty much every aspect of this, except a feeble version of the love triangle, which remained in a minor form just between Ollie and the chef, which only surfaces near the end.
With the bomb no longer in the piano, the extra danger of the keys accidentally being pressed to trigger it off as the piano sways on the rope bridge is gone, leaving the laughs to come from the odd fall through the broken slats and, of course, the gorilla (Charles Gemora in a suit). Not that the scene is funny as it is but Laurel’s original idea clearly has the greater potential.
But the film isn’t all bad though. Along with the rope bridge scene there is another classic moment, a rare solo spot from Stan in which he tries to con a St Bernard dog (which is fantastic) into giving him the brandy around its neck. It’s one of those rare comic moments which is stupidly simple yet pure genius as only Stan could pull it off.
There is also another typical Laurel and Hardy gag set in a cheese shop where a testing of their mousetraps sees the lads inadvertently create a floor full of flamethrowers, and a musical treat involving bubbles. Laurel’s creativity wasn’t completely stifled but the budget constraints and clashes with Roach are evident in the way the film’s flow is uneven compared to their other works.
Because of the music writing premise for Albert’s character there are more musical numbers than normal for a Stan and Ollie film, and none of them are particularly memorable or frankly any good. One song is about the sound a cricket makes, another contains the odd line “Yodel-yah in Swiss means good morning” – apparently the Swiss had their own language back in 1938.
It might be short but the only musical interlude worthy of our attention comes from Ollie serenading Anna with accompaniment from Stan on the tuba! It’s actually not as terrible as it might sound, thanks to Ollie’s sweet voice and the sight of Stan earnestly giving it his all with the large brass instrument. It’s no On The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine but it’ll do.
Another problem with the script is that Stan and Ollie are essentially secondary characters in their own film and don’t really have a particular goal to achieve either. Once the mousetrap gimmick is quickly done with and they appear perpetually trapped working in the hotel, Ollie’s infatuation with Anna introduced far too late to be effectual or purposeful.
To that end, their role in this film feels less important than usual and in the absolute worst case scenario, pretty much borders on being high profile comic relief in between the love rift plot. Then again neither the story nor the two cast members are big enough to warrant their own film so guess who has put bums in seats?
With over a decade already under their belts as a successful comedy duo the lads can afford the odd miss and while this isn’t the worst film in their careers – their 1940’s output for 20th Century Fox is woefully unforgettable – the strain of keeping this streak alive and in the feature length was beginning to take hold.
Had Hal Roach not interfered would Swiss Miss have been a better film? Who knows but the gags he did tamper with sound like they would be more fondly remembered alongside their widely recognised moments. A passable 71 minutes of the Laurel and Hardy canon at best.