Pardon Us

Film Review by Dean Duncan Sep 10, 2015

A confession! This is not a short, but rather a short feature. We just wanted to put it in anyway.

This one starts with a superbly executed deep focus composition. The boys are engaged in selling liquor, which you may recall, at the time that this film was released, was a breach of the 18th amendment of the US Constitution. Why? “When are you going to get that tooth fixed? Every time you speak you make a funny noise.” Anyway, they’re selling liquor. That’s the truth of it, and then a certain consequence follows thereupon. This whole trajectory is rendered by means of an elliptical cut that is worthy of, and that pre-dates the plane being shot down in Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

Did they mean it? I think we’ve mentioned that J. Hoberman’s notion of vulgar modernism (1991) has it that some artists—maybe we should say not-quite artists—were very successful in fulfilling the objectives of the modernist project, even though they didn’t even know what that project was, or what modernism was, or even that they might have had any objectives.

Well Stan & Ollie are definitely artists, though decidedly in a popular sense. They, and their collaborators, were very skilled, very purposeful in the number of things that they undertook. But modernists, intentionally? Probably not. But could they ever expose the workings of their medium! The slow and steady pace of some of the shots here is quite enormously impressive. Here’s one that lasts for one minute and fifty seconds. One minute and five seconds. One minute and thirty-eight seconds. There’s a solitary confinement sequence—featuring a hidden cut when the lights are turned out—that goes defiantly on for two minutes and fourteen seconds This is some pretty pointed, even radical duration. Also direct address. They’ve always used these devices, but here they’re really being pushed to the breaking point.

Remember Stan’s tooth? The Warden: “If you break the rules it will be just plain hell on earth.” Stan (with that dental problem): “Phht!”

Later we meet Mr. Finlayson, who is playing a schoolmaster. “Those that are here will say ‘present.’ Those who are not will say ‘yes.'”

Watch our for that inkwad! Watch also for the episode that takes place with the black workers on the cotton plantation. They sing a Spiritual. They cut to a really picturesque pickaninny. I’m pretty sure that no one is meaning any harm, but is this more or less Song of the South? A whole day’s worth of backbreaking work, on punitive terms, and they’re singing and dancing? At one point we find the boys in black face, to boot.

Having said that, this black workers section is followed by the most wonderful idyll, in which next to nothing happens, and no one cares, and it’s all quite beautiful. Ollie sing a lovely song with that lovely tenor voice of his, for a whole two minutes. Then there’s a reprise, in which his bosom companion Stanley performs his own lovely dance. (There are several versions of this film. These scenes only appear in the longest ones, as for instance in the 2011 dvd release, Laurel and Hardy: the Essential Collection.) These filmmakers and their films inadvertently and absolutely fulfill King Lear’s urgent injunction as they reason not the need, and so count nothing beautiful to be superfluous. See also the lovely moment when Stan sees an old friend (who happens to be a reprobate convict), and reunites with him quite joyfully.

More back and forth follows, and more interestingly all-over-the-place sequences. There’s a striking torture sequence for instance, with the mayhem all taking place off-screen or out of frame. The ever-valuable Charlie Hall plays a dentist, who has an inappropriate and fateful confrontation with one of Ollie’s teeth. There’s a hunger strike, and a prison riot. And a conclusion in which the boys, having narc’ed, get pardons. Is this like unto the countenancing of being a scab? It is not. Like Chaplin at his best, or at least at his most recklessly unideological, these guys do not espouse. They simply destroy. And, always, abide.

I love ’em!