Putting Pants on Philip

Film Review by Dean Duncan Sep 10, 2015

Along with a number of other observers, film scholar Wm. Everson has this film as the first true, maybe the first full Laurel and Hardy collaboration. They’d appeared together in films before this, or they’d both been in the same film, though not always together. But the personae weren’t yet in place, nor the exact mix or style. Even now, they’re not quite there. Stan was still forcing things a tad, as it were, still being a bit overly antical. (Cf. that Freddie and the Dreamers little jump he keeps doing here.) He would soon discover that doing less, and doing less a lot slower, was precisely the ticket, for all that contradicted almost the entire course of silent film comedy.

All that is still a bit in the future. Leo McCarey gets a writing credit here, and he, in addition to being destined to become one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, should get some of the credit for participating. So should the Hal Roach company entire; a revolving multitude of collaborators are in their own way responsible for the evolution and coming to fruition of this particular artistic organism.

For instance, someone had the idea to name Ollie’s character J. Piedmont Mumblethunder. There’s often a strain to concoctions like that, and of course in just a minute the boys will quite properly start going by their own names. (Yes, Stan was originally called Arthur Stanley Jefferson, but you know what I mean.) But J. Piedmont Mumblethunder! He is waiting for his nephew, arriving from Scotland. He mentions to another waiting companion that he is sure glad he doesn’t have to collect that specimen, the one with the kilt.

Guess what? Laurel and Hardy films would soon become, in their own way, as fate-ridden as those of Fritz Lang. You can run, etc.

Young Stanley/Philip, it turns out, is an irrepressible skirt-chaser. Who seems to be wearing a skirt himself. The hint of future greatness, the shape of things to come is in the sequence in which Ollie finally gets Philip to the tailor’s, who measures him for a proper pair of pants. The amazing thing is Philip’s unusual, almost unaccountable response to this ministration.

The boys would do this once in a while. Their characters are ultimately innocent, to the point of resembling the little children that should be suffered, the likes of which populate the kingdom of heaven. It would become a joy to so suffer them. At the same time some of their routines could contain infernal little hints of impropriety. Hence, a very productive tension. This happens here, with Philip seeming to think that these men have designs on his virtue. Everyone bravely holds to this conceit, and plays it to the hilt. The result is that, the task done, Philip thinks he’s been violated. It’s funny—again, we’d best face the fact that comedy often depends on pushing envelopes that we’d rather left unchallenged—but it’s also something more. Laurel, who really was a marvel, actually puts us in mind of Richardson’s Clarissa or Hardy’s Tess. He had been Chaplin’s understudy, way back in 1914 when the Fred Karno troupe came from Britain to tour the US. In many ways the two of these English comics were dissimilar. However they were both similarly able to evoke surprisingly deep emotions while they were, seemingly, just cutting up or cracking wise.