03 May 2008

Laurel and Hardy Meet Zenobia


Skinny, British-born Stan Laurel and fat American Oliver Hardy began appearing together in movie shorts in 1926. Their incredible chemistry took hold immediately: two supremely brainless, eternally optimistic men, secure in their perpetual and impregnable innocence. They are life's innocent bystanders who run afoul of irate landlords, pompous citizens, angry policemen, domineering women, antagonistic customers, and apoplectic bosses. But, no matter how disastrous the consequences, they faced the world together....

Albeit not in Zenobia.

Originally developed for the comedy duo, Zenobia ultimately teamed Hardy with silent screen legend Harry Langdon when Laurel had a falling out with Hal Roach studios. The result is a well-meaning comedy, one which shows Hardy’s talents as a “leading man” yet isn't very funny. The title character — a testy female elephant named Zenobia — is the film’s primary claim to fame.

Yes, I know that the headline claims 'Laurel & Hardy' and Zenobia, but I misspoke.

Forget that for a moment, and let me muse.

This teaming of Oliver Hardy with someone other than Stan Laurel was the result of a contract dispute between Hal Roach and Stan Laurel. Zenobia (based on the story, Zenobia's Infidelity by H.C. Bunner) was Roach's attempt to create a new comedy pair without Stan Laurel, and a series of films with Hardy and Langdon was planned. The dispute was short-lived, however, and Laurel and Hardy were reunited soon thereafter (though, of course, they couldn't know this at the time).

Hardy was cast in the semi-serious role of John Tibbitt, a 19th century Mississippi doctor whose heart is bigger than his bank account. When Hardy is summoned to come help someone who is sick, he races across town only to find that the patient is an elephant (Zenobia) in a travelling carnival. "I am a doctor, and I work mainly with humans..." says Hardy, "but when you see an elephant in distress I want to help." Not the snappiest of lines, but Zenobia's owner (Harry Langdon) and Hardy figure out how to treat the elephant.Zenobia is so grateful, she falls in love with Hardy and refuses to leave his side. Attempting to say 'thanks', Zenobia relentlessly follows the good doctor and there is no place to hide: Zenobia even crashes a society party to be with him. Langdon gets mad and sues Hardy for alienation of Zenobia's affections.

The ensuing scandal plays right into the hands of Mrs. Carter, the town's richest and snobbiest woman (whose family put the 'Carter' into Carterville, Mississippi), who has long opposed the romance between her son John and Tibbitt's daughter Mary. During the climactic courtroom trial, despite occasional interruptions by Zenobia, all problems are resolved and Mrs. Carter finally gives in. She agrees to pay for any damages to the circus and consents to the marriage. And they all live happily ever after.

So far, so slight.

The Hidden Message?

I wonder how many people who saw the film in 1939 understood that Zenobia was also a symbol -- quite literally the 'elephant in the room'. What else was big and always present like an elephant in the heart of the Old South?

Three of the actors are black: Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, and Philip Hurlic. Stepin (spelled Step'n in the credits) is Zero, the butler. You can see him either as a horribly stereotyped black actor playing someone dumb and lazy, or find him quite funny talking under his breath about his thoughts every time he gets ordered to do something. Hattie McDaniel is the cook. Her name, too, is misspelt (last name has an 's' added in the credits), not that she would have minded very much because, that same year, she became the first black ever to win an Oscar -- for her role as Mammy, Scarlett O'Hara's servant, in 'Gone With the Wind'. That's her (left) receiving the award for Best Supporting Actress in 1939.

But it is Zeke (Philip Hurlic -- sorry, I can't find a picture of him anywhere on the web) who almost steals the show from Zenobia. Playing Hardy's child servant, he is smart and cute. Hardy attempts to explain race to Zeke as being the difference between white pills and black pills. As he puts it, the Declaration of Independence is made up of black, white, red and yellow pills. When Hardy asks the child if he understands, Zeke answers back, "No, Suh". Hardy finally offers him a quarter-dollar (no mean amount in 1939) if he can memorize the Declaration of Independence. He does and recites it aloud -- in what is obviously meant to be the film's highlight. It's impossible to imagine that a black child speaking those stirring opening words (We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal) could fail to make an impression on the audience. Even in Mississippi.

Zenobia is telling us that the elephant in the room is bigotry and inequality. For Hardy, black, white, red (Indian) and yellow (Oriental) pills are created equal. At least, that's how most modern film buffs read the underlying story. For some, it's even it too obvious: the film "tries desperately to force feed its audience a plate of moral fiber for digestion." Others, however, are offended by Stepin Fetchit's "hideously racist performance". The black community has always had a love-hate relationship with Stepin Fetchit. One can see why (that's him on the right in Carolina, 1934).

Still, let's not project our current ideas in a rear view mirror. In 1939, it wasn't 'self-evident' -- not in Mississippi, not in Hollywood -- that a film would have a black kid reciting the Declaration of Independence ... and some of the credit, I think, should go to Hal Roach.

Here's why.

Our Gang

The idea of creating a series starring real children came to Hal Roach as he was watching a group of young boys fighting over a pile of sticks. As he stood there laughing, he thought that if he could capture that natural youthful energy on film, he might have a hit.

The result was Our Gang, one of the longest-lasting short subjects series of all time (1922-1944). Roach always believed that the most successful comedians are childlike (like Laurel & Hardy, really 'children' in an adult world), and the Our Gang series took his theory one step further, making children themselves the comedians.

The "Our Gang" shorts are heartwarming and funny. They featured the Gang stuck in a world with mean step-mothers, irritable neighbors, heartless dog-catchers, shotgun toting chicken farmers, befuddled cops, and, once in a while, a kindly old grandma. The Gang was always remarkably diverse, featuring white kids, black kids, Oriental kids, fat kids, skinny kids, tough kids, wimpy kids ... always hanging tough together and rising above their troubles through their wit, spirit and creativity.

Our Gang had more integration between races than the feature pictures being filmed in the same era. Whereas in most feature films, black men were almost always porters or janitors, in the world of Our Gang, the black members, like Stymie and Farina, were always on an equal footing with their white counterparts.

There was no distinction between the white pills and the black pills.

But let's not get carried away, folks. In a country where a current contender for the Democratic presidential nomination (speaking through the teeth of his team) is hurling about accusations of racism, we can hardly pretend that there is no distinction between pills. Still, I think that Hal Roach was basically on the side of the angels. How else can you explain that he lived long enough to be honoured at the Academy Awards of 1992 (his second honorary Oscar) -- and looked at least thirty years younger than his actual age of 100?

"Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into."

This was Laurel and Hardy's catchphrase and it has passed into the American language.

A kindly critic might call the comedy duo precursors of the Theatre of the Absurd. Certainly, two tramp-like men bewildered by the simplest elements of life irresistibly leads to Samuel Beckett, himself a fan, who was unquestionably influenced by the characters in Waiting for Godot.

ESTRAGON: I can't go on like this.

VLADIMIR: That's what you think.

If any of my readers have 69 minutes to waste, you can 'go on like this' and see the whole of Zenobia. After all, it's the only time that Oliver Hardy is the thin one of the comedy pair:

"Well...." says an impatient Hardy.

And Laurel replies, "Here's another nice mess I've gotten you into."

Next week, back to ancient history.

1 comment:

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