Thursday, March 3, 2011

Here’s another nice mess Jean’s gotten us into…


This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Jean Harlow Blogathon being hosted by The Kitty Packard Pictorial from February 28 to March 6 in honor of this March 3rd being the centennial birthday of the one and only “platinum blonde.”

In Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy’s 1931 short Beau Hunks, our heroes have joined the French Foreign Legion—Ollie has enlisted in order to forget a woman who’s done him wrong, and Stan…well, as usual, he’s just along for the ride.  The running gag in this film is that Ollie’s faithless love—referred to as “Jeanie-Weenie”—is apparently the original good time had by all, because everyone he runs into through the course of the movie is carrying a picture of his beloved.  For the benefit of those of you not familiar with Beau Hunks, here’s the gal who tore out Hardy’s heart and stomped that sucker flat:


You are of course by now saying: “That dame looks awfully familiar.”  And she should—she’s none other than Harlean Harlow Carpenter…best known to moviegoers in the 1930s as the incomparable Jean Harlow.  Jean is TCM’s Star of the Month for this March, owing to the fact that today is the centennial anniversary of her birthday (she was born in 1911).  Harlow first came to prominence in the early 1930s with breakout performances in such films like Hell’s Angels (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) and Platinum Blonde (1931)—and she would later achieve silver screen immortality with hits like Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Bombshell (1933) and Libeled Lady (1936).   Tragically, Harlow’s life was cut short at the age of 26 in 1937; she died from cerebral edema, a side effect of renal (kidney) failure.

In her brief period on the silver screen her star shone brightly—and like any starlet, she began her career with bit parts in feature films and short subjects.  In fact, she had previously crossed paths with Laurel & Hardy before Beau Hunks in three short subjects released in 1929 while working at the Hal Roach Studios.  She had signed a $100-a-week contract with Roach in December 1928—a contract that was supposed to run five years, but Harlow parted company with Roach the following March after telling him her work at studio was interfering with her marriage (Roach tore up the contract).

In Liberty (1929), Stan and Ollie are a pair of escaped convicts who, in the process of changing from their prison-issued clothing into their street duds, end up with each other’s pants by mistake.  The first half of the short finds The Boys trying to find a place to switch trousers…with little success, since they keep getting interrupted by various individuals who are shocked—shocked!—to see two grown men pantless in full view of the public.  They finally end up at a construction site where an elevator takes them to the top floor of a skyscraper-in-progress and after experiencing more difficulty making the necessary wardrobe adjustments (while Stan had Oliver’s pants on he acquired an ill-tempered crab as a roommate) do some hair-raising “high and dizzy” comedy before getting back down to terra cotta, as Leo Gorcey might say.  Liberty is one of my favorite L&H silent shorts because of the atypical daredevil stuff they do (this sort of thing was more Harold Lloyd’s bailiwick); there’s one sequence with Stan stranded on a ladder that will make your heart leap into your throat at the same time you’re laughing hysterically.


At one moment in the film, a man and woman attempt to get into the back of a taxicab but are momentarily interrupted when Laurel & Hardy emerge from the auto in mid-pants switch, slightly embarrassed at being caught.  (Though the film is silent, you can almost hear Hardy’s one-of-a-kind voice apologizing: “Pardon us…”)  The woman is our gal Jean, though it’s a little hard to tell from the screencap:


That’s pretty much the extent of Harlow’s participation in Liberty (she was still being billed as Harlean Carpenter)—but she got a much meatier role in her next outing with Stan & Ollie, Double Whoopee (1929).  The Boys are hired to be footman and doorman at a swanky hotel (a close-up of their employment letter reads: “There is some reason to believe that they may be competent”) that is entertaining a prince (Hans Joby) and his prime minister (Charley Rogers) and while a good portion of Whoopee slows down a tad for a mistaken identity device (our heroes are accidentally believed to be the royal guests) there are some first-rate comic sequences in which the prince falls down an elevator shaft (three times in the course of the film) and Hardy tangles with a cab driver played by Charlie Hall much in the manner of the later sound shorts Them Thar Hills (1934) and Tit for Tat (1935).  Towards the end of the film, a cab pulls up outside the hotel and a “swanky blonde” emerges…


…yes, it’s “Jeannie-Weenie.”  Oliver shifts into courtly mode…


A hilarious title card that nicely encapsulates the Hardy persona reads: “Might I presume that you would condescend to accept my escortage?”  Jean is up to the challenge, and Ollie orders Stan to shut the door of the cab…


Well, that could happen to anybody.  Stan tries to warn Ollie that there’s a reason Jean’s feeling a draft (he even prepares his fingers for a loud whistle but gets his glove caught in his mouth) and finally Oliver realizes his faux pas…


Ollie orders Stan to remove his coat so that Jean might cover herself but he’s a bit reluctant to be so gallant…and this next screen cap explains why…


The short ends up with our heroes causing a bit of a ruckus (curiously, there’s some major eye-poking involved, so apparently the Three Stooges didn’t have the concession on this) and leaving the hotel on their own power.  I wish the screen caps for this short were a bit better; the stills for Double Whoopee are a bit clearer:


Harlow’s last appearance in a Laurel & Hardy comedy (not counting her extended cameo in Beau Hunks) was 1929’s Bacon Grabbers, a funny short that teaches The Boys that the life of a repo man is always intense.  Working for the long arm of the law as process servers, the two men have been assigned to repossess a radio owned by Collis P. Kennedy—played by none other than the Master of the Slow Burn himself, Edgar Kennedy.  Edgar manages to elude being served the summons for the first part of short, and when Stan & Ollie finally put the notice in his hand they learn to their dismay that that was the easy part…now they have to collect the radio.

Placing a ladder outside Chez Kennedy, Stan attempts to gain entry into the house and because the ladder doesn’t quite reach to the top Oliver has to lift the ladder up so Stan can get inside the window.  Somehow Ollie manages to get the bottom legs of the ladder trapped in his pants, and a curious dog starts tugging at his suspenders while Stan is being rebuffed by Edgar topside…


Pointing a gun at Stan from inside the house, Edgar fires off a shot that hits a hydrant on the street, dampening a cop (Harry Bernard)…and when the cop comes over to ask “what’s all this, then?” Stan and Ollie explain to them that Edgar’s being a little obstinate over the matter of the radio.  The cop orders Edgar to let the Boys take the radio…


I just wanted to stick that in there because I love Oliver Hardy and that face he makes at Edgar.  The two men carry the radio out into the street but when Edgar sneaks up behinds them and puts his foot up Oliver’s keister they run back over for revenge…leaving the radio in the street and…


Edgar cackles with glee, and a title card reads: “There's your radio!  Try and get Havana!”  Just then, Mrs. Kennedy arrives on the scene and informs her husband that the radio’s been paid off and they own it free and clear.


Yes, you have to wait till nearly the end of this two-reeler for Jean to make her appearance, but it’s well worth the wait.

It’s interesting to speculate what sort of trajectory Harlow’s career would have veered off towards had she made the decision to stay at the Hal Roach Studios—I’m not entirely unconvinced that she would have eventually blossomed into another Thelma Todd…who also met a tragic fate before her full potential was realized.  Thelma may have left behind more film appearances than Jean, but ultimately Harlow’s star has burned a little brighter.  At any rate, we should be thankful that “Baby’s” work with the greatest comedy team remains available and intact…and I’m sure she herself would count the opportunity to work with such consummate professionals dedicated to making the world laugh both a blessing and a highlight of her film career.

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7 comments:

VP81955 said...

IIRC, wasn't Jean's portrait on the mantel in the two-reeler "Brats." implying that she was one of the L&H kids' mothers? (And speaking of Todd, she cavorted around the "Brats" bath set in a few publicity stills, appearing as if she had mysteriously shrunk to half-size.)

ClassicBecky said...

Excellent and funny review, Ivan! I never saw this, although I love Laurel and Hardy, and did not know Jean Harlow was in it. Your post is a great addition to the Harlow blogathon!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

IIRC, wasn't Jean's portrait on the mantel in the two-reeler "Brats." implying that she was one of the L&H kids' mothers?

You are, as a certain leather-jacketed 70s sitcom character often remarked, correctamundo. Thanks for jogging my memory on that.

Dawn said...

A wonderful tribute, to Jean Harlow. I have not seen many Laurel and Hardy, movies. Thanks for the smile.:)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I loved this! And I also didn't know it was our Jean in this one. A great post.

Page said...

This was a really fun Harlow tribute and a fantastic contribution to the Harlow Blogathon.
Your posts are so fun and witty which keeps me coming back to see what you're up to next.
Page

Classicfilmboy said...

As always, you come up with something fascinating that I haven't seen yet, which is why I enjoy your blog so much. Great addition to the Harlow blogathon.