Block-Head (1938)

71c93-l26h_block-heads_1938There are short films and then there are feature films. This is your typical Laurel and Hardy short feature which falls somewhere in between.

This Hal Roach-produced comedy romp pulls its plot from current events such as WWI, big game hunting, and Middle American suburban life. But forget that, the most important part is that Laurel and Hardy are up to their usual gags playing their usual selves in this laugh-laden story with a typical bouncy score.

It starts off with an oblivious Stan guarding his trench for over 20 years as the story moves from 1917 in France to the year 1938. Don’t question it, just accept that Stan is stupid and he has a mountain of ration cans to prove it.

When he finally is brought back to civilization there’s one man who is especially surprised, his good ol’ buddy Oliver who is just about to celebrate an anniversary with his wife.

The friends finally get their reunion at the old soldiers home where Stan is laid up and the fun begins. Because Stan and Ollie are the perfect antithesis, they always lead to the greatest of guffaws.

The laughs continue to spew out whether it’s Stan’s supposedly amputated leg or a truck piled high with dirt. And that’s before they even arrive home where they must deal with 13 flights of stairs and the ever present James Finlayson ready to trade some choice words and fists with Ollie.

Ollie also has some marital problems of his own that are complicated by the pretty young wife that lives across the hall. He and Stan manage to do what they do best by completely decimating their house and blowing up their kitchen. The end title card drops as our two heroes gallop away followed by a jealous husband with an elephant gun. Sounds about right.

I dearly hope I never grow tired of Laurel and Hardy, because if I do it will almost feel like I lost just a bit of my humanity. They are often so dumb, so mean to each other and to others, but at their core, they are always a lovable duo. By now they are caricatures in appearance and for their buffoonery, but they are also so beloved by the masses. I would like to think, even to this day.

Ollie with his fiery temper and bossing of Stan. Stan with his stupidity and often surprising talents (smoking a hand-pipe and pulling down the shadow of a window blind just to name a few). I wish there had been more screen time for Billy Gilbert, but otherwise, this is a wholly worthwhile addition to the L & H legacy.

4/5 Stars


Review: His Girl Friday (1940)

25148-hisgirl1It all happened in the “Dark Ages” of the newspaper game — When to a reporter “Getting that story” justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”

Hildy Johnson (aka His Girl Friday) is making her return to the Morning Post but not to get her old job back. She came to pay a visit to her former husband (and paper editor) who she divorced because she is newly engaged and wants to break everything off for good. It means she can go off into the sunset with her new beau, but it also means no more paper. She drops the news and it turns out the wedding is set for the next day so Walter has very little time to go to work. He soon begins a sly barrage of subtle and not so subtle jabs, ridicules, and put downs aimed at the easy target Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter cuts him off, plays dumb, and is in general condescending and conniving. Hildy sees it all unfolding and half watches with bemusement, while also trying to stop Walter from causing any major trouble.

You see he’s a wonderful fellow in a loathsome sort of way, but you cannot help but like him. Because as Hildy notes he comes by charm naturally since “his grandfather was a snake.” These are the kinds of barbs and witty put downs we deal with the entire film. Besides being good fun, it also is quite extraordinary, since they never stop coming. It’s also fascinating to simply watch the many expressions of Cary Grant, whether it is a smirk or straight face, it always has a tinge of mischief which suits his character just fine. He seems more like a little boy at times, trying to win back his girl, and in many ways, that’s what he’s trying to do. But back to the action.

Hildy unwittingly falls into Walter’s trap, and from that point on there’s no stopping her, or Walter’s scheme for that matter. When the wheels of journalism start turning there’s no stopping someone like Hildy with newsprint in her blood. Walter lets her catch wind of a man who pleads innocence though he is to be hung for shooting a black policeman. Hildy puts up a fight, but she doesn’t last very long.

Soon she’s gotten into talk to the nervous prisoner Earl and gets his point of view on the whole messy ordeal. The other newsboys are callous to the world, and as the gallows goes up outside their window, all they can do is play cards and think about the best scoop. Hildy is a little different but she’s still leaving…or is she?

Next, Williams escapes and the mad search for the fugitive is on as the newsroom goes into an uproar. The mayor and sheriff are in a tizzy and then a reprieve for Williams comes, but they ignore it because they need this hanging in order to get re-elected. By a stroke of luck, Hildy finds Williams and stashes him away in a desk. Now she is hooked, and when Walter hears about her stroke of luck, everything begins again like old times. Bruce and his mother are soon disregarded as Hildy types feverishly, and Walter wheels and deals on the telephone. Then, the sheriff and mayor burst in with the rest of the boys. Williams’ hiding place is uncovered and the two reconciled lovebirds look like they might wind up with a jail sentence. But the honorable air-head Mr. Pettibone saves the day. All that’s left to do is depart on a two-week honeymoon to Niagara Falls or maybe a workers riot in Albany. All is right with the world again. Walter’s got His Girl Friday, and she’s got her lovable wiseguy husband back.

I’m not quite sure why I am so often drawn to this movie because it is more than it being readily available in the public domain. The dynamic of Grant and Russell is certainly superb. Walter can be an absolute cad, but Grant’s charm makes him bearable to the end. Russell is the true star of this film and she deals the punches with the rest of the boys. It really is the perfect role for her. The film is blessed with the great supporting cast including Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Gene Lockhart, Billy Gilbert and a host of others who populate the film with colorful faces and voices.

After seeing Nothing Sacred (1937) it was also interesting to see another script from Ben Hecht about journalism. Again, it might be a screwball comedy but there are also political undertones. Most blatantly about journalism itself, but also about corrupt leaders (like the mayor and sheriff), the Red Scare, gender roles, capital punishment, and even WWII.

Of course, it must also be noted that this is a film directed by the great Howard Hawks. I have always had difficulty pinpointing his trademarks, because the reality is, he was so versatile, trying his hand at so many different genres. All I know is that I more often than not enjoy his work behind the camera because it is seamless and it feels quintessentially American. His Girl Friday is no different. Although, this one is just a tad faster than most. It’s sure to raise your blood pressure so be warned.

5/5 Stars