Monday, July 16, 2007

Olsen and Johnson at Republic

by Paul Castiglia

I recently got the two films that Olsen & Johnson made for Republic in the mid 1930s, Country Gentlemen and All Over Town on DVD. These films were made after their initial stint in movies at Warner Brothers, where they made a few films trying to "find their feet" as movie comedians (having already conquered the stage); and made before their legendary and innovative Universal classics like Hellzapoppin' and Crazy House, which went on to influence later comedy such as TV's Laugh-In.

The Republic O&J films, while a bit more madcap than Abbott & Costello movies (I've never felt like Lou's character was insane the way I know Chic Johnson's is), are more standard in general from O&J's later fare and to my eyes, they seem to have foreshadowed (and maybe even had a hand in influencing?) the energy of the A&C films of the '40s, especially those where A&C find themselves having to use their wits to con or be conned (Hit the Ice, In Society, Here Come the Co-Eds, The Noose Hangs High). The Republic O&J's really reminded me of those A&C films, despite the over-the-top zany touches.

This isn’t to say that other comedians of the ‘30s didn’t deal with con men and shady gangster types. The Stooges came up against such adversaries a lot, and Laurel and Hardy had their share of run-ins, too. But these encounters were almost always against characters who were exaggerated and played to comic effect, as opposed to being played “realistically,” which would render them believable threats. One notable exception in the 1930s is Laurel and Hardy’s classic Our Relations, featuring some real, unnerving hoods. The Marx Brothers and Wheeler and Woolsey vacillated between antagonists who played it straight and those who were decidedly tongue-in-cheek, but played against the Marx’s level of surrealism and Wheeler and Woolsey’s unbridled lunacy, the “serious” threats rarely registered.

For the most part, the Abbott and Costello canon is loaded with dramatic rather than comical villains (with the exception of some comic relief henchman). In the 1940s, away from Hal Roach Studios and under the aegis of Fox and MGM, Laurel and Hardy would start rubbing shoulders with “real” threats; more than likely a result of their new studios’ response to Abbott and Costello’s winning formula.

If you have a chance, watch Olsen & Johnson’s ‘30s films. They are readily available on the cheap from various public domain DVD outfits like Alpha Video. You'll notice that they breeze through these films with the same confidence and energy that Abbott and Costello will display just a few short years later in their initial batch of films, especially Hold That Ghost and Who Done It. They even exchange in some lively double-talk banter that holds up to the best of Abbott and Costello’s verbal exchanges. Consider this transcript of a scene in Country Gentlemen wherein Olsen & Johnson are interrogated by police detectives:
DETECTIVE: Where were you the night of June the 10th?

OLSEN: Out with a beautiful blonde.

DETECTIVE: Where were you on the night of June the 11th?

OLSEN: I was out with a beautiful brunette.

DETECTIVE: Where were you on the night of the 12th?

OLSEN: I was out with a beautiful redhead.

OTHER DETECTIVE: Keep it up Harry, we’re getting somewhere – he’s confessing.

JOHNSON: He’s not confessing, he’s just bragging!
There are other exchanges that are reminiscent of Bud and Lou – watch this scene and imagine Bud doing Ole’s lines and Costello making Chic’s quips, and you’ll know what I mean:

"You wouldn't hit a man with glasses, would ya?"

Despite the odd choice to make Olsen a romantic love interest during Country Gentlemen, there is a lot to like in this short offering. And All Over Town throws in a delightful bonus: perennial Laurel & Hardy nemesis James Finlayson in a major role! As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a scene of Olsen and Johnson sharing a roller coaster ride with a seal that is one of the most laugh-out-load punchlines I’ve ever enjoyed. I won’t give the joke away; you really owe it to yourself to seek these films out. They offer an interesting look into both Olsen and Johnson’s development as well as their influence on (as we learn in their still-to-come classic Crazy House) “Universal’s #1 comedy team.”

This scene from All Over Town affords us a rare glimpse at Chic and Ole's musical skills, the foundation of their original vaudeville act:

This clip from the PBS series Matinee at the Bijou features a mid-50s trailer for a re-issue of Country Gentlemen. That's Rudy Vallee singing the MATB theme:

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Blogger East Side said...

Better than Abbott & Costello, anytime, any day.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

You and me both, but I think we're in an extreme minority on this one.

9:36 PM  

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