Thursday, July 19, 2012
SONS OF THE DESERT WEEK REVIEW REPLAY: DO DETECTIVES THINK (1927)
In honor of the 18th annual Sons of the Desert (the International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society) convention happening this week, I’m reprinting some of my Laurel & Hardy reviews. You can learn more about the organization by clicking here. And you can read this review of a Laurel & Hardy classic below:
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: When Judge Foozle (James Finlayson) sentences “The Tipton Slasher” (Noah Young) for his heinous crimes, the murderer vows revenge. When The Slasher escapes prison, the Judge hires two private detectives (Laurel & Hardy) to guard him. The pair must survive an encounter in a graveyard on the way to the judge’s house, and then must face the judge’s butler – who has been knocked out and replaced by The Slasher! Can Stan & Ollie bring this killer to justice without being scared to death?
REVIEW: “Do Detectives Think” is probably one of the more contentious entries in this project. It is rarely mentioned in discussions of Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedies, and there is some debate on whether it is truly an out-and-out horror-comedy. I am on the side of those that declare it a horror-comedy. While it is true that only about 6 & ½ minutes of its 19 minute running time are devoted to specifically “spooky scenes” (multiple scares in a graveyard plus some quick bits at the end evoking beheadings and ghosts), there is an overall tone of terror due to the villain of the piece being a “throat slasher” out for revenge against the judge who put him in jail on a dark and scary night. Like the Our Gang short “Shootin’ Injuns” and the classic Wheeler & Woolsey feature “The Nitwits,” the spooky material is so memorable and well done that it overpowers the non-spooky material in each and catapults each over the “horror-onable mention” wall. Additionally this film features a villain who inspires such dread over the entire proceedings – much like Harry Lime (Orson Welles) from “The Third Man” (total screen time: less than 15 minutes) and Hanibal Lechter (Anthony Hopkins) from “Silence of the Lambs” (total screen time: less than 17 minutes) – that the fear factor is palpable throughout. Finally, with its mystery, suspense and dread as The Slasher stalks our victims through the house in the dead of night, it does take on a legitimate “old dark house” atmosphere.
This film is a watershed entry in Laurel & Hardy’s canon. In this film, the boys, who had been tentatively teamed in previous shorts (since many of those entries merely co-starred the duo without actually pairing them) are actually partnered as detectives. Additionally, they are wearing traditional detective uniforms – suits and derbies! It is a look Laurel & Hardy would ultimately adopt (with some modifications to the suits) and utilize throughout their careers. Additionally, a few scenes in “Do Detectives Think” (as well as in their short “Duck Soup” released a few months prior, and not to be confused with the Marx Brothers’ classic) highlighted some of the personality traits that would become standard for the pair. There would be a few missteps to follow but ultimately the team would build upon the promise of this entry and develop both their “look” and relationship further to become the inseparable team of “men-children” that audiences would come to know and love over the years.
As with most of the silent comedies produced by Hal Roach Studios, the humor didn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of the actors. Title card writer H.M. Walker was a witty fellow indeed and would often open these rib-ticklers with a great line, setting the tone for what was to follow. His opening card in “Do Detectives Think”:
“This story opens with a lot of people in court – most of them should be in jail.”
Additionally, Walker makes sure to pepper the title cards with appropriate gallows humor – as when he mentions that the accused had killed two men “both seriously.”
The first character we see is Judge Foozle (and another pointed joke as the title card reads that he charged the jury – “he always charged everything”), played by the inimitable James Finlayson. The use of “Fin” as a “third banana” in Laurel & Hardy shorts would also become a standard motif. Finlayson plays his patented authoritative but high-strung character here.
When the jury finds the defendant (“The Tipton Slasher,” played by the formidable and quite intimidating Noah Young) guilty, they recommend to “bump him!” The Slasher’s reaction is one that also became a classic device in comedy shorts and features, particularly those starring Laurel & Hardy. The device: he vows to escape and get even through some gruesome act. Here the object of the revenge is the judge but in other films it is usually Stan & Ollie themselves, as in “Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Going Bye Bye,” “The Bullfighters” and others.
We learn that The Slasher has escaped while the judge is having breakfast with his wife. As she reads the newspaper, the headline on the front page about The Slasher’s escape is in full view to the audience… and to the judge. Finlayson does a brilliant spit-take, his coffee practically spilling out into the theater audience! Finn quickly calls the local detective agency where the boss summons “Ferndinand Finkleberry – the second worst detective in the whole world” (Laurel) and “Sherlock Pinkham – the worst” (Hardy).
(It’s interesting to note that in this first scene that Laurel is presented as being smarter and more on-the-ball than Hardy, but when the scene changes it doesn’t take long for Hardy’s typical “take charge” attitude to set in).
As soon as their boss tells Stan and Ollie they have to guard the judge and that he lives “just beyond the Whitechapel Graveyard,” our heroes do a nervous double take. It doesn’t help that the boss adds, “This ‘Tipton Slasher’ will probably kill you – but you’ll be buried like heroes.” However, the boss is almost buried first as Stanley’s pistol goes off while he loads it, barely missing the head detective!
We are then treated to the wonderful scene of Stan and Ollie in the graveyard. What makes this particular scene remarkable is that it almost appears to have been dropped in from a later film, after their personas had already been perfected. The character deviances evident in their initial scene at the detective agency (such as the boys’ cigar-chomping and bravura) are gone – here in the graveyard we have the full-fledged duo that would become familiar to and beloved by audiences worldwide.
The scene in the graveyard is one for the books. As the boys walk past the cemetery’s open gate a forceful wind knocks their hats off and into the cemetery. Unlike the earlier scene where Stan is clearly smarter and in charge, in this scene Laurel exhibits some of the scared little boy traits – frightened facial expressions and tentative steps – that would become hallmarks of the “Stanley” character. As Stanley timidly reaches for the hats he sees the shadow he’s thrown on a mausoleum wall and runs back out to the sidewalk. Ollie’s familiar “take charge” pomposity, also missing from the earlier scene is evident when a title card has him yelling at Stan, “ Get them hats – I hate a man that’s scared!”
Laurel’s clever solution is to dive down onto the ground to get the hats – that way his shadow won’t be cast onto the wall! This leads to the introduction of a routine that would become a hallmark for the boys: the “mixed-up hats” routine. In this routine, Stan and Ollie keep handing each other what they think are each other’s hats… only to find when they put the hats on that they’ve gotten the wrong hat once again! This bit never fails to generate laughs and was “fall-back” shtick for the duo when in situations where they had no other material prepared, such as when newsreel photographers ran into the team on tours or on vacation and even in the Laurel & Hardy episode of “This is Your Life,” which caught the boys totally off-guard. The hats routine is capped by a goat wandering into the graveyard and casting a shadow that looks like Satan on the wall!
…and just like that, the “true” Laurel & Hardy exit… literally… as the pair uncharacteristically run out of the graveyard at top speed, a silent film comedy trope more appropriate for the likes of The Keystone Kops than for our more nuanced friends Stan & Ollie.
Overall key Laurel & Hardy character traits on display in the graveyard scene: both have a naïve childlike innocence, Ollie has an inflated opinion of himself and is deluded that he is “the smarter of the two” (when in reality he is just as dumb if not dumber than Stan), Stan treats Ollie like an older brother who will protect him (jumping into Ollie’s arms), Ollie is insistent on having Stan do his dirty work (forcing him retrieve their bowlers from the graveyard), Stan does his famous “cry” that would become a trademark throughout his career, as well as various childlike facial expressions and body language that would become standard for the “Stanley” character.
What Stan and Ollie don’t know is that The Slasher and his henchman have jumped the judge’s new butler (as he walks to the judge’s home for his first day on the job) and The Slasher is now masquerading as the family servant. The scenes where The Slasher tries to exact his revenge on the judge are simultaneously horrifying and hysterical. The Slasher gives the judge a drink from behind (so that the judge can’t see him) and as the judge indulges, The Slasher pulls out an absurdly long knife and threatens to do away with the judge, but quickly re-pockets the weapon and ducks out of the room when he hears the judge’s wife coming. The Slasher is truly scary in this scene, but both the ridiculousness of his knife and the fancy flourishes that the judge employs in the enjoyment of his drink acts as humorous counterbalance to the terror.
In typical fashion for a Hal Roach comedy, this bit is punctuated by an unexpected gag: it is the wife that the judge is frightened by, exuberantly and exaggeratedly throwing his drink into the air when she walks up behind him and places her hand on his shoulder.
Stan and Ollie arrive at the judge’s home and are let in by the faux butler. They have reverted back to being the wise-guy detective characters from the scene in the detective agency, chomping their cigars and acting with authority, as if they actually know what they’re doing.
This is short-lived, and soon enough the more recognizable Stan and Ollie are back. This is exemplified by a very Laurel & Hardy-esque gag where Stan has helped himself to mouthfuls of crackers and ends up spitting the crumbs in Ollie’s face as he answers his partner’s questions! Another Laurel & Hardy evergreen gag is a tit-for-tat exchange where the pair kick one another and step on each other’s feet like feuding children. The extra layer here is that they act as if nothing is wrong whenever the judge and his wife turn toward them. Yet another typical gag has the boys not noticing the obvious, as they stare at The Slasher’s photo in the newspaper but don’t immediately make the connection that he looks exactly like the butler.
The climax is a dizzying frenzy that finds The Slasher creeping in on the Judge’s wife in the bedroom while the judge limbers up in the rest room before his bath. Her screams rouse Stan and Ollie from their beds and the judge from his soapy tub. The Slasher moves into the restroom in search of the judge, but the judge ducks into the tub water to hide. A clever gag has his foot accidentally tugging the drain cap string, releasing all the water, but he still manages to go unnoticed by The Slasher.
As you’d expect, a wild chase ensues with The Slasher chasing everyone through the house, particularly Stan and Ollie. As was so often the case in Hal Roach films, the smaller laughs are only there to lead up to the bigger laughs. Earlier the absurdity of The Slasher’s long knife elicited chuckles; now the laugh is topped by The Slasher removing a gargantuan Arabian Nights-style sword from the wall to threaten our heroes.
From this point on the short brings in a couple more horror elements. First The Slasher finds Stan hiding behind a curtain and runs off into the distance after him. When they come back to the foreground, both Ollie and the viewing audience sees a headless Stan – he has ducked his head into the neck of his suit for protection! This of course evoked memories of the classic Washington Irving story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which may have still been fresh in audiences' minds due to its first film adaptation (with popular humorist Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane) being released just five years earlier.
The next and final horror element occurs when the judge’s wife’s gun accidentally goes off and startles her husband, sending him hurtling down the stairs. The husband had just emerged from the bath wrapped in a white towel. Just as he’s about to reach the bottom, his flailing legs knock a tribal mask from the wall and it lands on the back of his head! The Slasher’s chase ends when he trips into the room to see the white-shrouded judge with the scary mask on and mistakes him for a ghost! The Slasher surrenders to Stan, who locks him in the closet where Ollie is hiding. Stan is then momentarily scared by the judge who approaches him with mask and sheet still on.
This is followed by a rather abrupt ending wherein a police squad arrives to take the Slasher away and Ollie gives Stan some black eyes to match those The Slasher gave to him. The boys then leave the judge’s home, but not before putting their derbies back on… which they’ve mixed up once again!
The supporting work here from James Finlayson, Noah Young, Viola Richard and Frank Brownlee is so strong that it’s debatable whether to label it “support” or to consider this short an “ensemble piece.”
Finlayson is familiar to long-time Laurel & Hardy fans (who affectionately refer to him as “Finn”). Over the years his numerous run-ins with the boys made him their number one foil, a role he perfected. His specialties were double takes, slow burns and his cry of “D’oh!” that cartoon voice-over actor Dan Castellaneta later appropriated for his role as Homer Simpson. Finn had a lengthy career running from the silent movie days (including a 1925 horror-comedy short, “The Haunted Honeymoon”) up through the early 1950s. Other comedy teams he ran up against included Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson and Clark & McCullough. He also appeared in the Jack Benny classic, “To Be or Not to Be” and acted in at least one “straight” horror film, “She-Wolf of London.”
Noah Young was an ex-champion weightlifter (In 1905 at the age of 17 he was declared a “weight-lifting prodigy” and in 1915 was named “The Strongest Man in the World”). He was rejected by the Navy for not having enough teeth, but welcomed by Hal Roach Studios as a hulking “heavy” (villain) for their shorts and features. While Young appeared in a handful of Laurel & Hardy and Snub Pollard films, he was used most frequently as a foil for the legendary comedian Harold Lloyd, including Lloyd’s classic silent horror-comedy “Haunted Spooks” and his talkie curio “The Cat’s Paw,” which isn’t a horror-comedy per se but does contain a scene that elicits great chills. While his size would appear to make him typecast, he developed his own style of facial expressions that enhanced his screen villainy.
Viola Richard as the judge’s wife is her usual vivacious self, yet also exhibits a flair for comedy and dramatics. The actress had a very short career in movies and one brief detour to Broadway. Her film work as we know it consists entirely of appearances (mostly uncredited bit parts including some mere walk-ons) in Hal Roach comedies, and mostly silent ones at that. Stars Richard appeared with included Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang (the Little Rascals), Charley Chase and Max Davidson. “Do Detectives Think” gave Viola more to do than many of her other films, and she took advantage of her screen time to make the most of her character.
Frank Brownlee also has a short but memorable turn as the head of the detective agency. He appeared in several Laurel & Hardy films both before and after “Detectives,” most often playing law enforcement and military officials. When he wasn’t seen cavorting with Stan & Ollie he could be found cantering his way through countless westerns. What makes Brownlee especially memorable here is that his whole look and how he carries himself reflects the archetype of the detective in “old dark house” comedies, particularly hotel detectives. Fred Kelsey would be the one to perfect this act (most notably in the short “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case) and homages to it can be seen in everything from the classic Tex Avery animated short “Who Killed Who?” to Bud Abbott’s role as hotel dick Casey in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.”
Ultimately, there’s not much plot in “Do Detectives Think” and the Stan and Ollie characters are still finding their way but everything is performed by the boys and their supporting cast with such gusto that’s its easy to overlook this film’s shortcomings. Further, there is no denying that this film represents a historical entry in the careers of Laurel & Hardy, not just for featuring so many of their hallmark characteristics and really showing them as a team for the first time, but also as the first official Laurel & Hardy horror-comedy.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES: In addition to the courtroom and detective agency dialogue mentioned within the review, there are several other funny lines:
JUDGE (after sentencing The Slasher to hanging): ...an' I hope you choke!
JUDGE: Are you men good shots?
OLLIE: We come from a family of shooters – William Tell is my uncle!
OLLIE: You can go to bed – you’re as safe from danger as we are!
THE SLASHER (pretending to be the butler and tucking Stan and Ollie into their beds): I’ll leave you to a long, long sleep.
BEST GAGS: Without question the best horror-comedy gags come in the graveyard and are mentioned within the review, but there are other great visual gems to be had here as well:
Following up on the William Tell dialogue, Ollie decides to demonstrate his shooting skills by placing an apple on Stanley’s head and firing his pistol. He not only misses the apple but ends up toppling a statue from its pedestal… several feet away from Stanley!
In fact, Stan and Ollie prove to be terrible with guns throughout this short and often shoot off their guns in the wrong direction, at the wrong time or merely while pointing or loading their guns!
When the detectives realize The Slasher is in the house, Stan repeatedly jumps on Ollie’s back in fear, preventing him from leaving the bedroom. When Ollie finally manages to get the door open Stan ends up missing Ollie’s back and jumping right through the door and on top of the judge’s wife!
As Stan and Ollie tangle with The Slasher at in the hallway, Stan is seen scurrilously trying to slap handcuffs around The Slasher’s wrists. He pops a cigar in his mouth, confident that he has succeeded, only to see Ollie has risen with his hands shackled! This bit of “mistakenly subduing the wrong person” was a staple in film comedy and would later be used to great effect by teams including The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Wilson Benge plays Finn’s butler in “Do Detectives Think”… and played a butler and other servile roles (waiters, doormen, valets, etc.) in over 95% of his other movie, shorts and serial appearances. Of interest to genre fans are his appearances in Bela Lugosi’s “The Death Kiss” and one of the versions of Mary Rhinehart’s comedy horror template “The Bat” (a straight horror version called “The Bat Whispers”), roles in a few “Bulldog Drummond” and “Sherlock Holmes” mysteries, and the serials “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” “The Green Hornet” and “Captain America.” He also appeared in some bona fide classics including “The Palm Beach Story,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In addition to appearing in several Laurel & Hardy films, he appeared in a variety of Three Stooges shorts and also made a brief appearance in “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”
Will Stanton plays the Slasher’s henchman, an uncredited role in a career filled with uncredited roles. He is actually quite effective and comical in his own right (but I guess in the old days of brief credits on single title cards it just wasn’t cost efficient to credit everyone). A glance at his filmography shows that Stanton had the fortune of appearing in both several Laurel & Hardy films and in a couple of Abbott & Costello films (“It Ain’t Hay” and “Lost in a Harem”), too. He also acted in Charles Laughton’s friendly ghost tale, “The Canterville Ghost” and his final role was as a cab driver in the classic Tracy-Hepburn romcom, “Adam's Rib.”
BUY THE FILM: “Do Detectives Think” appears on DVD along with other classic Laurel & Hardy silent shorts on “The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy Volume One,” which you can order here:
FURTHER READING: The best review you’ll find online is Cliff “Laughing Gravy” Weimer’s on his wonderful “In the Balcony” site. Cliff doesn’t share my fondness for this film’s spooky elements but he does have excellent insights, which you can read when you click here.
There are a lot of books about Laurel & Hardy that have been published over the years, but most offer an overview of their careers or specific facets (for example, you can buy books on the boys’ solo films, their 1940s films, their final film and their live tours) without any one being solely dedicated to their silent film work. In that regard, I’d have to give my highest recommendation to Walter Kerr’s seminal work, “The Silent Clowns” which you can order by clicking on the title below:
The Silent Clowns
WATCH THE FILM: As this is a short there is no trailer, but you can enjoy the graveyard scene right here: