Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Putting Pants on Philip" (Clyde Bruckman, 1927)

The first dialogue card in “Putting Pants on Philip” (1927) informs us that we are about to see “The story of a Scotch lad who came to America to hunt for a Columbian half-dollar -- his grandfather lost it in 1893,” but that’s not what the film is really about. Yes, Stan Laurel is Philip, fresh off the ship from Scotland, but the printed narration is a diversion. The real joke is Philip’s kilt. You’ll be relieved to know that he does sport underwear beneath. We know because at one point, he loses them.

This two-reel farce has frequently been billed as the first Laurel and Hardy picture, but that’s misleading, too. They’d appeared in over a dozen shorts together by the time this one was shot. If anything, PPOP is the first time they were beginning to develop the characters we know as The Boys. We see the famous nitwit duo here only in flashes. There are times when we can actually see them thinking. Stanley is much more aggressive in the film, and Ollie is more dapper and capable of living in the real world.

But is this the real world? The street scenes, of which there are plenty, look like a mid-sized, middle class area of Los Angeles or one of its near neighbors, but if Philip has just arrived by ocean liner from Scotland, he wouldn’t be docking on the west coast.

Of course, no subliminal message was intended by the filmmakers--it’s just the usual marriage of convenience and economics—but it presages the moments of mini-surrealism for which Laurel’s gags would become famous.

We open on the Hon. Piedmont Mumblethunder (Hardy), who is waiting on the docks to meet his sister’s son, Philip, arriving from Scotland. We see that sis has sent a letter by way of introduction and she warns her brother (hereafter called Hardy because if I have to type Mumblethunder too many times I may just forget the whole thing) that Philip (Laurel) has but one weakness—women.

Philip disembarks with another Scotsman, and the ship's doctor (an uncredited Sam Lufkin) insists on giving him a quick physical. As the doc probes and gropes him and tries to search his hair for lice or worms, the crowd on the pier begins giggling. This crowd includes Hardy who, despite the fact that he knows he’s meeting a Scot and Laurel is wearing a kilt, pities the poor sucker who's stuck with meeting his nitwit. Ollie's slow realization who the sucker is, is vintage Oliver Hardy.

Other than the kilt, there is no joke in their appearance. Hardy is in a natty sports coat and boater. Laurel is wearing a tam, but both of them have clothes that are clean and well-fitted, unlike the tight suits that Hardy will later adopt.

Pulling his nephew away from the chortling crowd, Hardy asks Laurel what he wants to do, when SHE (Dorothy Coburn, uncredited) walks by—and She is a leggy flapper with bobbed hair and a pert attitude. Laurel, instantly smitten, delivers the first of many scissor-jumps and Hardy has to grab him to keep him from pursuing her.

Walking down the street, Hardy insists that Laurel stays several steps behind him as he is an influential citizen and he doesn't want anyone to see him strolling along with a man in what looks like a dress. Every time Laurel catches up to him, he links arms with his uncle and the following crowd erupts in laughter. When Hardy asks a cop for help in keeping the crowd from ridiculing them, the cop laughs, too.

Then She passes by again, up jumps Laurel, and the chase is on. This time it ends with a slightly larger crowd gathered in the middle of the street.

Hardy drags Philip away again, and as Laurel walks over an air vent in the sidewalk, his kilt flies up (a la Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch”). This happens a couple of times before Hardy moves him away from the vent. Laurel then decides to take a sniff of snuff and when he sneezes, his drawers, unnoticed by anyone, fall down. Cut to the crowd. We can't see what happens to Laurel and his kilt, but several women pass out or move away in horror. Note that this action takes place in front of what I assume is a pub called "The Pink Pup." The boys could be risqué when it suited them. And it suited them more often than you may remember.

A passing stranger retrieves Laurel’s underwear—how times have changed—She returns, another scissor jump, more pursuit.

Hardy has had enough and he takes Laurel to a tailor to get him fitted for trousers. There is some foolery with measuring the inseam, with Laurel's reactions becoming more exaggerated each time. As the tailor (Harvey Clark, uncredited) becomes more and more frustrated, Hardy offers to help. Eventually, all three of them wind up rolling around on the floor.

Getting serious, Hardy removes his coat and follows Laurel through some curtains hanging in a doorway. He chases Laurel back and forth, the doorway being used as a frame for their action. Finally, Hardy emerges disheveled. His vest is pulled up and he has to straighten it.

Then Laurel emerges, also mussed up. His tie is loosened. Here Laurel indulges in some superb silent face acting. You can see his despair as his uncle has "undone" him. He has been seduced and betrayed. Laurel sits on a chair screen left, and Hardy stands beside him on his left. Their attitudes and expressions superbly parody melodrama of the she-is-more-to-be-pitied-than-censored variety.

The tailor brings them the pants, and Laurel goes into a dressing room to put them on. He sees HER legs pass by (he can see out a basement window at eye level), and he goes after her, still in kilt.

Once more, uncle, nephew and She end up together on the sidewalk. She has tried to slip unnoticed past the two men. She does get by them and when Laurel attempts pursuit once more, Hardy grabs him and, in an attempt to sooth his nephew's passion, asks him if he wants to meet the girl.

Yes.

Hardy strolls over to her as only he can stroll, and in that overly polite manner with which we will become familiar, is chatting her up when she thumps his nose and walks away. She marches to the place where the sidewalk meets the street at an intersection. There is a large puddle in the street. Laurel rushes over to her, takes off his kilt and spreads it over the puddle. "An old Scottish custom," he tells her. She makes a quick leap over the kilt and puddle and we cut to her on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. She performs a scissor-jump, and walks away laughing.

Hardy comes up to Laurel, chortling. When Laurel bends to pick up his kilt, Hardy stops him with one of his grandiose gestures and indicates that he will go first. "An old American custom," he says. When he steps on the kilt, we see that it covered a waist-deep pit and Hardy goes completely under before re-emerging, soaked to the skin top to bottom. As he stands in the pit, chastened, a crowd comes running over, this time to laugh at him.

He has become what he least wanted to become.

The film’s pace is brisk and the jokes run the gamut from the expected to the oddball. Clyde Bruckman directs with a sure hand. Now remembered only by aficionados of early comedy, Bruckman was once at the forefront of screen farce. He worked again with Laurel and Hardy on “Battle of the Century,” and with W.C. Fields on “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “The Fatal Glass of Beer.” He’s the credited co-director with Buster Keaton of “The General,” and he made three talkies with Harold Lloyd. The end was not kind. In 1955, after eating a meal in a restaurant that he could not pay for, he shot himself with a gun he’d borrowed from Keaton.

This film’s supervising director was Leo McCarey, who would win two directing Oscars. It was photographed by George Stevens, who would also go on to claim two Oscars for directing, and the intertitles were written by H.M. (Harley M. “Beany”) Walker, who wrote stories, titles and dialogue for 309 pictures.

Film historian William K. Everson once listed what each of the great movie clowns was best at, and he wrote that what The Boys did best was deliver more laughs per reel than anyone else. No sentimentalizing, no intellectualizing—just funny. This is where it started, folks. This one’ll kilt ya.