Thursday, February 26, 2009

5. Flying Elephants (1928)

Director: Frank Butler

Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Viola Richard

Caveman Quotient: 100%

When confronted with a film like Flying Elephants, I have difficulty thinking of anything new to say. The film is, in its essentials, basically just a rehash of the early comedies we’ve seen here, with it’s only real distinguishing features being, firstly, that it stars Laurel and Hardy (about whom I know nothing) and, secondly, that it boasts a noticeably higher quality of T ‘n’ A (about which I pretend to know nothing). Still, it’s not without merit, and in any case I'm obliged by my pedantry to review it. However due both to it's slightness of plot and it's slim running time (barely 20 minutes, and shorter in some cuts) I've decided that Flying Elephants will not, despite the dictates of tradition, be the only film which I review this week.

The story takes place in the distant past of the Stone Age – so called because the king has for some reason declared that all men between the ages of 13 and 95 must marry, and if they refuse then they will be sentenced to labour on the rock pile (or be banished and executed, or both – look it doesn’t really bear thinking about). The plot, such as it is, concerns Hardy the Mighty Giant wandering into the kingdom and being told of his marital obligations, and then setting about trying and failing to woo various women. The joke here being that while numerous highly attractive women inexplicably find Hardy something of a catch, they’re all already married, and as a consequence poor old Ollie can’t get more than two words in without having some irate spouse appear from behind a boulder and conk him one on the head with an oversized cudgel.

At the same time two other parties have entered the kingdom from opposite ends. The Wizard Saxophonus (James Finlayson) and his daughter Blushing Rose (Viola Richard), arrive via Ford motor-ox and set-up camp down by the stream. Meanwhile, Little Twinkle Star (Laurel, who looks weirdly like my grandfather) has just pranced up over a ridge top, and upon being informed of his marital obligations by the conveniently-positioned plot-contrivance celebrant, reacts in more or less exactly the manner you’d expect of someone bearing his particular sobriquet. This leads to a lot of shenanigans in the same vein as the “Stone Age” segment of Three Ages, as Little Twinkle Star tries and fails to win-over a variety of women by shows of manliness, until he finally happens upon Blushing Rose – who, against all odds, reciprocates Little Twinkle Star’s feelings. Of course the father objects to his daughter marrying a Nancy, Little Twinkle Star must prove himself worthy by clubbing a brace of trout, and then at the end Hardy shows-up and fights Little Twinkle Star for Blushing Rose’s hand. Everything is put right by the intervention of a vengeful mountain goat, and the happy couple are free to go off on their merry way - - or are they?

By the time credits roll on Flying Elephants, it has come to resemble Three Ages to an alarming extent. The main difference lies in the contrasting tones of the two films. Whereas Keaton’s comedy tends to be focused fairly strongly on characters and narrative, here Laurel and Hardy display an episodic, gag-focused approach that has more in common with a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. The result of all this is that Flying Elephants is very much a film which lives and dies by its individual jokes. Thankfully, while the film is for the most part fairly pedestrian silliness, it does boast a number of genuinely good gags. For example, there’s the fish-clubbing scene, which is at the same time very stupid and very funny – one of the few times the film manages to be just as ridiculous as it thinks its being. Then there’s the instance alluded to in the title, which has no bearing in anything but which is pretty entertaining if you don’t know it’s coming. My favourite gag, however, consists of Laurel attempting to pick a girl up and carrying her away over his shoulder, only to have her leap off, laugh at him, and then beat the crap out of him with some well-rehearsed judo. It’s a cheap joke, granted, and owes more than a little to a number of similar scenes in Three Ages, but at the same time I am far too much of a Johnny Bravo fan not to be amused by the sight of an effete Stan Laurel being beaten-up by starlette and occasional stunt woman Dorothy Coburn while he cries-out “Don’t you know the rules!”. It’s funny, damn it! Now if you don’t mind I’m going to go chuckle heartily at Allo Allo.

The mention of Dorothy Coburn does let me bring-up the second of those two points of distinction I mentioned in the opening paragraph. It’s fairly clear that most of the point of this film lay in having attractive women lie up on screen in the shortest skirts allowable by law. This is even made a joke of, with the carefully revealing and thoroughly modern bathers-bottoms of the women visible in many shots. Then you have the fact that Laurel and Hardy can’t walk three paces without passing a woman draped over a rock, sunning herself. The amount of leg being shown is both awe-inspiring and quite welcome, and while it’s thoroughly ridiculous that seems to be in keeping with the spirit of the project. I mean, at one point a woman is seen pulling-on fur garters – it’s at such points that any of the potential ickiness of the premise is neatly and quietly nipped in the bud.

So, over all this is an mildly diverting film, but not really anything worth scaling a mountain to track down (especially since it isn’t that hard to find). Given that this is the first Laurel and Hardy film I’ve seen, it’s left me with the feeling that this probably isn’t their best work, and that I should probably track some of their other stuff down too. Then again, I might make the point of it being their sound stuff, as I suspect they're the sort of comedians who’d come across better with audio.

In any case, at least this is the last comedy I’ll be reviewing for a while, as well as being the final silent I'll be reviewing (I guess this means I'll finally have to buy a decent set of headphones) . I do unfortunately appear to have missed a few films - D.W. Griffith prehistoric capers which seem to be available only as 16mm prints from the Library of Congress, which is frustrating since they seem to constitute the very origin of the species (as well as some spectacularly crummy dinosaurs) - but hopefully I'll be able to do a better job across the sound era. With the exception of a few films which I’ll be getting to across the next few weeks, caveman cinema went out of style across the next couple of decades, and it wasn’t until the decline of Hayes Office censorship and correspondent rise of the modern exploitation film in the 1950s the genre took off again in a slightly (but only slightly) more sober form. Then again, if anyone was ever going to try and handle cavemen in a serious and thought-provoking manner, it was Roger Corman.


2 McClures out of 5.


  1. I am really starting to wonder what percentage of caveman movies are comedies, and if the jokes ever change.

  2. Thankfully, between 1931 and 1980 there are only three comedies out of forty-odd films, unless I have perhaps missed a feature-length episode of the Flintstones. After 1980 there are a few comedies, but it works-out about 3 fifths in favour of sober treatments. At least in the future, stop-motion dinosaurs became a more readily available commodity. And, amazingly enough, there is evidence of the evolution of caveman humour, although the sex seems to remain an essential aspect.

    I'd really love to see an ordinary comedy of manner set in prehistoric times, though.

    I am really looking forward to getting into the serious films now, since the variety and richness of the genre was somewhat astonishing even to someone such as myself.

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