THE BOHEMIAN GIRL(1936)
Written August-September, 1935. Filmed October, 1935 - January, 1936. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by James Horne and Charles Rogers. 70 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Mae Busch, Antonio Moreno, Jacqueline Wells, Darla Hood, James Finlayson, Thelma Todd.
STORY: Gypsies Laurel, Hardy, and fellow travelers, are camped near the estate of Count Arnheim. Mrs. Hardy makes no secret of her affections for the handsome Devilshoof, and flaunts their affair in front of her husband. When Count Arnheim has Devilshoof flogged for trespassing, Mrs. Hardy kidnaps the Count's daughter in revenge. She tells Ollie that the little girl is his (she's just been keeping her a secret all these years) before running off with Devilshoof. The little girl is raised by Stan and Ollie, who make a loving and attentive, if bumbling, pair of fathers. Years later, the gypsy band is again camped outside the Arnheim estate. The Count recognizes his daughter, but not in time to save her kindly guardians from the torture chamber.
The third of the Laurel and Hardy operettas, THE BOHEMIAN GIRL has
often been cited as a poor sister to FRA DIAVOLO and BABES IN
TOYLAND. It is true that the music isn't as beautiful as Victor
Herbert's score for BABES, and that the story features no lovable rogue
like Diavolo or hissable villain like Silas Barnaby to keep the plot
scenes entertaining when Laurel and Hardy aren't around. Still,
to at least one Laurel and Hardy scholar (me), the comedy scenes more
than make up for any other deficiencies. THE BOHEMIAN GIRL is the
funniest of their operettas, and with Laurel and Hardy getting the
lion's share of the film's footage, it just may be the best of the
three, at least for those who watch Laurel and Hardy to laugh.
There are many self-contained little routines throughout the film, two of which deserve a hallowed spot in the Laurel and Hardy Hall of Fame. The first is the "pickpocket routine", in which Stan tricks victims into closing their eyes while he tells their fortune, and then steals the valuables right out of their pockets. Ollie tries it himself but cannot quite get the hang of it, almost managing to get them both arrested. However, the gendarme mistakes one of their victims for the robber, and demands that he return all of his valuables to Stan and Ollie! It plays much better than it reads, and is the early comic highlight of the film. In a slight change to their usually relationship, Stan is clearly the smarter of the pair in many scenes. While this had always been an undertone to their comedy, it had never been so explicitly played out on screen before. It is especially noticeable in this scene, where Ollie cannot grasp Stan's rather simple pickpocketing technique.
The second classic comedy routine is a Stan solo scene, in which he tries to bottle some wine that has been fermenting in a barrel. The wine comes out of a hose faster than Stan can bottle it, and so while retrieving the next bottle, he has to stick the hose in his mouth. Before long, he winds up drinking at least as much of the wine as he is bottling, getting "guzzled" in the process. It is a fanastic piece of Laurel pantomime, the kind of thing that one wishes would go on for a lot longer than it does.
Some of the other comedy scenes cover familiar territory, but are no less entertaining. In a nod to FRA DIAVOLO, perhaps their most well-remembered feature at the time, Stan and Ollie play more "fingers" games in a tavern not unlike the one in DIAVOLO. Also somewhat derivative but still delightful is Mae Bush's performance as Ollie's wife. Usually an Ollie wife is provided with a reason before she starts nagging her husband, but here, she turns on him viciously as soon as he says hello. "I told you an hour ago not to speak to me!" she yells. "I told you a week ago not to speak to me!" she continues, to which Stan adds helpfully "Yeah, and you told him a year ago too." In THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, the reason she treats Ollie so poorly is not because he has done anything in particular, or that he has been spending too much time with Stan, but simply because it is expected of her to act that way. Ollie himself is more subdued and resigned to his marital misery than ever before, and he expresses not a single moment of regret when she runs off with a fellow gypsy, never to be seen again.
A fascinating bit of characterization comes in a scene where Mrs. Ollie and her suitor, Devilshoof, flirt with each other as Stan and Ollie watch. Being pre-sexual children (in Charles Barr's words), they can't quite understand the significance of the lovers' playful hand gestures and spend several moments recreating them with their own fingers. Finally, Stan catches on and asks Ollie "Did you see him chuck her under the chin?" Ollie still can't understand what it all means, but Stan concludes with a forceful "If it was my wife, I'd chuck her under the wagon!"
The other comedy scenes are just as fun: Stan attempting to steal Ollie's money from under his mattress, with Ollie still in the bed; Stan and Ollie scrubbing down their horse and each other; a drunken Stan making as much noise as possible while trying to spring the older Arline from jail --- with all this good comedy, why some critics aren't more kind to this film is beyond me.
The dialogue in the film is above par, with many great Laurelisms ("Well, blow me down with an anchovy!") and sarcastic insults from Mae Busch. And in the scene where Ollie takes care of baby Arline, reminiscent of scenes in PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES but even more enchanting due to the setting, there is a twist to the famous bedtime prayer "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" that no Laurel and Hardy fan will ever forget.
Darla Hood makes for an adorable baby Arline. MGM might have searched for months to find the perfect child actress to play the part, but Hal Roach simply plucked up Darla, his most recent addition to the Our Gang series, and plopped her right into his film. Thus, the daughter of European nobility speaks with with a distinctly Southern accent, pronouncing "if" as "ee-yiff" and "in there" as "in they-ah". It is one of those charming little absurdities, born from financial considerations, that sets Hal Roach films apart from those of other studios.
Jacqueline Wells does not fare as well as the older Arline. Although extremely photogenic (meaning she's purty!), she does not have enough screen time to really make an impact. In fact, it is hard not to dislike her at the end of the film when she takes her sweet time asking her real father, Count Arnheim, to release Stan and Ollie from the torture chamber at the end of the film.
As for the plot scenes that most critics find extremely dull: yes, they are, but they go by quickly, leaving all the more room for Laurel and Hardy. The film starts out unpromisingly, with a few songs and some exposition about the mutual hatred between Count Arnheim and the Gypsies, but once the camera finds Laurel and Hardy, they become the focus of the film and are never too long out of sight. Instead of getting brief moments of comedy in between the story, we get brief moments of story instead. For example, we learn of Devilshoof's capture and subsequent flogging by Count Arnheim's men only in short cutaways during the The Boys extended pickpocketing routine.
The music in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL has often been criticized by fans and writers, especially "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls". I never found it to be a problem. The first time I saw this film, I walked away whistling "Gypsy Vagabonds are We", whereas it took me about four viewings before I warmed up to any of the music in FRA DIAVOLO. As for "Marble Halls", I'll state without reservation that it is a beautiful song, Rosina Lawrence (dubbing for Jacqueline Wells) does a marvelous job singing it, and those who don't care for it can enjoy the cutaways to Stan eating, which are always hilarious. While Ollie beams in pleasure at his daughter, in closeups that seem a little too "Hollywood" for a Roach film, Stan keeps looking at her curiously, wondering what the hell she is singing about, while shoving yet another piece of toast into his mouth.
Thelma Todd died before the release of THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, and Roach and Laurel, worried about the emotional impact on audiences, cut most of her footage and refilmed key plot scenes. Much as we love Thelma Todd at LHC, it cannot be said the the revisions harmed the film all that much. In retrospect, it is a little irritating that most of the final footage we would ever see of the beautiful and talented Todd is lost to us forever, but Hollywood history is filled with such heartbreaking decisions. 73-year-old Zeffie Tilbury (delightful in Our Gang's Second Childhood of the same year) takes over Todd's original role as The Queen of the Gypsies, a slightly bizarre bit of recasting. Most of the other players in the film are merely adequate, though James Finlayson makes a welcome appearance in the final moments of the film as one of Count Arnheim's guards, and Eddie Borden is hilariously campy as the effeminate nobleman whom Ollie attempts to pickpocket ("Now, then, you scurvy knaves...").
Finally, sharp-eyed fans will notice a very familiar canine friend waking up with The Boys before Arline fixes them breakfast. On the Roach lot, everybody was on call to work at a moment's notice, including that adorable little pup named Laughing Gravy.
JL: When I hear the title THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, I expect a documentary on Astrid Kircherr, but I digress. I also disagree. The best of the operettas? Maybe when compared to the local junior high school's production of H.M.S. PINAFORE, but not compared to the other two Laurel & Hardy films in this genre. Yes, THE ASTRID KIRCHERR STO -- er, THE BOHEMIAN GIRL is a good film -- we don't disagree as much as we do over the first half-hour of BONNIE SCOTLAND -- but it's familiar territory they covered more creatively in the earlier efforts.
My general opinion of the film reflects what many have said before: too many uninteresting plot scenes coupled with comedy scenes that are often no more than mildly amusing. I don't find anything in BOHEMIAN GIRL to equal the comic vignettes in FRA DIAVOLO (with the exception of Stan's drunk scene, which is indeed a classic). In addition, BOHEMIAN GIRL's supporting players, with the exception of Mae Busch, are no match for the charismatic cast of FRA DIAVOLO (Fin and Thelma have too little to do in BOHEMIAN GIRL film to warrant consideration). Other than Mae, the most interesting supporting player in this film is William P. Carleton -- a graduate of the François Delsarte school of acting who, as Count Arnheim, intones "Ooohhhh, Arleeeeene" with a full, four-octave glissando. I fully expect him to raise the back of his hand to his forehead and cry "Alas!" at any moment.
Because of the cleverness of the concept and the performances of all concerned, the pickpocket business is more fun than its pat, methodical "Well-Constructed Comedy Routine" structure should allow. I don't mind that the bit belongs mostly to the writers, however, as it's memorable and well-presented. Their encounter with dandified Eddie Borden (who nearly steals the scene) has Ollie attempting to repeat Stan's "Your eyes are the windows to your soul" con game, with disastrous results. What John B. says about Stan being the smarter of the two is true, and it's especially evident in moments that call for some sort of manual dexterity ("earsy-kneesy-nosey," "finger wiggle," a game of pee-wee, etc.). Ollie's inability to mimic Stan's uncomplicated actions illustrates Babe Hardy's analysis of his own character: "I'm the dumb guy who thinks he's smart."
Stan's drunk scene is indeed a gem and tailor-made for his comic skills. It's worthy of Chaplin, but I prefer what Stan does with such moments. Chaplin was known for being brilliant with little eating or drinking scenes (such as eating the shoe in THE GOLD RUSH or the spaghetti business in CITY LIGHTS), but Chaplin elicits laughs through his inventiveness, whereas Stan make us laugh just by being Stan. Had Chaplin done the wine-barrel scene, he would have added a dozen ingenious gags that used the props more creatively, and the audience would have responded with a low, appreciative laugh and murmurs of "Oh, isn't that brilliant?". Stan, conversely, uses his character more creatively, thereby creating comedy that's more viscerally funny. We laugh at what he does, and we also laugh because it's Stan that's doing it.
Chaplin was a better storyteller, and we therefore care about the circumstances in which the Little Tramp finds himself more than we care about the Little Tramp himself. Laurel and Hardy were better characters, and their very presence generates interest and concern, no matter how mundane or trivial the circumstances. In comparing Chaplin to Laurel & Hardy, many critics and film scholars throughout the years have acknowledged Chaplin's genius, but contend that L&H are more gut-bustingly hysterical. And because the wine-barrel scene is somewhat Chaplinesque, it allows us to see what distinguishes the screen's most brilliant comic from the screen's funniest ones.
I'm also in full agreement that this or any film that teams Mae Busch with Ollie is more than worth seeing. As in Chickens Come Home or Their First Mistake, this is Mae at full throttle. It takes an actress of great comic skill to be so violently and absurdly shrewish, berate and humiliate poor Ollie so, and yet not elicit our hatred. I think it's best that Mae never played the harpy in anything but a short or a supporting role in a feature. The hair-trigger version of Mrs. Hardy would be a little tough to take stretched over 80 minutes (which is why she succeeds wonderfully when she softens her character in SONS OF THE DESERT, as John B. pointed out in his review of that film). Though she disappears 30 minutes into THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, it's nice that in Mae's final appearance with Laurel and Hardy, she goes out as we know and love her best.
Save for the sequences in the torture chamber--always a surefire setting for lighthearted fun--that pretty much exhausts the major comedy moments in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL. The remainder of the running time is given over to the Gypsies, tramps, and thieves, as well as enough songs so they could call this film an "operetta" without seeming like false advertising. The "straight" scenes in FRA DIAVOLO are performed with a delightful self-awareness of their own artificiality, whereas similar scenes in BOHEMIAN GIRL are lethargic, portentous, and needlessly melodramatic. There's no one in BOHEMIAN GIRL half as fun as Fra Diavolo and his gang, Lord and Lady Rocburg, the innkeeper, or the deaf woodsman. Instead, it's a film that loses all sense of joy whenever L&H are offscreen. As for the music, it's nice to know that "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls (in My Maidenform Bra)" has at least one admirer. That's the highest praise I can afford it, I'm afraid.
It's tough not to be overly critical about what is, after all, a good film. But it's a film more loaded with problems than any of their good ones. Laurel and Hardy deserve credit for succeeding in each of their attempts at operetta, but the formula pretty much exhausted itself with THE BOHEMIAN GIRL. It's slightly better than a halfburner.