A CHUMP AT OXFORD(1940)
Written April-May, 1939. Filmed June, 1939. New scenes written and filmed September, 1939. Released by United Artists, February, 1940. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by Alfred Goulding. 63 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Forrester Harvey, Wilfred Lucas, Forbes Murray, Eddie Borden, James Finlayson, Anita Garvin, Peter Cushing, Charlie Hall.
STORY: Down on their luck, Laurel and Hardy drift from one job to another. After their stint as butler and maid at a lavish dinner party proves a fiasco, they find themselves sweeping the streets. They trap a bank robber who slips on Stan's discarded banana peel, and are offered their choice of rewards from the grateful bank president. Reasoning that their lack of education has prevented them from advancing in life, The Boys opt for schooling at England's Oxford University. At Oxford, they are the victims of endless practical jokes by their fellow students. When Stan bumps his head on a window sill, he suddenly, miraculously changes personalities to become Lord Paddington, the greatest scholar and athlete Oxford has ever produced. He makes Ollie his manservant, and subjects him to all sorts of indignities. Finally, Ollie can stand no more and angrily announces he is headed back to America. Another bump on the head causes Stan to become Stan again, and the two old friends share a warm embrace.
Always a few steps behind everybody else: Fifteen years after
Harold Lloyd, eight years after the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy
finally make it to college!
A CHUMP AT OXFORD is that rare Laurel and Hardy feature with one brilliant sequence that overshadows the rest of the film. The remake of From Soup to Nuts (in the six reel version of the film) is funny, the maze sequence is tedious, and the business in the Dean's bedroom is a regular riot. But the moment Stan turns into Lord Paddington, A CHUMP AT OXFORD becomes one of Laurel and Hardy's greatest films. And the moment the sequence ends, along with the film itself, A CHUMP AT OXFORD returns to being a fun but occasionally slow follow-up to BLOCK-HEADS.
It begins well, with a revisit to From Soup to Nuts that was especially filmed for the European release of CHUMP and has now become part of the standard version. James Finlayson and Anita Garvin throw a high society party and get stuck with Laurel and Hardy as their maid and butler for the night. Garvin's return to Laurel and Hardy is welcome indeed, and even though she is not given much to do, she immediately reminds us of why we missed her in the first place. Her tender utterance to husband Finlayson - "Thanks, Baldy - you're such a dear" - is one of the funniest lines ever spoken in a Laurel and Hardy movie scene not featuring Laurel or Hardy. When Laurel and Hardy arrive on the scene, after some funny business in the employment agency, Hardy seems to be more self-aware than usual. In the silent film, the employment agency sent along a note apologizing for Laurel and Hardy's appearance as the best they could do on short notice. In CHUMP, Ollie offers the apology himself. They then go on to prove that the apology was more than necessary, as Stan walks around eating the hors douvres from the tray he is carrying ("They're good!", he enthusiastically tells a guest) before dropping them all on Garvin's lap, while Ollie causes much confusion with his fussy seating arrangements. Stan's tendency to take things "illiterally" proves to be disastrous just as in the original silent short. This party scene shows that, like Our Gang at the time, Laurel and Hardy might have been effective in one-reelers had they not moved exclusively into features.
There is more self-awareness in the street-cleaning scene that follows. During a lunch break, Ollie begins to wonder why, after all these years, he and his pal are still aimlessly drifting from job to job. Stan decides that it's because they never received any education ("readin', 'writin' and figgerin''"). Although the Laurel and Hardy of these later films often seemed thicker than their earlier counterparts, they possessed an awareness of their shortcomings that eluded The Boys of Hog Wild or Towed in a Hole, who were ready to tackle with determination each and every obstacle life threw in front of them. The rhythm of the film resembles Chaplin's MODERN TIMES, which had Charlie also going from one job to the next in a series, while the plot point of Stan and Ollie accidentally capturing a bank robber looks forward to W.C. Field's THE BANK DICK, which uses the exact same device to earn Fields his job in the bank. In CHUMP, The Boys are not rewarded a job as Fields is, but rather the education they long for - not at night school, as Ollie has dreamed, but rather at Oxford itself.
They show up at Oxford dressed for Eton, which is fine with Stan, since he has eaten since he left America. Stan's English background is almost never referred to in a Laurel and Hardy film, and now that he is back in his home country, he is as much a fish out of water as he was in America. Stan's brand of dumbness knows no cultural bounds. They immediately run into some students who trick them into thinking that the Dean's quarters are actually their new rooms. These students include Charlie Hall, and a young Peter Cushing, years before he and Christopher Lee would revive the horror film with their classy remakes of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. While the scene where The Boys navigate a maze of hedges to get to their new home quickly bogs down and offers intermittent amusement, things get going again once they take over the Dean's quarters. Amusing themselves with "nightcap" and "fizz water", they spot a portrait of the Dean on their bedroom wall, and engage in a battle to see who can make the most insulting remarks about him. Ollie refers to him as "some old cockroach" while Stan concludes that he has only seen a face like that before in a monkey house. When the Dean himself arrives and announces that who he is, Stan and Ollie assume he is a phony and resort to insulting him in person and hitting him with a pillow. Of course, they soon learn the truth and in a neat twist, it is not Stan nor Ollie who get in trouble, but rather the students who tricked them in the first place.
This leads to the brilliant final few minutes. When their fellow students begin marching up the stairs to Laurel and Hardy's real quarters, seeking revenge for snitching, Stan tries to escape through the window, which clunks him on the head, returning him to his former personality, that of Lord Paddington. As explained by a valet who helps Stan and Ollie settle into their new quarters, Lord Paddington was a brilliant and athletic Oxford professor who lost his memory from a similar clunk on the head and wandered away from Oxford years ago. Stan as Lord Paddington is the exact opposite of Stan as Stan - he is pompous, speaks in a uppercrust accent, and is so smart that Einstein himself soon requests a sit-down meeting.
It is the reversal of Stan and Ollie's usual relationship that makes this scene so rich. Whereas Ollie has dominated over Stan for years, he is now reduced to being Stan's manservant, a situation that he finds increasingly intolerable. "If it wasn't for that bump in his head," Ollie tells himself (and us), "he wouldn't know Einstein from a beer stein." Ollie's pain is obvious - for the first time, it is proved what we all knew all along: Stan really does have a superior brain to his partner's. Lord Paddington treats his servant with disdain and speaks of him as if he weren't even in the room. "Pardon my valet's being so horribly stupid," he says to the Dean as Ollie glares at him in anger. Later, he informs Ollie to his face that he lacks "the dignity becoming of a lackey." It is in great anticipation that we wait to see which remark will finally make Ollie angry enough to break the bond with his old, if changed, friend. Will it be "Oh, uh, Fatty... fetch me my memorandum", or a tantrum over Ollie's poor tea-making abilities. Finally, it is Lord Paddington's insistence that Ollie march around the room with his "chins up", subsequently causing him to trip and drop the tray he is carrying, that sets Ollie off. After a loud and long tirade against Paddington, Oxford and the world in general, Ollie storms out. Lord Paddington manages to get his head clunked again by the same window, and when Ollie returns to say a final angry good-bye, Stan begins to cry, wondering why Ollie is going without him. Ollie sees that his old friend has returned, hugs him and immediately forgives everything.
Charles Barr wisely saw that BLOCK-HEADS and A CHUMP AT OXFORD were two sides of the same coin. "The former postulates a change in Ollie, the latter a change in Stan.... In each, the new relationship is shown to be wrong and the old is restored." (Barr, pg. 109). I highly recommend all fans to seek out a copy of his book LAUREL AND HARDY, as it equals Everson as one of the first attempts at treating Laurel and Hardy films as films rather than as simplistic comedies, and his take on these later films is highly insightful. I'm not suggesting that Laurel, Hardy or the writers ever consciously posed the question of what their characters would be like without each other, but there is a sense in these later films that they knew that "The Boys" had been around long enough, possessed a wide and long-standing audience, and that it was now time to have a little fun with their screen characters.
A CHUMP AT OXFORD could certainly benefit from judicious editing. The maze sequence, in particular, is not worth the amount of time spent on it. Still, it is a Laurel and Hardy film with several fun segments and an outstanding finale, one that goes farther than any other film in dissecting and examining the inner workings of The Boys' friendship. For that segment alone, it is one of their essential films.
I'm in agreement with you point-for-point on this one. The
saddest thing I find about this film is that it proves Laurel and Hardy
were still capable of making an excellent comedy in 1940 -- and by
1941, it was all over. In a way, I'm glad they continued to
films into the '40s (after all, there's perhaps 30 minutes worth of fun
stuff among their final nine films), but A CHUMP AT OXFORD might have
made for a sweet finish to their film careers (with perhaps SAPS AT SEA
as a pleasant little encore). While it's true that the Boys
played different versions of Stan and Ollie in their films (they were
either married or single, unemployed or held various jobs, etc.), it
might have been a nice little touch to end things with the notion that
Stan was really Lord Paddington all along.
The opening scene, the From Soup to Nuts remake, has the team embellishing old material and improving on it. The earlier silent film makes for a fun 20 minutes, but it's also an early film marked by some uncertainty with their characters. The CHUMP remake adds the elements of having Stan drunk and in drag, which allows him to mess things up and embarrass Ollie a bit more. Because this scene was an add-on to the original four-reel version, I tend to regard it as the team's last short subject, and as proof that they could still make a fine comedy in a limited time frame.
The scenes at Oxford have one glaring omission, in that the situation cries out for a classroom scene. A chance for some old vaudeville shtick (as in PARDON US), a chance for the students to pull some more pranks, and a chance for the Boys to have some fun with chalk, erasers, inkwells, etc. As we cannot lament over what never was, however, we are left to lament over what is: the maze scene, which, at eight-and-a-half minutes, runs about seven minutes too long. It might have made for an amusing scene boiled down to its essence, but, as I find with the entirety of THE FLYING DEUCES, it's a scene that the writers apparently thought was loaded with potential, then let the potential itself carry the comic load. That this film began as a four-reeler suggests that a great deal of padding went on in this scene in order to turn what was really a three-reeler script into the required length. Pity they couldn't have made the longer version of the film the official one throughout the world upon its release and trimmed back the maze scene in the process. Behind-the-scenes accounts of A CHUMP AT OXFORD reveal that the maze scene was a pet project of director Alf Goulding, and that Stan was unsure as to how it would play. That explains a lot.
But any weaknesses in this film are forgotten once the brilliant final scene begins. As Oliver Hardy proves with his supporting performance to John Wayne in THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN, Stan Laurel's turn as Lord Paddington demonstrates that these men were accomplished actors, capable of much more than "Stan and Ollie." Stan embellishes the role with subtle touches, as he casually stuff his hankie in his sleeve and struts with a regal bearing in smoking jacket and pince-nez. He is so good that Hardy's fine performance in this scene is often overlooked, but mention should be made of Ollie's reserved demeanor with a hint of underlying resentment and disgust at his situation. His camera looks are in abundance here, and never have they seemed so heartfelt. It's also worth noting that, for a man of his size and age, he was still capable of a big pratfall, as when he tumbles over the hassock, sending his Lordship's tea service flying about the room. Ollie receives as much help and sympathy from Lord Paddington in this situation as he would from Stanley, the difference being that Stan's reaction would have been the inevitable "What happened?", whereas Lord P. adds insult to injury with "Now look what you've done, clumsy!"
A CHUMP AT OXFORD is not consistent enough to rank it among the team's classics, but it is an essential film with several classic scenes. Fans may wish that Laurel and Hardy could have continued their relationship with Hal Roach into the 1940s, but the conditions wouldn't have allowed for it even if Stan and Babe had desired to do so. Roach by this time wanted to make "important" pictures -- his initial plan in re-signing the team in 1939 was for them to make some four-reel "streamliners" to be marketed as the second picture on a double bill -- and the days of Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Todd & Kelly, Charlie Chase, et al., were behind him. He did make a few respectable films (TOPPER, ONE MILLION B.C., and, especially, OF MICE AND MEN), but wound up leasing his studio facilities to the army during World War II and never regained momentum as a producer following the war. Laurel and Hardy also wanted to move on. Stan's relationship with Roach had been somewhat strained for years, and it was tough for them to resist the lure of offers from big studios such as Twentieth Century Fox and MGM. The irony is, of course, that had Roach continued to make films with the Boys, it might have prolonged the careers of all concerned. As A CHUMP AT OXFORD proves, they were still capable of great things right up to the last months of their working relationship.