Written May-June, 1930. Filmed June-July, 1930, with retakes and new scenes filmed September-December. Released by MGM, August, 1931. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by James Parrott. 56 or 65 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Walter Long, Wilfred Lucas, James Finlayson, Charlie Hall, Tiny Sandford, June Marlowe. STORY: It is prohibition, and "beer barons" Laurel and Hardy are sent to prison for concocting their own home brew. They are put in a cell with "Tiger" Long, the roughest, toughest and meanest of all inmates. After a prison break, The Boys escape to a cotton plantation, where they hide out undetected, in blackface. They are discovered when they attempt to repair the warden's car, and are sent back to prison. They inadvertently break up a prison riot and the grateful warden issues them a pardon.
and Hardy's first feature-length film was not intended as such.
Originally planned as a short subject, it grew and expanded as
production was underway. For this film, Hal Roach had obtained the use
of the gigantic prison sets MGM had used for its production of the film
The Big House. The cost of rental insured that the picture would not
make a profit unless it was expanded to feature length, so new episodes
and scenes were constructed en route, and many added after the film had
Two prints of different length are in circulation today. The 56-minute version is the common one, and the one which most viewers have seen over the years. In the mid-1980's, the 3M company issued a series of L&H films on laserdisc and used a long-lost preview print of Pardon Us for this series. It ran nine minutes longer than all previous prints, and contained additional footage with the warden, another scene with The Boys in solitary confinement, and a few additional songs. Though this longer version has not been issued on home video (the 3M series was discontinued in the late 80's), it has been shown several times on the cable network AMC.
JL: PARDON US began life as a short subject, but was expanded to
feature length during mid-production. It was therefore was
a film with an episodic structure, the result of adding to the original
story as they went along. The haphazard construction of PARDON US
is regarded as a fault by many critics, but I find it less of a problem
in this film than in L&H's next feature, PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES, a
film with more tangents and subplots than you'll find at a Robert
Altman festival. As John B. has mentioned, Stan and Ollie playing
with salt and pepper shakers was all the "plot" they ever needed.
Loose construction is therefore not an inherent flaw, as long as the
individual episodes are well-written and funny.
A bit of continuity is provided by one of L&H's better running gags, that of Stan's buzzing loose tooth. This is the sort of gag that can become tiresome quickly, but its every appearance in PARDON US is inspired. Cops, fellow prisoners, and the prison warden mistake the buzzy tooth for a Bronx cheer, and it is also used at key intervals to further the story. It helps ingratiate Stan to the prison's toughest inmate, the Tiger (who interprets Stan's razzberry for a display of courage); it sets up the painful-but-funny dentist office routine; and its use as a closing gag suggests that things have come full circle for beer barons Stan and Ollie, and that they are destined to repeat all past mistakes.
This film, however, needs no such devices to maintain continuity, for it is the individual scenes -- many of them self-contained vignettes -- that are its strength. It is almost a vaudeville review starring Laurel and Hardy, with a prison backdrop as its linking motif. There are delightful burlesque-style routines -- in addition to the aforementioned dentist bit, we have the old staple "The Schoolroom Sketch." It features some excrutiating and stale puns and stock gags (Fin: "There is no 'i' in needle!"/Stan: "Then it's a rotten needle!"), and we laugh because such jokes have never been better served. PARDON US also has loads of great songs in a variety of bygone styles. "I Wish I was in Michigan," performed by an inmate vocal quartet, is always cited as a favorite, but notable too are the songs performed at the plantation where L&H hide out in blackface. There is no real need for the blackface sequence to be as long as it is. It might even play better for comedy purposes if it were whittled down to a) establishing Stan and Ollie's creative means of hiding out; and b) helping the warden out with his car (whereupon they are discovered and taken back to prison). But it's clear that this scene exists for the music, and it's clear that the music exists for padding. But when the music's this good, who cares? (For full appreciation of this sequence, seek out the longer version of PARDON US, described above.) We also get a song from Ollie and an eccentric dance from Stan, so it's hard to complain about padding or loss of comic pace.
The pace of the film is, in fact, quite good, with low-keyed and raucous moments nicely interspersed. It also flows well, in that the seamless transitions ensure that we don't notice that each scene doesn't have much to do with the one that came before it. PARDON US may not rank as Laurel & Hardy's greatest cinematic achievement, but it's a competently-made effort that's funnier than about half of the Roach-era features. The main reason for its high laugh content is the performances of L&H, seen here at their most basic -- although this rendition of their characters is as inconsequential as it is funny.
Stan and Ollie have neither wives nor the real world with which to contend in this film -- they are instead in a contained environment with a bunch of thugs. In addition, with no resouces and no control over their destinies, they are rendered with somewhat less depth in this film. There are few extended dialogue sequences, no "So it's come to this!" moments of self-reflection, and little insight into their characters. They, like the film, exist for gags and songs. They are still very much Stan and Ollie, but it is perhaps the lack of meaningful interchange between them -- something found in every great L&H film -- that renders PARDON US a more forgettable, if not necessarily less funny, film than the top-ranked classics. Fans love such films as SONS OF THE DESERT, WAY OUT WEST, Helpmates, Towed in A Hole, et al, because we love the things that Stan and Ollie do and say in these films and how they interact with one another. Funny as they are in PARDON US, there's not enough of this stuff for us to develop any real fondness for them.
In all, PARDON US is a pleasurable little film and a fine feature debut by Laurel and Hardy. But they would go on to make features that would be much more than pleasurable little films.
JB: As a Laurel and Hardy feature, PARDON US doesn't measure up to
SONS OF THE DESERT or BLOCK-HEADS, or even A CHUMP AT OXFORD or THE
BOHEMIAN GIRL. As an accidental Laurel and Hardy feature, it's
not bad at all.
The early sound films often suffered from funereal pacing and occasional laughable over-acting. Even a classic like Warner Brothers' LITTLE CAESAR suffered this way. But LITTLE CAESAR featured a breakout performance by Edward G. Robinson which overshadowed all the movie's defects. Laurel and Hardy don't have the same impact here (by now, audiences were thoroughly familiar with them, whereas Robinson was an unknown) and PARDON US's bad points are always noticeable no matter how many funny scenes The Boys can improvise. There is an ongoing battle throughout between the film's wobbly structure and slow pace, and Laurel and Hardy's pure talent at clowning. In the end, it is close, but The Boys win the day.
PARDON US is a prison movie with about as much plot as The Hoose-gow and perhaps less plot than The Second Hundred Years, but it is longer than both those films plus Liberty combined. One scene takes place, and then another, but not much happens beyond Laurel and Hardy going to prison and meeting up with a couple of tough mugs. I get the feeling that this feature, which started as a two-reeler, was basically made up as they went along. ("What if we recreate the dentist scene from Leave 'Em Laughing here? And I've got this old jokebook, we could do a schoolroom scene.") There is a great deal of padding in PARDON US, but what lifts the film up above some of their later features is that the padding is as entertaining as the rest of the film, and it most of it is centered on Laurel and Hardy anyway.
Above, my colleague states there is no real need for the plantation scene to be as long as it is. I'll go one further: there is no real need for the plantation scene at all. Nothing happens that matters to the story at all. Laurel and Hardy break out of prison, they hide out, they get caught, they go back to prison. Their relationship with the rest of the principal characters has not altered one bit by the end of this sequence, which could be neatly edited out of the film with first time viewers being none the wiser. The sequence is padding, pure and simple, existing for no other reason than to stretch things out out to feature length, and yet, it is my favorite part of the film. Although today it could be considered offensive, as it shows two white people dressing up in blackface and hiding out amongst the blacks on a cotton plantation (and surely this scene would be cut on broadcast television), it is essentially innocent. Laurel and Hardy mean no harm by their ruse, nor do they make fun of their new companions in any way, and the scene doesn't make me wince as does an earlier "Amos and Andy" joke, or a similar blackface scene in The Marx Brothers' A DAY AT THE RACES. The Boys work as hard as the rest at picking cotton (Ollie delicately removing any imperfections from each bud before gently placing them into his canvas bag, Stan bending and stuffing cotton plants wholesale into his), and at the end of the day they not only thoroughly enjoy the spirituals sung by the workers, but join in the fun with Ollie's beautiful rendition of "Lazy Moon" (a real chestnut that dates back to the early 1900s), followed by Stan's dance routine.
And there are good laughs to be found here too, not only in the contrast of cotton-picking styles mentioned above, but in a gag Hal Roach once complained went over the heads of the 1931 audiences. When the Warden (Wilfred Lucas) discovers Laurel and Hardy have escaped, he sends out his prize bloodhounds to find them. Later at the plantation, The Boys are finished work for the day, and Ollie gives a whistle. The prize bloodhounds scamper directly to him, as the Warden's prize bloodhounds are now Stan and Ollie's pets. Perhaps it took 70 years for the gag to ripen, or maybe I am just more sophisticated than your average 1931 movie-goer, but I think it is the best gag in the picture.
Another scene that is in the film only to make it longer (and provide some chuckles) is the schoolroom scene, where Professor Finlayson quizzes his "pupils". It is obviously a class in The History of Minstrel Show Jokes, and Fin's textbook is probably the same jokebook used by Our Gang in a very similar scene from School's Out, filmed around the same time. Most of these jokes were groaners when I first read them in BOY'S LIFE 25 years ago, but as Abbott and Costello's best patter routines prove, in the hands of the right comedians, any old joke can come alive. Laurel and Hardy and company are almost anticipating the heights of absurdity The Marx Brothers would reach in their own classroom scene (modelled after their vaudeville act) in HORSE FEATHERS the next year. The similarity is strongest when Professor Fin says "We will now take the roll call. Those who are here will say present - those who are not here will say absent" in a cadence that almost sounds like Groucho's Professor Wagstaff himself. (And just as Groucho would have done, Fin forgets the idea of taking the roll call as soon as he is finished saying the line. The joke's the thing - say it and move on.) Again, the schoolroom scene doesn't do anything to move things along, but as a scene that stops the movie dead in its tracks, it's hard to beat.
Despite how we may kid him at Laurel and Hardy Central, Walter Long was an inspired addition to the Laurel and Hardy stock company, and the perfect foil for the very timid version of Laurel and Hardy found here. Gruff, unwashed, with an ugly face capable of being twisted into something even uglier at a moment's notice, Long is one of the best elements in PARDON US. Like the best L&H foils, Long played a tough egg with just the right degree of exaggeration. Wilfred Lucas, on the other hand, must come in for some criticism. When he is softly lecturing The Boys (..."and you are 'my boys'..."), he is wonderful, as are The Boys' reactions to him. But he overacts his dramatic scenes, embrassingly shouting his lines and gesticulating wildly, as if he was no longer in a quiet little Laurel and Hardy comedy but a revival of THE DRUNKARD. He may have been overplaying his part for comic purposes, but the camera often lingers too long on him, forcing him to seemingly ad-lib more uninspired dialogue.
PARDON US is overlong by at least a reel and could have been even longer. Cut from the film was a scene where The Boys rescue the Warden's daughter from a fire (which would have then been the reason they were given the pardon), a gag outside the prison where Stan reveals he has their mug shots as a momento of their stay in prison, and a final scene, some years into the future, where a now bearded Stan and Ollie have just finished telling some local children the story of how they wound up in jail. The Spanish-language version retains the first two scenes but not the last one. The title given this version was "De Bote en Bote", which a Mexican friend of mine once explained literally means"From Ship to Ship", but idiomatically means "From One Thing to Another" - as apt a title for this disjointed but enjoyable feature as any.