Saturday, November 29, 2014

Film Review: The Bullfighters

"The Bullfighters"  *** (out of ****)

Laurel & Hardy put the bull in bullfighting in the 20th Century Fox comedy "The Bullfighters" (1945).

"The Bullfighters" has a special place in the cannon of Laurel & Hardy comedies. It was the last American movie the legendary comedy team starred in.

At the peak of their popularity in the 1920s & 30s Laurel & Hardy worked for comedy producer Hal Roach. It was there the team, mainly Stan Laurel, had creative control of their movies, often with Laurel as an uncredited director or writer. In 1940 however the comedy team left Hal Roach after releasing "Saps at Sea" (1940) and signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. Fans of the team, film historians and movie critics (sheep) often state their work at Fox doesn't compare to what they did at the Roach studio.

I agree and don't agree. Those that are critics of me often feel I allow sentimentality to interfere with my reviews and I "go easy" on things I find important. I admit I am reluctant to criticize the work of Laurel & Hardy. They were my childhood heroes and I believe were the greatest comedy team in the history of film. As a result, the work they did in the 1940s at Fox and MGM does not strike me as disappointing. I don't mind watching "Nothing But Trouble" (1944), "A-Haunting We Will Go" (1942) or "Jitterbugs" (1943). Do I believe these are great comedies? No. But I find them to be decent, harmless, entertaining pictures and they give me an opportunity to spend an hour with two characters I enjoy spending time with. So, in the end, I'm not complaining. Is that a good justification for everyone to watch their movies? Probably not.

Of their work in the 1940s I would elect "The Bullfighters" and "Air Raid Wardens" (1943) as the best of this period. That is not the popular choice. Public opinion dictates that "Jitterbugs" is their best movie of the 1940s.

My reason for disagreeing is I feel "The Bullfighters" gives "the boys" more opportunity to engage in classic comedy routines. Since this was their last American film and one of the last "B" pictures 20th Century Fox was going to release (they had decide to close down their "B" movie division) there weren't studio executives over their shoulders and Stan was able to write some material and have more creative input. It shows. "The Bullfighters" has the feel of an older Laurel & Hardy comedy. Too bad they didn't make this in the 1930s when they were a little younger and had the benefit of using great supporting cast characters that the Roach Studio allowed. And that's the biggest problem with "The Bullfighters". It is too little, too late. The boys could have made this material sing but it was made at the wrong time in their careers.

Still I recommend seeing "The Bullfighters". The moments that work in the picture are funny and you will laugh. All I ask of a comedy is that is makes me laugh. If I laugh then I must be honest and say I did and recommend the movie. If I didn't laugh I won't recommend it. It is that simple. I laugh when I watch "The Bullfighters". Case closed.

Laurel & Hardy play two American detectives sent to Mexico to arrest a known convict, Hattie Blake (Carol Andrews). When things don't go quite as planned the two find themselves caught in a case of mistaken identity as Stan is a dead ringer for a famous Spanish bullfighter, Don Sebastian, who will arrive in Mexico for a heavily promoted bullfight being put on by "Hot Shot" Coleman (Richard Lane) and Richard K. Muldoon (Ralph Sanford, who suspiciously goes uncredited). This leads to trouble as Muldoon was falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to 20 years in prison because of testimony by Laurel & Hardy. After serving his sentence for five years, Muldoon was released after the real criminal confessed. In an attempt to start a new life Muldoon moved to Mexico but swore, if he ever saw Laurel & Hardy again, he would skin them alive.

Right from the very beginning of the picture Laurel & Hardy keep the laughs coming. As they arrive in Mexico they stand in line waiting for a taxi. As soon as a taxi arrives a crowd appears out of nowhere pushing their way into the taxi leaving Laurel & Hardy unable to enter.

When they finally reach the hotel the boy engage in two "tit for tat" sequences. One involves the boys sitting in the hotel lobby. There is a fountain. Stan notices a knob and turns it. Water shoots out of the sitting and unknown to Stan the water hits Oliver. Sitting next to the boys is a man practicing a speech (Edward Gargan, an old character actor who mostly played cops and detectives), Oliver thinks this man splashed the water on him as the two proceed to splash water on each other back and forth.

The next "tit for tat" sequence involves the boys finally catching up with Hattie Blake. She will not willfully turn herself over to the law. The three are in the cocktail lounge of the hotel as suspiciously there is a bowl of eggs on the bar stool(!) the sequence is a repeat of a routine Laurel & Hardy did in the MGM all-star comedy "Hollywood Party" (1934) where Stan and Hattie each take an egg and smash it on each other.

Perhaps I should explain what "tit for tat" is to non-Laurel & Hardy fans. Tit for tat was the team's most famous comedy routine. The boys would accidentally offend someone. In retaliation the individual would destroy something of the boys, whether it was an article of clothing or personal property. The boys would look on silently as the individual did this. Then the boys would destroy something of the individual while he or she looked on silently. The point was to up the ante at each turn. The best example of this is in the silent comedy "Big Business" (1929) where the boys destroy an entire house.

There is a lot fun to be had with the mistaken identity bit as beautiful women keep approaching Stan wishing him good luck and kiss him as Oliver looks on puzzled.

The entire situation escalates as Don Sebastian is having problems with his passport and there is a chance he will not be able to make the bullfight. Having seen Laurel & Hardy at the hotel (Don Sebastian was also booked at the same hotel) "Hot Shot" gets an idea. Why not have Stan pose as Don Sebastian? He is even willing to pay the boys for their trouble and warns them about Muldoon. The boys agree after being blackmailed. If they didn't agree "Hot Shot" would call Muldoon.

This whole business of the boys testifying at a trial putting Muldoon in prison and him vowing revenge was done before in the Laurel & Hardy comedy short "Going Bye-Bye" (1934) where the boys testify against a criminal known as Butch (Walter Long) who vows if and when he escapes from prison he will find the boys and rip off their legs and wrap them around their necks.

Laurel & Hardy would often find themselves the victim of gruesome, freak accidents as seen in "Going Bye-Bye", "Bohemian Girl" (1936), "The Live Ghost" (1934) and this picture.

Ralph Sanford however is not a good substitute for Walter Long, who had a better tough guy image. He also appeared in "Pardon Us" (1931), the first Laurel & Hardy feature length comedy, as a convict who shares the same cell with the boys.

The movie was directed by Malcom St. Clair, who had directed a few of the boys later pictures including "The Big Noise" (1944) and "The Dancing Masters" (1943) but his career went back to the silent era. He co-wrote and co-directed the Buster Keaton comedy "The Goat" (1921) and directed "The Show Off" (1926) with Louise Brooks and Ford Sterling.

The script was written by W. Scott Darling. His career also went back to the silent era. He wrote the funny Joel McCrea comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940) and he wrote 'The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942) as well as the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Jitterbugs".

Laurel & Hardy do what they can in "The Bullfighters". The material is the kind of stuff they would be working with at Hal Roach Studio. The boys still play well off each other but others feel the boys were too old to be doing this kind of thing. They should have retired after "Saps at Sea". I don't completely agree. I don't believe the boys embarrass themselves in this movie.

I keep referring to this as their last American movie and their is a reason for that. The boys made one more feature film, "Utopia" (1951) a French/Italian co-production which went under the original title "Atoll K". In that picture the boys are visibly in bad health. Oliver is probably at his heaviest and Stan is at his skinniest. He looks very fragile and you worry when Oliver hits him. Yet, I'm still reluctant to fully criticize that movie as well.

In the 1940s the public lost interest in the comedy of Laurel & Hardy, thanks to Abbott & Costello. But, for me, Laurel & Hardy were always watchable and had a great screen presence. "The Bullfighters" is not their best movie, no one is mistaking it for that, but it is a nice pleasant diversion. A harmless, silly comedy.