Thursday, April 14, 2016

Film Review: Country Gentlemen

"Country Gentlemen"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

The team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson prove they are no country bumpkins in the comedy "Country Gentlemen" (1936).

From time to time it has been expressed I enjoy watching comedies which make no sense. Comedies which sacrifice plot for jokes. That is somewhat misleading as this Olsen & Johnson comedy will prove.

A good comedy should have a somewhat coherent story-line. There should be something which resembles a beginning, middle and end. When you have a minimally involving plot mixed with plenty of laughs it makes the movie worth watching. Even if a comedy has a "weak" plot an abundance of good jokes will make up for it.

The forgotten comedy team of Olsen & Johnson gained fame in the 1930s by appearing in broad comedies filled with visual and verbal puns. There was an anarchy to their comedies. The team's critics often described their comedy style as "nut humor". Their movies were sometimes self-referential and didn't always follow a consistent plot. Their best known comedy may be "Hellzapoppin" (1941) which was actually more of a revue with comedy, songs and dance, based on their successful Broadway show of the same title. The team followed up that movie with "Crazy House" (1943) and "See My Lawyer" (1945), their final movie. Both movies tried to imitate their predecessor's style but neither movie worked quite as well as "Hellzapoppin" if for no other reason than it is difficult for lightening to strike the same spot twice.

"Country Gentlemen", the fourth feature length comedy Olsen & Johnson appeared in together, has funny moments in it but with a running time of 53 minutes, something is missing. The comedy isn't wild enough, there aren't enough big conflicts for the boys to overcome, the plot is weaker than weak. According to the website the original running time of the movie was 66 minutes. Clearly the movie was tampered with and necessary scenes may have either found their way on the editing room floor or are lost.

In one way you can call "Country Gentlemen" a light diversion. It is only 53 minutes and could be seen as harmless fun. And that wouldn't be misrepresenting the movie if described as such however you have to draw the line somewhere. Audiences can watch other loosely constructed comedies like "Diplomaniacs" (1933), "Hellzapoppin", "Million Dollar Legs" (1932) or "Duck Soup" (1933) and for as wild and exaggerated as those comedies may be they still had something that resembled a plot and gave audiences something to follow and characters to cheer for or boo. "Country Gentlemen" doesn't. And that's a significant difference.

This time around the boys play two con-artist; J.D. Hamilton (Olsen) and "Chubby" Williams (Johnson). They have been selling stock in a worthless gold mining company and when Williams unknowingly sells some of the stock to a district attorney's wife, the boys quickly pack their belongings and head out of town.

The boys travel to the small town of Chesterville, along with their secretary, Gertie (Joyce Compton). Upon arriving the boys find themselves arrested on kidnapping charges when they drive a young runaway (Sammy McKim) back home to his mother (Lila Lee).

After the charges are dropped and everything is explained Hamilton and Williams begin to realize the town of Chesterville would be easy pickings for them to sell their phony stock. However Hamilton no longer wants to lead a life running away from the police and wants to go straight. For Williams the temptation is too strong to make a buck.

Through a misunderstanding the boys end up the owners of a worthless piece of land. To make their money back they pretend there is oil on the land and soon everyone wants to give them money. Will the boys be able to get away with their scheme? Will the new investors come after the boys' necks?

Nearly nothing in "Country Gentlemen" is played out fully. Why on earth was there a kidnapping sub-plot? It does nothing for the movie except to introduce the mother character to the boys. Do you mean to tell me there wasn't another way to do this? The mother couldn't have been driving after her boy and spot him? The whole kidnapping idea is a waste of time.

The double crossing business deals aren't exaggerated enough and heightened for comedic effect. Established conflicts are resolved too quickly. And the secretary character, a ditsy blonde the boys owe money too, is unnecessary. The character is able to get some laughs and at times works well with Olsen & Johnson but you have to ask yourself, plot-wise, what does this character contribute?

Still there are laughs to be found in "Country Gentlemen". When packing to leave town Williams starts to wash his hands. Hamilton notices this and angrily tells Williams there is no time for him to wash his hands to which Williams replies "you said you wanted to make a clean getaway, didn't cha?" When the police are roughing up the boys for a confession concerning the kidnapping charge Williams places two glass cups in front of his eyes and tells the police "you wouldn't hit a man with glasses, would ya?"

A lot of today's audience will probably find these type of jokes corny and out-of-date. But these are the jokes you will get. Either you warm up to Mr. Johnson's delivery style or you don't. Audiences may also become annoyed by Mr. Johnson's  trademark high-pitched laugh which he would often burst out. It was might sound like something you would hear The Joker (from Batman) do, which was the point. It was meant to emphasize Olsen & Johnson's maniac characters and their approach to comedy.

To be fair most audiences during their era never really warmed up to Olsen & Johnson. Together they appeared in nine feature length comedies, not counting television appearances and comedy shorts. Their output was considerably less than other comedy teams of the era such as Abbott & Costello (to whom they are sometimes compared to), Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the equally forgotten team of Wheeler & Woolsey. The team found more success on the stage and in nightclubs than in Hollywood, which proved to be too restrictive for them.

The appeal of Olsen & Johnson is one similar to Martin & Lewis. It was two guys goofing around, having fun and the audience got to participate. We are having fun because they are having fun. Their comedy thrives on chaos, they needed a live audience to feed off of and ad-lib. Naturally you cannot do that when filming a movie.

"Country Gentlemen" wants to have a chaotic feel and create absurd situations for the boys but it never reaches the level of lunacy it strives to achieve. Maybe seeing the full 66 minute version would change that. What is missing in those 13 minutes? Would it add some clarity to the plot? The movie does a lot of things right but too much is missing from the movie for it all to make sense.

If you want to see Olsen & Johnson performing with better material watch their follow-up movie "All Over Town" (1937), "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) or "Hellzapoppin", which is really the best movie to serve as an introduction to the comedy team. "Country Gentlemen" is something to watch after you have acquired a "taste" for the team and want to see all of their comedies.