Saturday, April 9, 2016

Film Review: Swiss Miss

"Swiss Miss"
*** (out of ****)

The hills are alive with the sounds of laughter when Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy invade the Swiss Alps in the Hal Roach operatic - comedy "Swiss Miss" (1938).

When I was growing up my two favorite Laurel & Hardy comedies were "Way Out West" (1937) and "Swiss Miss". "Way Out West" is generally regarded as one of the team's best movies, filled with memorable comedy sequences and inventive visual gags. "Swiss Miss" on the other hand is often considered a "lesser" movie.

It wasn't until I was much older and largely thanks to the internet that I discovered the reputation "Swiss Miss" had acquired over the years. Through the internet I would be able to read comments from other Laurel & Hardy fans. Initially I was shocked to learn even fans of Laurel & Hardy dismiss "Swiss Miss".

Watching "Swiss Miss" again I can see their point. I don't fully agree with it and still believe "Swiss Miss" is worth watching but I must admit it doesn't show enough of Laurel & Hardy performing at the level audiences usually expect.

Oddly enough that statement has nothing to do with the comic timing and talent of either Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy. "Swiss Miss" suffers from the same problems comedies from the mid 1930s and 1940s suffer from. Ever since the Marx Brothers appeared in "A Night at the Opera" (1935) movie studios and producers got it into their heads that flat out comedies were not enough to entertain audiences. Movies needed to have comedy, romance and music. Movies require characters the audience could root for and care about. Going along from joke to joke was not sufficient to sustain an audience's interest.

It was a fate "Swiss Miss" could not avoid, especially after "A Night at the Opera" became a box-office hit. Even fans of the Marx Brothers rank it among the comedy team's best movies. It also didn't help that Laurel & Hardy producer Hal Roach loved opera and would occasionally place his star comedy team in light operatic-comedies. The best of these is "The Devil's Brother" (1934), which I would say is the finest movie Laurel & Hardy starred in, from a technical standpoint. It lacks the big laughs found in "Way Out West" however.

Although Laurel & Hardy receive top billing "Swiss Miss" doesn't feel like a "Laurel & Hardy comedy". "Swiss Miss" feels like a musical - comedy that the boys just happen to appear in. The main focal point of the story revolves around an opera composer, Victor Albert (is the name supposed to make us think of the composer Victor Herbert? He is played by Walter Woolf King). He seeks solitude and inspiration. He sets off for the Swiss Alps, believing the change of scenery is just what he needs.

In doing so, Victor leaves his wife, soprano singer, Anna (Della Lind) behind. The critics rave about Anna's voice but routinely ignore the musical score Victor has written. Victor is discourage and wants to write an opera without his wife starring in it so the critics will finally notice him.

It all doesn't work out for Victor as planned as Anna has followed him to the Swiss Alps and in an attempt to make sure Victor cannot get rid of her, Anna goes to the hotel's restaurant, orders everything on the menu and then expresses regret as she is not able to pay the bill. She must now stay at the hotel and work as a chambermaid to pay off what she owes.

The rest of the movie works like a low-rent screwball comedy with Anna trying to make Victor jealous by receiving attention from the male staff at the hotel, all of whom do not know Anna is married. Hopefully Anna's actions will make Victor realize he does not want to be separated from her and she can star in his latest opera.

At this point some may begin to wonder, what does any of this have to do with Laurel & Hardy. The answer is absolutely nothing. And that's the problem! The boys play, as usual, two bumbling American entrepreneurs, who have invested all of their money in selling mouse traps. Following one of Stan's ideas they travel to the Swiss Alps, because in Stan's mind there will be more cheese for mice and thus a greater need for their traps. The result is after two months they have not sold a single trap.

Stan may have accidentally stumbled on a good idea when he suggest why don't they try to sell their traps at cheese factories. Surely the owners must have problems with mice eating their cheese. Sadly one of the owners of a cheese factory believes he will be able to dupe the boys and buys all of their traps with fake currency. Delighted by their good fortunate the boys head out to a hotel restaurant, order everything on the menu and are embarrassed to learn they have no money and must work off their debt.

So now we have a plot convention which allows the boys to be at the center of the movie's action and perhaps sporadically interact with the other principle characters at the hotel. But that is all "Swiss Miss" feels like. Two separate story-lines converging and not that successfully either.

Audiences will have little interest in whether or not Victor and Anna get together. If you have ever had the pleasure of watching any movie before in your life you may be able to guess the outcome for the dueling lovebirds. Plus, Walter Woolf King lack's a movie star's presence on-screen. Us old-timers will recognize him from a pair of Marx Brothers comedies, ironically he was in "A Night at the Opera" as well as "Go West" (1940). He admittedly had a nice look but never achieved leading man status. I also must admit, I have never seen Della Lind (whose real name was Grete Natzler) in a movie before. She too has a nice look and a somewhat decent voice but lack's a movie star's presence.

The movie also has a disappointing musical score. It consist of songs like "The Cricket Song", a silly piece based on the noise a cricket makes. "I Can't Get Over the Alps", based on Victor's delight of his location, which an entire chorus sings as well. And finally, maybe the best number in the movie, "Could You Say No", which Anna sings, while disguised as a gypsy. The song is presented as a traditional folk song, however it was specially written for the movie. The boys were in another operatic-comedy involving gypsies called "Bohemian Girl" (1936). That one is recommended as well.

The best moments in "Swiss Miss" belong to Laurel & Hardy, everything else in the movie delays our pleasure in watching them. The way "Swiss Miss" is structured the boys only appear when there is something funny for them to do. There is a punch line at the end of all of their dialogue or actions. Perhaps that is why I fondly remember this movie as being one of their best. Every time they are on-screen you smile.

Even though one might argue the material in "Swiss Miss" is not Laurel & Hardy's best there are two comedy sequences which have stood the test of time and belong alongside their most memorable routines. The first sequence has them deliver a piano (Remember their comedy short "The Music Box" (1932)?) to club house high atop a Swiss mountain. There is a narrow wooden bridge which the boys are afraid to cross, since they are unsure if it will be able to hold their weight plus the piano. As they begin to cross the bridge a gorilla (!) walks out of the club house and hides behind Oliver, who is closest to him. Once the boys discover the gorilla, the gorilla begins to violently shake the piano which causes the bridge to sway sideways.

The second memorable sequence has Stan intrigued by a St. Bernard, which serves as a rescue dog for those deserted in the mountains and in need of help. The dog has a small keg of brandy wrapped around its neck. Stan desperately wants to figure out a way he can trick the dog into allowing him to take a sip of the brandy. So Stan must create a rescue situation.

These two priceless comedy routines make "Swiss Miss" worth watching despite popular opinion. Some may argue how can two good comedy sequences justify a recommendation? The answer is simple. "Swiss Miss" is only 70 minutes. These two sequences plus other scenes Laurel & Hardy appear in, take up roughly half of the running time. By my estimation that makes "Swiss Miss" a breezy diversion. Also, why should audiences avoid watching Laurel & Hardy comedies, even comedies considered "lesser" efforts? The comedy presented here and the overall light-hearted nature of the movie is vastly superior to any comedy you are going to see in a movie theater today. If you want to watch "toilet humor" you go right ahead.

"Swiss Miss" was one of the last movies Laurel & Hardy appeared in for Hal Roach. By this point in time Stan Laurel and Mr. Roach were getting into "creative differences" (AKA arguing) over the material the team was being presented. Laurel & Hardy would eventually sign contracts with 20th Century Fox and MGM and regret it. Movie fans blast those movies too as the team lost creative input. Putting all of this into context "Swiss Miss" is much better than "The Big Noise" (1944) and "Nothing But Trouble" (1944).

To experience Laurel & Hardy at their best, watch their early sound comedies from the 1930s, which were straight comedies. In these movies you will see a chemistry which very few teams had. The two men truly worked as one, playing off each other effortlessly, making them, in my opinion, the greatest comedy team of all-time. If "Swiss Miss" feels like a "lesser" movie, that is only because of the greatness the team had achieved prior. Every movie can't be a home-run. Audiences are wrong to not acknowledge when the team makes a base hit and instead dismiss one of their comedies as a "waste of time".

"Swiss Miss" was directed by John G. Blystone, who according to, directed 109 movies, including shorts. Of those 109 movies, two may stand out to most. There is the Buster Keaton comedy "Our Hospitality" (1923) and Laurel & Hardy's follow-up to "Swiss Miss", "Block-Heads" (1938), which fans have cited as one of the team's better comedies. The script was co-written by James Parrott, who worked on many Laurel & Hardy comedies as a writer and / or director, including their shorts "The Chimp" (1932), "County Hospital" (1932, one of their best) and their first feature length comedy, "Pardon Us" (1931) and Felix Adler, an old comedy writer who worked with the Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy.

No one is calling "Swiss Miss" a masterpiece but the boys are funny in the movie and do perform, at the very least, two memorable comedy routines equal to the greatness of their earlier work. "Swiss Miss" is a likable, silly, musical-comedy diversion. Fans of classic Hollywood comedies should watch it. The rest of you can take a hike to the Alps.