27 October 2007 | wmorrow59
A tale of old Russia, from the celebrated novel by Pistachio Filbertsky
After Stan Laurel's movie debut in 1917 it took a full decade and more than forty film appearances before he teamed up with Oliver Hardy, and, at long last, developed the persona we all associate with his name. During this lengthy apprenticeship Stan explored a variety of comic styles, and assumed all sorts of roles, with mixed results. In some of his solo shorts he plays an aggressive trickster, while in others he's a fey, innocent Harry Langdon type. Perhaps the best of Stan's solo comedies are his parodies, which were often take-offs of recent movies such as The Spoilers and Monsieur Beaucaire. Behind the scenes Laurel usually contributed to the scripts, and these parodies allowed his wild imagination a lot of leeway for crazy gags and title cards packed with jokes.
Frozen Hearts is one of Stan's most enjoyable parodies, at least among the ones I've seen thus far. It's packed with laughs from the first title card to the closing gag, and the tone is light and cartoon-y. This short will be especially amusing for viewers familiar with Russian lit of Pre-Revolution days. I don't know if it's a parody of any one particular novel or film (there were certainly plenty to choose from), or if it was intended as a general satire of Russian stories, but whatever the case Stan and his colleagues obviously had fun with the trappings of Slavic melodrama: the mile-long names, court intrigue, abundant snow, and those ever-popular furry hats. We're told that the story is set in 1888, at a time when the Russian people were suffering under the burden of military oppression, when even "riding a bicycle on Main Street meant exile to Siberia." (Wow, those Cossacks were mean!) Stan plays a peasant named Olaf, "son of a humble pool shark," who is in love with Sonia (Katherine Grant). But then Sonia is spirited away to Petrograd by an evil Count named Pifflevich, who forces her to become a court dancer for the nobles. Olaf tries to prevent this, but Sonia is surprisingly agreeable to her new station in life, reasoning that it might lead to a spot in the Ziegfeld Follies.
In a Chaplin-like move, Stan arrives at the royal court disguised as a Count, and attempts to wrest Sonia from the unwelcome attentions of General Sappovitch (Jimmy Finlayson). Finn's over-the-top comic technique gives the second half of this two-reeler a welcome boost. Also on hand in the palace sequence is Mae Laurel as the general's mistress, the promiscuous Madame XX. (Offscreen, she was Stan's common law wife.) Based on what I've seen Mae wasn't a very gifted comedienne. It's said that behind the scenes she insisted on playing Stan's love interest in his movies, though she certainly didn't look the part of an ingénue, but she was appropriately cast in this film and carries her scenes well enough. Anyhow, as the story hurtles to its climax, Stan— or Olaf, or whatever his name is—dons a second disguise for a funny bit as a bearded court dancer. Somehow it all culminates in a duel between Stan and Finn over Sonia, which leads to a few good dueling gags and a nice finale for the young lovers.
Frozen Hearts isn't what I'd call a gem of silent comedy, but it's cute and pleasant, and certainly worth the twenty minutes it takes to view. Laurel & Hardy fans who've never seen Stan Laurel in one of his solo films might want to start here, for this is a good example of his parody style. And for Russian lit scholars, Frozen Hearts is definitely funnier than Tolstoy.