30 October 2016 | wmorrow59
"Who's chasing who? And what for?"
Above and beyond anything else, this short comedy is notable for one significant reason: it features Theda Bara, a top star of the First World War era, whose surviving films are very scarce indeed. Madame Mystery, which marked Bara's final screen appearance in a starring role, provides us a rare glimpse this singular sensation, the hottest 'vampire' of them all. However, it is not typical of the melodramatic vehicles that made her famous—or is that infamous?—during her heyday. This short was intended as a lighthearted parody of spy adventures, comparable in our era to a sketch built around a famous personality (one who is decidedly past her prime), on Saturday Night Live or similar shows. Miss Bara spoofed herself with good grace in this comedy; then, once it was finished, she chose to call it a day and retire.
The tone of Madame Mystery is goofy and cartoon-y, rather like something cooked up by the Mack Sennett crew, but in fact it was a product of the Hal Roach Studio. It's a representative example of Roach's "All-Star" series of the period, which, title notwithstanding, usually featured aging favorites who were no longer major box office draws. At the time, the studio's biggest stars were Charley Chase and the Our Gang kids; Laurel & Hardy had not yet become a team. Interestingly, both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were involved in Madame Mystery: Laurel behind the scenes, as co-director and gag man, Hardy in a supporting role as Captain Schmaltz of the HMS Royal, the ship that serves as the primary setting for the film's second half.
Our comic leads are Tyler Brooke and Jimmy Finlayson. They're essentially a team, but oddly their characters have no names. For those of you who haven't seen him, Brooke was a smallish, mustachioed man who looked like a cross between Max Linder and Adolphe Menjou; Finlayson, of course, is more familiar. Brooke is an artist, and they share lodgings in his garret studio. They're so broke Brooke can't even afford to hire a model, so Fin poses for him in drag, in a Little Bo Peep outfit. (Warning: once you've seen Fin in drag, you cannot "unsee" him.) Their luck changes when an auto accident occurs outside their studio. Two secret agents have crashed their car in pursuit of Madame Mysterieux (Theda Bara), who has blithely fled the scene. It seems she's in possession of a valuable, extremely dangerous substance, an explosive that could level an entire city. (Bear in mind, this film was made long before the atom bomb was devised.) Brooke and Fin, unaware of the danger involved, switch identities with the two agents and follow the lady to her ship, the HMS Royal, bound for New York. All they know is that she has something very valuable, and everyone seems to want it.
The funniest gag sequence takes place at the pier, when Finlayson, who doesn't resemble the spy he's impersonating, is turned away by shipping authorities since he doesn't match the man's I.D. photo. So Brooke the artist paints an image of the guy's face on top of Fin's bald pate, and subsequently Fin walks backwards onto the ship, facing people with the top of his head. (Trust me, it's funnier seen than described.) Once on board, the inept duo attempt to shadow Madame Mysterieux and retrieve her valuable item, whatever it may be. The plot climaxes in a surprise twist involving this substance, which Fin accidentally ingests; and it all culminates in a dream-like sight gag involving levitation. The special effects in the finale are fairly impressive, certainly good for a chuckle.
Miss Bara plays it straight throughout, more of a straight woman than a comedian, maintaining her dignity despite all the silliness surrounding her. I had high hopes that Mr. Hardy would provide a boost when he arrives in Reel 2, but unfortunately he wasn't granted a lot of screen time, or given much to do. He does have one good bit when Miss Bara gets her shoe caught on the gang plank. Gallantly he comes to her aid, saying, in Ollie-like fashion, "All things are impossible with me!" Sure enough he manages to fling her shoe overboard, much to her annoyance. The only problem is that someone decided Captain Schmaltz should wear a big, brush-like mustache, so Hardy's facial reactions are somewhat obscured.
All in all this is a moderately amusing short, entertaining what for it is, but a tad disappointing considering the talent involved. Considering how rare it is to see Theda Bara in anything at all, it's too bad that her farewell to the screen wasn't a little more distinguished, even as satirical comedies go. But this is nonetheless a pleasant bit of nonsense, and I'm glad it survives complete. And I do hope Miss Bara had a happy retirement, once she hung up her vamping shoes.