29 October 2006 | wmorrow59
On her way down, Priscilla Dean meets Stan & Ollie on their way up
In the late 1910's and early '20s Priscilla Dean was a top star, sometimes known as the "Queen of the Universal Lot." She was an attractive and vivacious actress with dark flashing eyes, more statuesque than such petite contemporaries as Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. Those ladies retain a degree of widespread name recognition today, even among people who've never seen their movies, but for some reason Miss Dean's fame began to fade before talkies arrived, and nowadays only silent movie buffs recognize her name. Several of her features films have survived, including two in which she co-starred with Lon Chaney, The Wicked Darling and Outside the Law. Her performances hold up well, in part because her screen persona is still a recognizable type: Dean was often cast as "good-bad" types, i.e. young women who were drawn into the criminal lifestyle or were outcasts in some way, but nonetheless essentially good-hearted. She worked with director Tod Browning no less than nine times between 1918 and 1923, back when he was making crime thrillers, not the macabre tales with which he is primarily associated today. In any case, Miss Dean's career was faltering by the late 1920s, and thus she found herself appearing in two-reel comedies for producer Hal Roach, whose "All Star" series featured a number of former headliners, including Theda Bara and Mabel Normand.
Priscilla Dean receives sole star billing in Slipping Wives, although she was playing opposite another once-prominent actor, Herbert Rawlinson. (I'm afraid it's tempting to call this movie "Slipping Stars.") Like the leading lady, Rawlinson made his film debut before the First World War; unlike her, he would continue acting for another quarter-century, well into the 1950s, and would give his final screen performance under the direction of the infamous Ed Wood Jr., in a 1954 anti-classic entitled Jail Bait. Here, Dean and Rawlinson play a prosperous married couple. He is a successful but preoccupied artist, while she is his neglected spouse, who decides to regain his attention using the method favored by many a frustrated wife in many a farce: i.e., by hiring a third party to pose as her lover and thus make her husband jealous. And here's where we meet the real star of the show, the comic lead who acts as our protagonist and certainly gets most of the laughs, third-billed player Stan Laurel.
At this time Laurel had been in the movies as a solo performer for a decade, but still hadn't quite found his proper screen persona or the right style for his comedy. Stan didn't know it when this film was made, but the solution to his problem would soon be supplied by the fourth-billed actor, Oliver Hardy. Slipping Wives marked one of the earliest occasions when Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy appeared together before the cameras, although they don't work as a team. In fact, their characters are adversaries from the moment they meet until the final scene, but it's a kick to watch them work together anyway, even in such uncharacteristic roles. Ironically, in the film made just prior to this one, Duck Soup, the guys worked as a team, but afterward they made a number of comedies in which they worked apart, before their familiar screen characters finally began to develop.
Stan plays a delivery man named Ferdinand Flamingo, who has brought buckets of paint for the man of the house, Rawlinson. Ollie is Jarvis, the butler. He meets Stan at the door, looks him over, and tells him to use the servants' entrance. Before long they're grappling, and Ollie's face is smeared with paint. From then on, "Jarvis" is the sworn enemy of "Ferdinand Flamingo." (And incidentally I'm glad they soon dropped the silly names.) Much of the subsequent comedy is based on a familiar farcical situation: wife Priscilla hires this dim-bulb delivery man to pose as a famous author, and stay on as her weekend guest, whereupon he's expected to flirt with her whenever her husband is nearby. But Stan -- or Ferdinand, rather -- mistakes a family friend for the husband, and thus mistimes his attempts at flirtation. Meanwhile, slapstick ensues when Jarvis the butler forcibly gives the unwelcome house-guest a bath, fully dressed. But the real comic highpoint comes, rather gratuitously, when famous author Stan -- introduced under yet another name, Lionel Ironsides -- is asked about his latest book. He says he's working on a version of the story of Samson and Delilah, and proceeds to act it out. Gratuitous or not, Stan's pantomime is a real treat to watch: his Samson puffs out his chest and swaggers, while his Delilah minces about, clips Samson's locks, then strikes an amusing pose of triumph. And so forth, right down to those tumbling columns.
After this virtuoso performance the frantic finale is something of an anti-climax. Slipping Wives isn't much of a comedy otherwise, but the Samson & Delilah bit is certainly worth seeing. Stan and Ollie would do better later on, of course, while poor Priscilla Dean's career was coming to a premature close. Based on the evidence here, and in her earlier features, she deserved better. It's ironic that today she's known only for her roles opposite Lon Chaney, and for appearing in a Laurel & Hardy comedy that wasn't really a Laurel & Hardy comedy. Instead of being appreciated in her own right, Miss Dean is remembered only for the company she kept.