17 April 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Eggs and hamming it up
Hal Roach made several interesting attempts to create female comedy teams, most notably his pairings of Thelma Todd with ZaSu Pitts and with Patsy Kelly. Nearly as interesting is the brief teaming of Anita Garvin and Marion Byron. In "Feed 'em and Weep", it's unfortunate that their characters are so clearly a female version of Laurel and Hardy, with Marion as the Stan-like little gormless schlemiel, and Anita as the Ollie-ish domineering schlemazel. The title card that introduces them reads: 'Anita knows everything. Marion knows nothing. That makes it even.'
At one point in this short, the Laurel and Hardy parallel is blatantly obvious.The two women are tramping along a Beckettian road when Marion stumbles and falls down. Anita tells her to watch her step ... then confidently strides forward and falls into a roadworks. Anita Garvin was quite an attractive woman, and it's a bit jarring to see her here, her trim posterior wedged into a hole while her shapely stockinged legs are spreadeagled either side of her face. The image is funny and erotic at the same time, a difficult combination. Less funny and less appealing is Marion Byron, who makes a few impressive pratfalls but whose attempts at gamin-like winsomeness remind me of Imogene Coca ... and that's not a compliment.
One of the pleasures of the Hal Roach comedy stable was that any Roach comedian might turn up in any other comedian's film. Here, Garvin and Byron play off Max Davidson, doing his usual Yiddisher schtick. Davidson plays the proprietor of a diner at a railway whistle-stop. He receives notice that a trainful of trouser makers (bound for a convention) will be passing through, and they'll all want feeding during the brief interval while the train takes on water. Eager for their custom, Davidson contacts the labour exchange for some experienced waitresses ... but gets Anita and Marion instead.
Davidson is hilarious here, as usual. One of his trademark bits was an 'oy vey' gesture of exasperation, with hand to cheek. He repeats it here, but this time it's funnier than usual, after he falls face-first into a tray of food and emerges with two fried eggs festooning his eyeballs. Hilarious! It's a shame that the stuntman who doubles for Davidson is a bit too obvious. Elsewhere, a tracking shot through the restaurant has trouble keeping focus: future director George Stevens was still learning his craft here. More positively, there's an impressive shot from ground level of a human stampede bearing down on Davidson's diner.
There are some familiar faces in small roles, notably the immense Frank Alexander as an obese diner who's so eager to be fed he gets stuck in the doorway. We also get a very early version of that familiar gag in which a long stampede of people is punctuated by one last straggler.
"Feed 'em and Weep" is hilarious: a fine example of the Hal Roach comedy factory at nearly its peak. I'll rate this movie 9 out of 10.