16 March 2002 | wmorrow59
Stan Laurel's funniest drag showcase
Comic drag routines are a matter of taste, and despite the skill of the comedian involved such sequences can easily cross the line into vulgarity, but for my money the silent two-reeler That's My Wife offers the best of Laurel & Hardy's female impersonation scenarios, thanks to the skill of Stan Laurel and the Hal Roach Studio's crack team of gag writers. The premise that constitutes the plot (i.e. Ollie's uncle will leave him a fortune only if he is happily married) is familiar from many a comedy of stage and screen, and is far-fetched to put it mildly, but the creative team was drawing upon basic elements of stage farce: an absurd demand provokes panic and a hastily contrived deception, which in turn causes bigger complications, which eventually snowballs into disaster. When this formula works as well as it does here, the pay-off is rich.
We know from the opening sequence that Mrs. Hardy (Viven Oakland) is sick and tired of dealing with Stan, her perennial house-guest. She leaves in a huff, just as Ollie receives word that his Uncle Bernal (William Courtwright) is coming for a visit. The eccentric old man has vowed to leave the Hardys enough money for a fine new home—IF they are happily married. Since his uncle has never met Mrs. Hardy, Ollie figures that Stan can play the role for one evening. Stan isn't happy about the scheme, but goes along with it. To dismay of both men, however, Uncle Bernal insists on taking them out to the Pink Pup nightclub, where the masquerade must continue in a public setting.
Stan Laurel ventured into drag on several other occasions, but never so amusingly as in That's My Wife. His reactions throughout are priceless. After a somewhat slow opening the gags in the film's second half are non-stop, and the laxity of the censors in those days before the Breen Office was established allows for some surprisingly risqué material. Case in point: the extended running gag in the nightclub, when jewelry has been dropped down the back of Stan's dress and Ollie attempts to retrieve it. Despite the boys' efforts to be discreet, they are interrupted again and again by other patrons in increasingly embarrassing positions, reminiscent of the repeatedly interrupted pants-switching routine in 'Liberty.' This climaxes in a spectacular humiliation when they accidentally wind up on stage before the entire assemblage, instead of the advertised floor show "Garrick and Lucille in The Pageant of Love." The result? Two middle-aged men, one obviously in drag with wig askew, grappling on the floor doing God knows what. Even today, a startling sight. And yet despite it all, Stan and Ollie retain their childlike innocence, even when engaged in a blatantly dishonest scheme to grab money that, according to the uncle's stipulation, they don't deserve.
Casting note: the drunk in the restaurant who flirts with Stan is played by Jimmy Aubrey, a one-time colleague of both Stan and Charlie Chaplin in the Fred Karno troupe of English music hall players. Subsequently Aubrey starred in his own series of short comedies, which often featured Oliver Hardy in support, but by the late 1920s he was no longer a top-billed comedy star. He has a nice featured role in this film, but worked only sporadically at the Roach Studio. (He's a drunken lodge brother who gets paddled in L&H's 1933 feature Sons of the Desert.) He wound up playing sidekicks in Westerns and doing comic bits in movies for decades. Aubrey lived a very long life, dying at the age of 94 in 1983. Unfortunately he was embittered in his later years, and had nothing good to say about any of his onetime colleagues, including Stan and Ollie!