26 April 2009 | wmorrow59
Low comedy for a wet afternoon
This is the sort of comedy short that used to pop up on TV on rainy Sunday afternoons when I was a kid. It's pleasant and painless, nothing great, but as long as you keep your expectations fairly low Smoked Hams may provide a chuckle or two. The story concerns a husband-and-wife Vaudeville team, obviously small-timers, who live in a crummy hotel for performers where they struggle to come up with a new act. (Apparently nobody told them Vaudeville was already dead!) The wife is played by feisty Daphne Pollard, best remembered by Laurel & Hardy buffs as the spouse so combative she put Ollie in the hospital in Thicker Than Water. Daphne's husband here is the one and only Shemp Howard, erstwhile stooge to Ted Healey who would eventually replace his brother Curly in dozens of Three Stooges shorts in the post-war years. At this point in his career Shemp was working solo in two-reel comedies and occasional features. In the mid-'30s he teamed up with Pollard for a handful of Vitaphone shorts, and in Smoked Hams they make a pretty good team. They play off each other well and seem to be ad-libbing at times, especially Shemp, and they're on the same low comedy wavelength. Daphne's character is a lot nicer than her Mrs. Hardy, hapless and accident-prone, with just a touch of Gracie Allen-style dizziness.
The opening sequence is set in the couple's hotel, a grubby place that's one step up from a flop-house. Shemp lathers up to shave, while Daphne secretly uses his straight razor to open a tin can. Once he retrieves his razor Shemp shaves himself at high speed in a routine that looks very much like the sort of thing he would do later on with the Stooges. Daphne, meanwhile, violates hotel rules by attempting to cook a meal, creatively using a suit of armor from their act as a makeshift stove. All of this is accompanied by jaunty music and exaggerated sound effects that lend the proceedings a cartoon-like quality, which is helpful when, for instance, Daphne sits on the hot plate. Slapstick of this variety always feels unreal and safe to laugh at in silent comedy, but in a talkie we need the music and sound effects to keep painful-looking gags harmless. In this short the world of reality is far, far away, and we might as well be watching Flip the Frog. Incidentally, when Shemp and Daphne confront the grungy landlord of their grungy lodgings there's a nice little inside joke with the music: underscoring the scene is the melody from the Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade, "Honeymoon Hotel."
Having worked up a new act, and fully convinced that it's brilliant, Howard & Pollard head for the talent agency run by Ivanitch, who turns out to be gravel-voiced character actor Lionel Stander wearing a highly unconvincing goatee. The team's sketch has a Civil War setting and is grandly entitled "Justice Triumphs, or The Drummer Boy's Revenge." In the course of demonstrating the act they manage to trash Ivanitch's office, but despite everything he somehow believes that the finale, which involves shooting off a big cannon, is a genuine sensation. We never find out exactly why he thinks the cannon bit is so great, but when Howard & Pollard perform their act before an audience it's a safe bet that the cannon routine will—so to speak—misfire, and that Ivanitch will be on the receiving end.
That's Smoked Hams in a nutshell, and I guess it's not going to win any awards for comic genius, but for those who enjoy movies with backstage settings, especially from the days of Vaudeville, this one is fun if you catch it in the right mood. And for Shemp fans it's a must!