11 April 2013 | wmorrow59
Night Owls, bigger and better
"Ladrones," which is Spanish for "Thieves," marked the first time producer Hal Roach would have Laurel & Hardy appear in multiple versions of a talkie short, re-shooting the film repeatedly in various European languages for the international trade. Today it seems like an incredibly labor-intensive way to make pictures, but in the early '30s it was good business. Neither subtitling nor dubbing had been perfected as yet, and Laurel & Hardy were very popular overseas, so Roach had them remake their films in Spanish, French, and/or German. (The choice of languages varied with each short.) This practice was followed by Roach's other stars as well, even the Our Gang kids. Since Stan and Ollie spoke only English they had to deliver their lines phonetically, with the help of language coaches and an off-screen chalkboard. Needless to say, their delivery of pidgin dialog was less than perfect, but their slippery enunciation and weird accents only made their films funnier for those viewers who did speak the lingo.
Ladrones is the Spanish version of Night Owls, which in turn was based on a stage sketch Stan Laurel performed in the years before he teamed with Oliver Hardy. In the screen version, Stan & Ollie are pawns in a scheme concocted by dim-witted cop Edgar Kennedy, who is in trouble with the Police Chief because he hasn't made any arrests after a rash of burglaries. Kennedy finds the boys sleeping on a park bench, but promises they won't go to jail for vagrancy if they'll agree to burglarize the Chief's home. Kennedy promises he will arrest them himself, and see to it that they won't get in any trouble. All they have to do is break into the house, stuff a few valuables in a bag, and allow Kennedy to apprehend them. What could possibly go wrong?
Night Owls is seldom cited among the boys' best comedies, but in several respects it's pure Laurel & Hardy. The guys are permitted lots of leeway for a whole slew of break-in gags, playing off each other in extended sequences without any time-wasting subplots. Highlights: they climb over a wall with typical finesse, Stan rips Ollie's clothes, they imitate yowling cats, they get in the house and then lock themselves out, and, best of all, they match wits (as it were) with the Police Chief's butler Meadows, played by Jimmy Finlayson. Night Owls is a good short and I happen to like it, but I enjoy Ladrones even more. What's fun about the alternate version, first, is that Kennedy and Finlayson repeat their roles, though both seem to be highly unlikely speakers of Spanish. On top of that, Ladrones runs a full fifteen minutes longer than Night Owls. For the English language version the filmmakers had to trim the running time to two reels, but there were no time constraints for the European market, so Ladrones offers a number of bits that were cut from the other, more familiar version.
The noticeable differences in Ladrones begin with the very first scene in the police station, as we learn that there has been a rash of burglaries. When the Chief (Enrique Acosta) complains to Officer Kennedy about it, he adds that, fortunately, there wasn't a burglary at his own house. This line, which is not in Night Owls, helps plant the scheme in Kennedy's mind. Later, when the boys are in the yard outside the Chief's house, Ollie twice steps on a rake and whacks himself in the face, a running gag cut from Night Owls. Stan also has a nice bit, once he's in the house, when he nearly knocks a statue off its pedestal but deftly catches it. And when Ollie finally gets inside he promptly gets his head stuck in a vase. Stan smashes crockery over it without effect, and finally has to bash the vase with a fireplace shovel. Finlayson, whose butler is now called "Juan," is also allowed a nice moment in the Spanish version. When told by his angry employer that he's getting more stupid every day, he turns to the camera in shock and addresses the audience: "Stupid? ME?"
A weak point of Night Owls is that the ending feels rushed: the boys flee as Kennedy, stupefied after a conk on the head, is blamed for the burglaries, arrested, and told that he'll get life in prison. But in Ladrones the situation unravels in a more satisfying way. The Police Chief confronts Stan and Ollie with a pistol, and more cops arrive. (My favorite moment comes when Ollie eloquently tells Stan: "This is not looking good.") Kennedy shows up, and denies that he knows the burglars. But the boys spill the beans about their conspiracy, and all three of them are arrested. Stan, Ollie, and Kennedy are taken away in an open squad car while the Chief and his butler follow in another. In a desperate escape attempt, Stan and Ollie grab onto a low tree branch and pull themselves out of their car, but drop into the Chief's car, which immediately thereafter drives into a lake.
In the best Laurel & Hardy comedies disasters snowball, and get bigger and bigger until you just can't help but laugh at how awful the situation has gotten. "Not looking good," indeed! Ladrones, with its elaborate finale, is a richer experience than Night Owls, which in my opinion is an underrated short in the first place. The Spanish version is a real treat for Laurel & Hardy buffs.