10 March 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Smith and Dale are hilarious!
"What Price Pants?" is probably the funniest movie ever made. The vaudeville comedians Smith and Dale star in a clever satire on Prohibition and all the illegal shenanigans that went on in America during Prohibition just so a man could get a drink. This is an American film, so the "pants" in the title are trousers. (In Britain, "pants" are underpants.) Joe Smith is the greedy owner of a sweatshop pants factory, and Charlie Dale is his underpaid cutter. A letter arrives for Dale, informing him that he's about to receive an unexpected inheritance. Smith intercepts the letter, and offers Dale a partnership in the pants factory ... but the terms of the partnership require that, if Dale should "just happen" to come into some money, he must share it with Smith. There are some antics in the pants factory, as Smith teaches his sweatshop workers the "correct" way to hum and sew pants at the same time. So far, this movie is merely funny: now it shifts gears and becomes hilarious. Dale has a dream sequence, in which he imagines a new kind of Prohibition: instead of alcohol being illegal, now PANTS are illegal. We see a New York street full of businessmen, and it's a trouser-free zone. All the men are wearing jackets and ties and shoes but NO trousers: every man's undershorts are on display! This is one of the funniest sight gags in the entire history of screen comedy. Dale goes to a "pants-easy" where men can wear pants illegally behind closed doors, but the joint gets raided by policemen wearing uniforms with no pants. If you want to see a squad of uniformed policemen in their underpants, this film is for you. Eventually, Dale wakes up, and the earlier plot about the inheritance gets its payoff. Many sources claim incorrectly that Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" was based on Smith and Dale. That's not true; both acts performed a doctor-patient routine, and both acts used Jewish humour, but the resemblance ends there. Smith and Dale (not their real names) met in boyhood and immediately became a vaudeville team. When they needed business cards printed up, the printer offered them a discount on some cards which another vaudeville act had ordered but never paid for: the other act was named "Smith and Dale", so they changed their names to fit the business cards. Unlike the Sunshine Boys, Smith and Dale remained friends right up until Charlie Dale's death. For most of their vaudeville career, Smith and Dale were actually half of an act called the Avon Comedy Four. The other two men in this quartet were a carpenter and an electrician: neither of them were funny, but they both had the show-biz bug and so Smith and Dale included them as onstage performers in exchange for their carpentry and electrical skills (which were needed for the sets used when the act went on tour). In vaudeville days, a "four-act" (with four performers) usually got more money from booking agents than a two-man "double" act. Eventually, a Broadway producer announced: "I don't want the Avon Comedy Four; I want Smith and Dale." The other two men were dropped from the act, and Smith & Dale went on to greater heights. This brilliant comedy team made only a few films, but "What Price Pants?" is definitely Smith & Dale.