12 March 2005 | wmorrow59
Way Out West with Larry & Hardy
As this film begins the first thing we see, underneath the lettering of the opening credits, is a cut-out photo of our leading man, Larry Semon, spinning wildly like the label at the center of a wax record on an old Victrola. Much as I enjoy silent comedies I must confess that my heart sank a little at the sight, the first time I saw The Fall Guy, because it suggested that this particular short would be just like so much of Semon's output (the ones I've seen, anyway): fast-fast-fast, so fast I have to struggle to follow what's happening, so fast it makes my head spin, fast but not always funny. Even when you run this guy's films at 18 frames-per-second, they still seem to move too fast, but that's not the key problem. As a screen personality Larry Semon is hard to like. He comes off as the sort of comedian who is desperate to amuse, and sometimes succeeds, but who has no other goal in mind. His comedies offer constant activity and non-stop gags, but lack heart. The man's face was certainly distinctive: hawk nose, big ears, no chin -- but beyond his clown-like appearance he had no definable persona; he was simply the funny little guy who threw the pies, chased the villain, and got the girl.
Still and all, this two-reeler proved to be better than expected for a couple of reasons. First, in The Fall Guy Semon gives ample screen time to his favorite villain, Oliver Hardy. Hardy acted as Semon's heavy and/or second banana in quite a few movies, and the star obviously recognized and appreciated Hardy's talent; here, they're practically co-stars. This film is something of a Western parody albeit one with a modern setting. The cowboys all drive their own midget cars but the saloon looks pretty much like a typical old-time Western saloon, and Hardy is the proprietor. He's a top-hatted crook called Joseph the Gent (A/K/A "Black Bart"), who sports a villainous mustache and thick eyebrows, reminiscent of Chaplin's heavy Eric Campbell. Hardy is given one of the film's best gags, a topical reference to Prohibition: when Joseph is pleased that his schemes are going well he invites all the cowboys in the place up to the bar with the familiar gesture indicating "Drinks are on the house!" They all race forward-- to receive ice cream sodas, cones, and sundaes! This bit is amusing, but when a dollop of ice cream slips down the back of a dowager's dress, and she takes a swing at the man who attempts to scoop it out, we realize that Semon was not shy about borrowing material: the gag is a direct steal from Chaplin's 1917 comedy The Adventurer.
At any rate, it's a plus that our hero, Larry, isn't in such a hurry this time, at least in the early scenes. There's a fairly amusing sequence in which he has difficulty starting his car as long as the car "recognizes" him; but when he wears a disguise, he can trick the car into cooperating . . . almost, anyway. This routine is played at a relaxed tempo, without any straining for laughs, and also grants Larry a touch of sympathy. Later, in an even more surreal gag, Larry is deliberately pursued by a driver-less car with a face drawn on its grill. (Apparently Semon had a thing about malevolent automobiles.) These bits are rather funny, but as the movie rolls along it becomes clear that our hero doesn't have much personality and that, moreover, the movie has no plot, just a lot of gags culminating in a chase. As it happens, the gags are okay and the chase is a pretty good one, so these other deficiencies aren't that much of a drawback, but no one's going to mistake this film for The Gold Rush, either. It's a moderately pleasant way to spend 20 minutes, but that's largely thanks to Oliver Hardy rather than the nominal star of the show.