5 October 2013 | slokes
Ça c'est du crappeé
Good art may be said to be a matter of appreciating one's betters and then ripping them off, but even rip-offs require more intelligence, wit, and craft than "Ça c'est du cinéma" (a. k. a. "The Slappiest Days Of Our Lives").
Imagine a film featuring silent-comedy stars Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Jimmy Finlayson, and Laurel & Hardy (both together and apart), all at or near the peak of their craft. Further imagine this film pioneering a kind of meta-cinematic style of snarky voice-over, e. g. Woody Allen's "What's Up, Tiger Lily" and "Mystery Science Theater 3000," with the majority provided by Peter Sellers, not yet at the peak of his craft but coming into his own.
Should be funny, huh? At least interesting? Think again.
The root problem with "Slappiest Days" is that it's a collage of silent bits that pretends to be linked together, albeit in Frankenstein fashion. The plot, a singularly convoluted yet dull story, involves reporter Stan Laurel traipsing across the United States while FBI agent Jimmy Finlayson chases after him, somehow thinking he is the enemy spy K2. This provides an excuse for linking together bits of films from various silent-comedy shorts under the guise of Stan checking out this or that for his article on America and Finlayson popping up occasionally to try and catch him. Most of the time, even this frail guise of a plot proves too much.
For example, Sellers narrating as Laurel tells us he went to visit a dressmaking shop, which cues a few minutes of material from a short starring Billy Bevan as said dressmaker, with no sign of Laurel. Then he talks about checking into a hotel, which cues a bit with Harold Lloyd acting the role of a man about town to impress a lady. On their own, these bits seem delightful, but weighed down by the jigsaw plot and often extraneous voice-over work by Sellers and his frequent collaborator Graham Stark (who does Finlayson's and Lloyd's voices among others), they flop every time.
It seems Sellers in the booth didn't have enough material for five minutes of this, let alone the 75 we have. As Laurel the reporter, he tells us he was "the biggest drip on the daily splash," and cracks about an inventor: "They say necessity is the mother of invention. In that case, this fellow must be an orphan."
The high point of wit may be Sellers/Laurel's comment about New York City being the home of the world's most beautiful women accompanied by a vintage shot of frowning suffragettes on parade. "Yes, they even had jets in those days," Laurel adds. Sellers got 200 quid for his work here, and sounds in a hurry to go out and spend it.
The oddest duck in this movie is Buster Keaton, whose footage is not from his silent period at all but from sound-era shorts, specifically "Palooka From Paducah" (where he's a referee in a wrestling match gone awry) and "The Gold Ghost" (a western where he's involved in a shootout). Here they just turn the sound down while Sellers narrates in his Laurel voice how wacky a guy Keaton is. None of this appears too disrespectful, as another reviewer here seems to feel. It's just so frightfully unnecessary, like kazoo interjections on Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
The film begins with a dedication by producer Arthur Dent (not the one in the bathrobe) who calls it "a tribute to one of the greatest pioneers of this industry," specifically Mack Sennett. This is odd, since many of the films we see are Hal Roach comedies rather than Sennett ones.
IMDb tells us this film debuted in France in March, 1951, which would have made it Sellers' feature-film debut. Probably the French version didn't include Sellers' English dubbing, so that honor is shared by the weak-but-less-dire "Penny Points To Paradise" and "Let's Go Crazy." Here, other than Sellers trying out a Laurel voice that would return to much better effect in "Being There," and some tantalizing bits from silent shorts, what you get is a waste of your time.