Pardon Us (1931, USA)

Pardon Us - Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

If this is a satire of The Big House (1930), I’m afraid the satirical bits largely passed me by. Other than perhaps poking fun at an arsenal of weapons that suddenly appears in the hands of the prisoners in the final few scenes, I’m not sure that I saw much of a connection between these two prison-movie heavyweights.  This was Laurel and Hardy’s first full length talking movie, and the first movie-length talkie prison comedy, by my reckoning. And better than their shorter silent prison films by quite a margin. 

It’s patchy, nonetheless. As you’d expect. There are normal talkie plot progressions, and then it lapses into the sort of visual slapstick that they relied upon in their silent film days – my least favourite example being a long, wordless scene of the two men trying to get comfortable in the one bed (the top bunk in a three tiered bunk). And then there are the songs…

It’s Prohibition. Stan and Ollie are two amateur bootleggers who get caught and are sent to jail. Stan has a wobbly tooth that makes him blow a raspberry after each sentence, which doesn’t go down well with the Warden, who puts them in a cell with prison hard-man Tiger (a terrific Walter Long), to teach them a lesson. Tiger unexpectedly admires Stan’s guts in razzing him, and somehow the two heroes soon get caught up in an escape bid with Tiger and his men, and find themselves on the run.

It’s a different era. While at large, they blacken their faces and live a free ‘n’ easy life pickin’ cotton and singin’. Stan doesn’t quite get the hang of cotton picking and uproots whole cotton plants and stuffs them into his sack. But most of the humour is derived from the threat of racial exposure – a trouser leg is lifted unthinkingly to reveal a very white leg, Stan falls into a puddle and comes up white, and an over-friendly dog licks half the colour off Ollie’s face. None of their fellow townsfolk seem to notice. Or they’re too polite to say anything. The boys are ultimately undone when the Warden and his daughter, driving through the fields, run out of gas and seek Stan and Ollie’s help. Stan emits a raspberry and their cover is blown.

Back in jail they alert the authorities to Tiger’s next break out attempt. The prisoners have enough smuggled guns to arm a decent sized militia, including a machine gun. A full scale armed riot develops. Not unlike the final scenes of The Big House, it must be said. Stan and Ollie save the Warden’s daughter from her burning house in another scene that looks like it has been lifted straight out of a silent movie. Meanwhile, Tiger and his men – aware that the guards have been readied for them – want to kill the stoolies, but somehow the machine gun winds up in Stan’s hands and he keeps them all at bay by ineptly spraying bullets all around and forcing all the prisoners to retreat to the safety of their cells. Stan and Ollie then inadvertently let the assembled guardsmen in; the riot is quashed and Stan and Ollie are given pardons by the Warden for their good work.

The film features some great real-prison atmosphere (something missing from 1927’s The Second Hundred Years and 1929’s The Hoose-Gow), some terrific tough guys, led by Tiger, a wonderfully erratic Warden (Wilfred Lucas), a splendid cacophony of snores after lights out, and some great harmonies in the songs which just keep happening. The film just can’t sustain the funny stuff.

Pardon Us - L & H on the run in blackface, in a cottonfield Pardon Us #3 - Mean, mean-looking prisoner ensemble

Posted on December 19th, 2009 at 9:50 pm. Updated on December 27th, 2009 at 8:38 pm.

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