Anita Garvin and Marion Byron star as a pair of struggling singles whose double date doesn’t go as planned when it turns out the guys in question are a pair of, well, tights. The quest for ice cream descends into a signature Hal Roach tit for tat battle. Chaos ensues, is what I’m saying.
I scream, you scream
I love Hal Roach. I have been watching Roach comedies since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase… but I didn’t know until I got into silent films that Laurel and Hardy co-star Anita Garvin (the rifle-toting wife in Blotto) had her own short-lived comedy series with fellow roach comedienne Marion Byron.
Since physical contrast was an important ingredient in comedy teams, the statuesque Garvin and the diminutive Byron (nicknamed Peanuts) were a no-brainer to pair up. As stated, the pairing didn’t last long and only A Pair of Tights is generally remembered (Feed ‘Em and Weep and Going Ga-Ga only partially survive) but if you have to be remembered for only one film, this is a pretty great one.
This short will hold particular pleasure to fans of Roach, especially fans of Laurel and Hardy. You know how Stan and Ollie were often teamed with somewhat irritated wives and girlfriends who rolled their eyes at their antics? Well, imagine a film told from the ladies’ points of view and you have A Pair of Tights.
Marion and Anita are a pair of single girls with empty tummies and no food. Fortunately, Marion’s boyfriend (Stuart Erwin) is coming over and bringing his boss (Edgar Kennedy) for what they hope will be a double date. A double dinner date? The ladies’ hopes are dashed when the fellas announce that they don’t intend to spend a dime on the outing. Marion may dig her boyfriend and be able to live on love but if Anita is going to put up with her date, she is darn well going to be fed.
In an effort to keep the date cheap, the quartet stop at an ice cream shop and Marion ventures out to get four cones, a simple mission. Well, fans of Hal Roach know that a simple mission is always where everything goes wrong and the rest of the film is spent on Marion’s efforts to get out of the ice cream parlor and back to the car with intact treats.
The short is directed by Hal Yates under the supervision of Leo McCarey with titles by Beanie Walker. McCarey and Walker in particular are as responsible as anyone for the Hal Roach style, a more whimsical and lighter kind of slapstick that contrasted with much of the rougher material delivered by Mack Sennett in the 1920s. (Though I should mention that some of Sennett’s 1920s stuff is pretty good, I am quite fond of the Smith Family series, which is more Roachy.)
At this point, Hal Roach was actively trying to class up the joint with ex-superstars but the whole studio had a slickness to it; it was a well-oiled machine that nonetheless managed to stay fresh instead of contrived. A Pair of Tights sports some of the comedy hallmarks of the studio. For example, we get a tit for tat fight during which the participants knock one another down and then knock down any onlookers out of pure spite. (A similar battle can be found in the pants-tearing battle of the Laurel and Hardy silent short You’re Darn Tootin’.)
And, as was often the case with Hal Roach comedies, the original concept of the thing (a double date looking for cheap dinner) is thrown out the window when the characters are enveloped by chaos and are forced to beat a hasty retreat.
As stated before, this has a very Stan and Ollie quality to it with the roles of the boys taken over by Kennedy and Erwin and then Garvin and Byron playing their opposite number. The intimidating Garvin can be compared to the more assertive Hardy, while the happy go lucky Byron is the gentler Laurel of the film, though even she loses her temper at the bratty antics of Spec O’Donnell. (He tended to be cast as perfect little demons and actually kept right on working in bit parts in the talkies. You may remember him as the bridegroom at the beginning of Arsenic and Old Lace.)
The best part of the short is how enthusiastically and unapologetically Garvin and Byron jump into the physical comedy, kicking, tripping and brawling with the boys. There were more comediennes than some silent film historians will credit but there was a tendency in some films to keep women in The Girl parts and limit their participation in the gags. Well, not here! I hope that Garvin and Byron’s antics made pioneering comedy stars like Mabel Normand proud. (And this is a great chance to plug Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas, which is a much-needed course correction for the history of silent comedy and a valuable resource for anyone hoping to femme up their viewing.)
There’s a particularly funny moment near the end of the short where Byron is being bullied by bratty O’Donnell (fun fact: both were born in 1911) and Kennedy is about to intervene but Garvin is not having it. “No, leave this to me.” Ha! That’s the kind of woman’s comedy touch I was craving.
As I was researching this film, I made a few interesting discoveries about the perception of women in Hal Roach films in general and Laurel and Hardy films in particular. Stan and Ollie were often bachelors onscreen but some of their most popular pictures involved them trying to trick their wives with some scheme or other. I have been watching Laurel and Hardy since I was a wee tyke and it never, ever occurred to me not to sympathize with the wives in films like Blotto or Sons of the Desert. I mean, I love the Boys but their antics were childish and half the fun was waiting for them to get their deserved medicine at the end. (Of course, there were times when the wives were equally awful. Twice Two, in which Stan and Ollie play one another’s wives, comes to mind. It’s another Hal Roach comedy in which ice cream just cannot be obtained. “We haven’t any!”)
As it turns out, this perception is not universal. In fact, Garvin’s character in Blotto is described as a shrew, which is was never my view of the situation. As I said, I love Stan and Ollie but I would never want to live with them or be their neighbor (same goes for most classic comedy personas) and Garvin’s comical overreaction seemed to me to have been grounded in months of understandable irritation.
I decided to ask a few Hal Roach fans and it seems that the perception of Garvin, as well as the wives in Sons of the Desert, is very much divided along gender lines. Women tend to view the blowups as understandable while men view the situation as more of a classic nagging wife comedy trope, which was probably what the original writers intended. This is hardly scientific or objective, just what I have noticed.
As a result, I found this comedy to be pretty satisfying. Garvin and Byron, particularly Garvin, aren’t about to put up with cheap fellas who want to cuddle but can’t even take them out for a hamburger. The early scene where Kennedy tries to make his move on Garvin and she unambiguously is not having it is quite droll.
A Pair of Tights is a grand little comedy that showcases the deep comedy bench enjoyed by Hal Roach in the 1920s. It is particularly recommended to fans of the Roach style but anyone who likes a good laugh will find something to appreciate.
Where can I see it?
Edition Filmmuseum has released a nice print of A Pair of Tights, plus the surviving footage of Feed ‘Em and Weep and Going Ga-Ga, in their Hal Roach Female Comedy Teams two-disc set.
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