Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play a recent arrival from Scotland and his uncle, respectively, who run into difficulty when the former’s kilt meets a strong breeze. Can uncle succeed in putting pants on Philip?
This is my contribution to the Laurel and Hardy Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog the Sequel. Be sure to read the other posts!
Take that, Marilyn
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy spent most of 1927 in experimental mode. They were properly co-starred for the first time in Duck Soup but Hardy was back to supporting player in Slipping Wives. However, the appeal of the duo was undeniable and they quickly put together the winning formula that would make them one of the most successful comedy teams in history.
Putting Pants on Philip is sometimes cited as the first “real” Laurel and Hardy picture, though I have to disagree. Duck Soup ticks almost all of the boxes and was advertised as their debut as a duo. It was thought lost for years and due to a lack of information, historians assumed that Hardy played a minor role but the recovered picture shows that he was an equal star onscreen. Yes, they are not quite Laurel & Hardy™ yet in that picture but they’re not all the way there in Putting Pants on Philip either.
So, let’s not get too bogged down in the weeds of firsts and move onto what really matters: the comedy of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. Putting Pants on Philip will come across a bit curious to fans who are used to seeing the duo in their standard characters. In the first place, Hardy plays J. Piedmont Mumblethunder, who fancies himself something of a local power, and Laurel plays Philip, his awkward, backward, skirt-chasing, kilt-wearing nephew. Not a single necktie is waved in the entire picture.
While they are playing different characters, other standard practices of a Laurel and Hardy picture are on display. Hardy plays pompous and officious, Laurel sobs and shrieks when threatened and they both find themselves on the wrong side of the local beat cop.
The plot of this short is simple: Philip’s kilt is not suited to American city life and keeps blowing up when he walks over sidewalk grates. What do Scotsmen wear under their kilts? Plaid boxer shorts but Philip loses those pretty quickly, which makes his windblown look a public indecency. Horrified and worries about his reputation, Mumblethunder drags his nephew to a tailor to get him a pair of long pants.
Earlier in the picture, Philip took a medical examination by the customs office as an assault and the gag repeats on a larger scale in the tailor’s shop. At the time this picture was made, a heroine being threatened with assault by a hulking villain was a staple of dramatic films and Laurel sends this behavior up as he tries to avoid having his inseam measurement taken. Your mileage will vary on this bit of humor; Harry Langdon and Gertrude Astor performed a similar joke in The Strong Man.
Spoilers, I guess: Throughout the film, Philip has been chasing a fashionable young lady (Dorothy Coburn), who is none too pleased at the attentions of this strange fellow. That’s a pretty typical comedy setup used by everyone from the Marx Brothers to the Muppets. I have to say, though, I rather liked the payoff of the gag. Mumblethunder decides to show off his status by introducing Philip to the woman of his dreams but Dorothy makes a face and walks on. Philip decides to chivalry where pursuit failed and puts his kilt over a mud puddle. Dorothy hops over it, looks back and mimics Philip’s distinct leap before disappearing. It’s not this huge punchline or anything, I just rather enjoyed seeing the pursued woman get a bit of her own back.
Generally speaking, as a longtime fan of Laurel and Hardy, Putting Pants on Philip very much represents a crossroads between Stan Laurel’s more aggressive solo comedy, plus the generally bawdier, more belligerent tone of silent Laurel and Hardy, and the smoother, more polished humor of the later collaborations. That being said, I do think the sauciness of this short is a bit oversold. It never comes across as vulgar and is handled with the kind of light comedic touch that fans of the Hal Roach style have come to expect. It’s cheeky, to be sure, but I do think some of the more clinical examinations of its humor make it sound coarse and that is absolutely not the case. Plus, this is a case where, I think, we are in very real danger of dissecting the frog. (E.B. White once mused that humor could be dissected but, like the frog, would be of no interest to any but a purely scientific mind.)
As amusing as it is to see Stan Laurel leap like a Jack Russell while wearing a kilt (and it is very, very amusing) I must take a moment to praise Oliver Hardy, who is sometimes underappreciated. Hardy does some great work in the opening scene at the harbor where he is amused by the clueless Philip and openly saying that he feels sorry for whoever has to claim “that.” His smile quickly fades when he sees that Philip is holding a photograph of HIM and greets him as his uncle. It’s just a little bit of business but the humorous way Hardy conveys his horror is good for a chuckle.
There’s also a nice sequence where Philip wants to walk alongside his Uncle Piedmont but his uncle wants him to stay a few paces behind. (“He’s with me but not with me with me.”) Of course, Philip does not obey and keeps wandering closer to his uncle only to be shooed back away. It’s all handled with minimal title cards and pretty much entirely relies on the comedic timing of the leads. We’re in good hands.
In fact, that’s how I would classify most of Putting Pants on Philip. It’s not their greatest film, silent or sound. They’re still not totally in character yet. It has a few spots where the plot, what there is of it, drags. But for all that, it’s an amusing picture with a few solid belly laughs courtesy of its talented leads and some bonus giggles courtesy of Dorothy Coburn. I had a good time and I think most Laurel and Hardy fans will enjoy themselves too. It’s a solid little picture.
Where can I see it?
Like most of Laurel and Hardy’s silent work, this short was released on DVD as part of the Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy series. That series is now out of print and going for an arm and a leg online. I am very much hoping for some kind of reissue but I don’t know of any in the works. (If you have heard anything, please let the rest of us know!)