Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Politiquerias (1931)

March, 2013

Hal Roach/MGM, 1931. Director: James W. Horne. Scenario: H.M. Walker. Camera: Art Lloyd. Film editor: Richard Currier. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Linda Loredo, Carmen Granada, Rina de Lignoco/Liguoro.
            You won’t find a lot of Laurel & Hardy in this department—not because I don’t love Laurel & Hardy, but on the contrary, because everybody loves them. Their library of films, especially the classics produced at the Hal Roach studio, are known and loved around the world, and in addition have been documented in depth by a community of historians, including some highly dedicated specialists. So they hardly qualify for the “obscurity” standard, by any stretch.
            But I’m going out on a limb for this one, because it was new to me, anyway. It’s no secret that Laurel & Hardy made separate alternate-language editions of a number of their films during 1930-31 for release in other countries—but until the “Laurel & Hardy Essential Collection” DVD set was released in 2011, I had never seen one of those alternate versions. It’s one of the many blessings of this DVD set that we can see these Spanish- and French-language comedies starring the beloved pair, side by side with the original English-language films on which they were modeled. The similarities and differences among editions can tell us much about the way they were produced, and also about Laurel & Hardy’s working method. Politiquerias, the Spanish-language version of Chickens Come Home (1931), is a particularly fascinating case study.
            For readers who may not know: these alternate-language versions of Hollywood films were a common custom in the early years of sound. Until the practice of dubbing became more widespread, several of the studios would produce completely separate versions of their English-language films, intending them for release in other countries. Often using the same sets and scripts that had been created for the original, the studio would simply remake the film, using a new cast of actors who were fluent in the appropriate language. Perhaps the best-known example today is the Spanish-language version of Universal’s Dracula, filmed at night by Paul Kohner while director Tod Browning was working on the same sets with the original cast in the daytime.
            The Laurel & Hardy alternate editions are analogous, with one important difference. Kohner could choose an entirely new cast for his version of Dracula because the point of seeing Dracula is to see the story of Dracula. But the point of seeing a Laurel & Hardy comedy is to watch Laurel and Hardy.  Some or all of the supporting players might be subject to change, but the two stars must appear in every edition of their films or there was no point in producing new editions in the first place. Accordingly, Stan’s and Ollie’s lines of dialogue would be translated into the alternate language, then written phonetically on blackboards which would be held just out of camera range. The two stars would then recreate their scenes from the original, sometimes working with an entirely new Spanish- or French-speaking supporting cast.
            Politiquerias shows us the procedure in action, and it’s a fascinating phenomenon from the very opening scenes. Although it’s immediately evident that neither of the comedians is a native Spanish speaker, it’s also apparent that Hardy seems to be putting more effort than Laurel into convincing pronunciation. The opening credits (at least in this print) do not include a cast list, but Roach historian Richard Bann tells us that Thelma Todd, who had played Hardy’s wife in Chickens Come Home, is replaced in this edition by Linda Loredo; that Mae Busch’s role as the golddigger is taken by Carmen Granada; and that Rina de Lignoco is seen here as the axe-toting Mrs. Laurel. James Finlayson as the butler is irreplaceable, and reprises his role, although his dialogue is held to a minimum. (Another respected historian, Randy Skretvedt, in his account of the cast, switches the actresses in the roles of Mrs. Laurel and the golddigger, and spells the latter Rina Liguoro. Skretvedt also identifies Art Lloyd as the cameraman for Politiquerias, although the Spanish title card credits Jack Stevens.)
            One of the most immediately noticeable features of Politiquerias is its running time, which is nearly twice that of Chickens Come Home. Essentially, what was shown as a three-reel short in the U.S. was expanded into a six-reel feature for Spanish-speaking countries. Most of the padding occurs at about the midway point in the film, during the social gathering at Hardy’s home. In Chickens Come Home it’s a relatively informal party, and Ollie (while trying to conceal his discomfiture at plot developments) sings a couple of songs for his guests; in Politiquerias those songs are preceded by two lengthy acts performed by guest entertainers. For the benefit of those who have not seen the film, I’ll avoid the details of these guest acts, except to say that one of them is bizarre and the other is highly bizarre, and that Finlayson is drawn into one of them, to his own discomfiture.
            But there are other, more subtle examples of padding elsewhere in the film, and to the Laurel & Hardy fan these are more interesting. The opening scene in Ollie’s office, for example, includes a gag that was evidently planned for the U.S. edition, then truncated. Here it’s allowed to run its course: Ollie calls an underling into his office and asks him to summon another underling; when the second appears, Ollie asks to see a third; and so on until Ollie asks the last subordinate to summon Stan—instead of simply calling Stan in the first place. It’s a modest gag, but it establishes Ollie’s sense of self-importance as a mayoral candidate; and it gives an added punch to the later moment when, caught in a compromising position with the golddigger, he accidentally leans on a whole row of pushbuttons and summons all the underlings at once. Similarly, in Chickens Come Home Ollie dictates a speech, and after a cutaway to the outer office, Stan, as the stenographer, is heard reciting: “No, no, no, apothecary!” By itself it’s a non-sequitur line, clearly based on his misunderstanding of something which Ollie has said earlier, but which we no longer hear in the finished film. Both halves of this dialogue gag are retained in Politiquerias—although, admittedly, to the non-Spanish-speaker the point is largely lost.
            To me, and I suspect to other film enthusiasts, some of the most fascinating details lie in the mechanics of constructing these alternate editions. Much of Laurel & Hardy’s comedy, of course, was visual, and numerous individual shots—involving neither dialogue nor recognizable supporting players—could simply be reused in the Spanish edition. These recycled shots are instantly identifiable in Politiquerias: wherever a section of dupe negative is inserted, there’s a telltale increase in graininess—never obtrusive, but unmistakable even in the DVD transfer. The patchwork is evident in other ways too; for example, in that opening scene in Ollie’s office, shots from the original—with the bandage on Stan’s right forefinger—mingle freely with newly photographed shots in which his finger is not bandaged.
            And then there are the outright oddities. Just as in Chickens Come Home, Stan arrives at the golddigger’s apartment in Politiquerias with the coat hanger protruding from the neck of his overcoat—possibly a leftover vestige of some gag that was abandoned. This odd sartorial accessory is plainly visible in both films, but is not stressed, nor explained, in either one. The non-speaking bit part of the elevator boy in the apartment building is played in Chickens Come Home by Stan Laurel’s stand-in, Ham Kinsey; but for some reason he is replaced in Politiquerias by the well-known Roach regular Charlie Hall.
            That’s only the beginning. The more closely we look at the two films side by side, the more fascinating the comparison becomes. And similar discoveries attend the other alternate-language Laurel & Hardy remakes, each of which offers its own unique delights. Los calaveras, for example, and its French counterpart Les carottiers, are likewise packaged as ersatz six-reel features. Each of them is formed by taking two original English-language shorts—Be Big and Laughing Gravy—remaking them fairly closely, and then joining them together, with only a connecting intertitle, as a single film!

By J.B. Kaufman