Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #2: "Country Gentlemen" (1936)

The poster blatantly gives away the ending of Country Gentlemen, a vehicle for the team of  Olsen & Johnson.

The flick: Country Gentlemen (Republic, 1936) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.2

Director: Ralph Staub (The Mandarin Mystery, Screen Snapshots Series)

Actors of note: Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (Hellzapoppin'), Joyce Compton (The Best Years of Our Lives, Mildred Pierce), Prince the Great Dane (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break)

The gist of it: Two fly-by-night swindlers have to go on the lam after they sell some worthless shares in a gold mine. They abandon the city for small town life in the quaint little community of Chesterville, where they start a new scam selling worthless shares in an oil well. Madcap hijinks ensue, as you might guess.

My take: All diligent students of comedy will eventually come across references to Hellzapoppin', a wild and fast-paced 1938 Broadway revue that became a surrealistic 1941 film. With its rapid-fire pacing, kitchen sink approach to humor, and total lack of plot, Hellzapoppin' is often cited as a precursor to Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, and Monty Python's Flying Circus. At the center of all this craziness were Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, two very conventional Vaudeville comics who'd been working as a team since about 1914. Country Gentleman is a pre-Hellzapoppin' vehicle for the boys, but it's a  much more timid and traditional story about two scoundrels who accidentally find redemption in a small town. Ole even romances a widow with a cute kid. How cornball can you get? This was a cheapie made by Republic Pictures, so every possible expense was spared in the making of this film. Johnson blatantly flubs a line once and corrects himself before the scene continues.
Ole and Chic: Together forever in Las Vegas.

Is it funny: Eh, it depends on your tolerance for creaky Vaudeville humor and the type of gags typically found in children's jokebooks. I have to admit I laughed out loud when Johnson said, "You wouldn't hit a man with glasses," while holding up two drinking glasses in front of his face. At the heart of it, Olsen & Johnson are a second-rate act, nowhere near the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy and taking a back seat to the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello. Olsen is the slightly more serious of the two and comes off like a cross between Bud Abbott and Shemp Howard. Johnson is the chubbier one -- his character is even called "Chubby" in this film -- and he has a slightly zanier personality, somewhere between Joe Besser and Curly Howard. Laughing at your own jokes is supposedly a comedy no-no, but it's absolutely essential to Olsen & Johson's schtick. Their calling card, in fact, is Johnson's high-pitched giggle, which is heard frequently during Country Gentlemen. Frankly, the best lines in this film go to Joyce Compton as a ditzy blonde secretary with a pet Great Dane she has whimsically named "Fluffy." By the way, I found it strangely poignant to learn that Ole and Chic were buried side by-side in Las Vegas' Palm Mortuary.

My Grade: B-

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