I enjoy comedy shorts quite a bit. They’re quick watches, as the term indicates, and more often than not they’re pretty goofy and fun. They’re also pretty easy to screencap, which is why I’m going to go about analyzing them this way – with images to go along with what I’m writing. It’s more fun if you can see what I’m talking about, after all.
Today’s offering is Madame Mystery, a film produced by Hal Roach Studios (a pet studio of mine) in 1926. The reason I chose to explore this one…well, frankly, there’s more than one reason, so let’s just get those out of the way quickly:
- Theda Bara parodies herself. By 1926, vamps had gone from being the sirens of the screen to a subject of parody. By playing a role much like the ones that catapulted her to fame, but in a comedic style, Bara gently mocked herself.
- One of the two male leads in the film is James Finlayson. Fin is better known as that Scottish guy who did the stink-eye and spent a significant amount of time dealing with Laurel and Hardy (and the originator of Homer Simpson’s “d’oh!” catchphrase), but here he displays a completely different comedic characterization, showing his range as a performer.
- Speaking of Laurel and Hardy, they’re both involved in this. Ollie actually appears in the film as the captain of an ocean liner, whilst Stan co-wrote and co-directed the film. Knowing Stan’s involvement, the observant viewer will notice his style of comedy permeating the action even though he doesn’t appear in front of the camera. This film was finished about a year before Stan and Ollie’s official double act teaming (though they had a blind date in The Lucky Dog some years prior) during the time period in which Stan had decided he’d work out better as a writer and director because he couldn’t settle on a particular comedic characterization. Just give him a year and he’ll end up being the Stan we all know and love, though.
All that being established, let’s actually look at the film now.
Just in case you forgot I really, really adore Stan Laurel, here’s a reminder.
The film starts out by introducing us to a starving artist played by Tyler Brooke. As is often the case in shorts, he doesn’t get an actual name, so we’ll just call him Tyler for all intents and purposes. (Also, I know what it feels like to be a starving artist.)
He’s painted a masterpiece of this beautiful model, but unfortunately the model trips into the easel, sending the painting into the lit fireplace.
The beautiful model is, of course, James Finlayson.
Tyler’s painting is ruined, so he kicks Fin up the behind for dashing their potential chance at earning some money, but then hears a commotion going on outside.
A woman shows up driving a really lovely roadster.
It’s Theda Bara, portraying an international spy named Madame Mysterieux. She’s still rocking the heavy eye shadow, of course. It’s kind of her trademark, after all.
Theda is being pursued by the story’s villain, the Man of A Thousand Eyes (Fred Malatesta).
There’s a car accident, and Theda drives away unharmed. Fred and his accomplice are knocked out, however, and Tyler and Fin – still wearing his poofy dress – go to investigate.
After they drag the unconscious men into their apartment for some reason, they discover a photo of Theda and a description of her mission – she’s headed to the US from Russia with a secret container, and there’s a massive reward.
Our heroes are broke, remember, so they hit upon a clever idea…why not get the container themselves? They swap their clothing with Fred and his companion (who turn out to be Russian agents with English-language ‘secret service’ badges who are described in an intertitle as being from Scotland Yard – which is in England. I wonder how many people got the somewhat complicated joke in here).
Meanwhile, Theda brings the container to the American embassy in Russia. She displays some Silly Putty, which turns out to be an extremely powerful explosive.
Back at the ranch, Fred and his buddy find out they’ve been hoodwinked. They rush to catch Tyler and Fin as they follow Theda onto an ocean liner for America.
His moustache was a bit bigger back in 1926. Well, at least for this film. He assists Theda in boarding the ship personally, which ends with him somehow flinging her shoe into the water.
Tyler and Fin are checked out to make sure they’re not bringing any diseases to America.
Stan and his fellow writers snuck in an adult joke here. Heh.
Of course, Fin’s photo doesn’t match the one in his stolen passport (Tyler conveniently resembles Fred closely enough to pass for him). Tyler decides to use his artistic skills to make Fin resemble the photo more.
Whether or not he did a good job is questionable, but they get onto the boat.
They try to find Theda’s room so they can steal the explosives, which leads to this bizarre shot of the face drawn on the back of Fin’s head peering into Theda’s room.
Yeah, Theda, that’d be my reaction, too – WTF?
Tyler and Fin run into Ollie and explain Fin’s bizarre staggering away as rheumatism. Fin’s been walking backwards the entire time.
Theda comes out of her room and pretends to conspire with Fin, then pushes him down a staircase in typical Theda fashion.
Meanwhile, Fred has arrived on the ship via airplane. He sneaks into Theda’s room and begins to scheme.
Tyler and Fin, looking through a hole in the door, witness his actions.
Tyler eventually realizes Fred is creating smoke to simulate a fire, but it takes him a while to reach that conclusion. Three intertitles, to be specific.
Theda wakes up and grabs the explosives, then makes a move for the door. Fred pops out from behind the curtain and tries to corner her.
“Don’t make me do it!”
Theda puts her hand behind her back and Tyler grabs the explosives through the hole in the door, confusing both Theda and Fred. Even though Fred’s the villain, you know.
Theda and Fred run out and grab Ollie, because surely someone who’s destined to spend the next 30 years of his life playing one half of a pair of massive idiots is going to be useful here.
As the passengers of the ship start to gather at the door, Fin hides the explosives in his mouth.
Fred shoots through the hole in the door, startling our heroes, and Fin inevitably swallows the explosives.
Theda explains just what it is that the boys stole to get that reward. Fin explains just what he did with it.
Ollie is the undisputed master of reaction faces. Theda’s is great here, too, though.
In a last-ditch effort to stop the explosives from making it to America, Fred patriotically kicks Fin.
Instead of immediately exploding, however, Fin inflates.
And continues to inflate.
And inflates so much that he begins floating away. (This is a shoddy screencap and I apologize.)
Theda gets a telegram of importance – she didn’t actually have the explosives at all. She had gas.
She shares the telegram with her nemesis, because that’s naturally what spies do in these situations, right?
Meanwhile, Tyler and Fin are now floating over the Atlantic Ocean.
A pelican shows up and pokes a hole into Fin as if he’s a balloon…
…and he and Tyler actually explode.
Theda waves goodbye to her unwitting accomplices, and the short ends here.
Yes, it’s certainly bizarre, isn’t it? The fact is that we can see some elements of Stan’s writing in here – namely the use of white magic, which shows up in more than a few of the films he and Ollie did together (and there are a lot of those). Fin inflating and floating away because he swallowed a gas capsule is more than a little strange and the special effects just reek of white magic. We can also definitely see Ollie starting to become the Ollie we know from those future films, as well – he’s already got the outward politeness down (although he also kicks someone back down the gangplank after he “helps” Theda out), although he hasn’t fully emphasized the dainty hand movements yet here.
It’s also an absolute joy to see James Finlayson in a leading role. We get to see his range as a performer for a change instead of just seeing him fill in the supporting cast. Interestingly enough, a lot of his facial expressions and a few movements are actually a bit Stan Laurel-ish, which is ironic given what they’ll all be doing in about a year.
Basically, this is an enjoyable, silly little film and if you’ve got twenty minutes to spare you won’t be wasting your time by watching this.
Enjoy the images? Watch the short!