Laurel and Hardy

“I’ll skin them both alive…” Laurel and Hardy in “The Bullfighters” (1945).

The Bullfighters is one of the films in contention for the dubious title of “Best post Roach Laurel and Hardy Film”.   It’s in any case a sight better than Great GunsAir Raid Wardens, or Nothing But Trouble.

Stan and Ollie are private detectives who arrive in Mexico City to secure the extradition of one Hattie Blake and return with her to Peoria, Illinois.  There seems to be a belief that “Peoria” is an inherently funny name as it is incessantly referenced.  I may be missing something here.

Also in Mexico City is a man named Muldoon who spent five years in prison as a result of being wrongly identified in court by Stan and Ollie.  Following a subsequent confession, Muldoon was released but ruined and so relocated to Mexico pledging that if he ever catches up with those detectives he will skin them alive.  Which he eventually does.

The final moments of the film, accordingly, consist of Stan and Ollie’s heads balanced on walking animated skeletons.  Somehow, this radical form of mutilation is not as funny as (for example) Stan and Ollie having their heads turned 180 degrees or being twisted into pretzels (in both cases by Walter “Butch” Long).

Stan is a dead ringer for a famous bullfighter called Don Sebastian from Barcelona.  Of course, Stan is soon called upon to impersonate Don Sebastian.  This is as much plot as anyone needs.

Stan is supposed to have directed two scenes in this film, both of which are “tit for tat” sequences.  The first is a wholly original sequence involving a fountain in the hotel lobby.  The second is a remake of a an egg fight sketch originally performed with Lupe Vélez in Hollywood Party (1934).  Unsurprisingly, these are the two best scenes in the film.

Edward Gargan plays a delegate at a bricklayers convention who is practicing his speech in the lobby and whose presence initiates the water fight.  He is so effective in this sequence that he might be Edgar Kennedy or Charley Hall.  Carol Andrews is effective in the egg fight as well.  It’s a rather different egg fight to that with Lupe Vélez, being considerably less frantic and passionate and far more satisfyingly slow and careful.  This latter scene is, unfortunately, rather over-scored for my liking with each egg over-signposted with funny noises.

Other nice moments involve a taxi scene near the beginning involving Stan trying to free Ollie from a taxi door by opening the said door.  There’s also a nice version of the illiterate Stan “signing” a hotel register sketch – enlivened by another visiting illiterate who also makes a cross and whom Stan accuses of forging his name.

Stan Laurel seems to rather enjoy playing the real Don Sebastian, who of course has to show up near the end, although clearly it’s not Stan speaking Spanish here.

This penultimate Laurel and Hardy film demonstrates that the boys’ essential gift for clowning was completely intact and all they really required was a stage and/or a screen on which to perform unmolested.  In this film, they come closer to exploiting such opportunities than they had in five years.  There is, to be sure, a night club scene that goes on for rather too long.  The scene in the arena involves an awkward sequence of edits between actual footage of bullfights and actors running back and forth in a state of panic.  It is hard to feel any real sense of empathy for (drunk) Stan given the crudity of the threat being faked here.

In other words, The Bullfighters is at its weakest whenever it feels obligated to satisfy its titular obligation to describe the dubious art of fighting bulls.

If you were to watch The Bullfighters straight after watching Way Out West, or Sons of the Desert, or Blockheads, you’d feel rather depressed.  If, as I have, you watched it straight after a run of preceding Fox and MGM Laurel and Hardy films, you’d feel rather relieved and contented.

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