Oliver Hardy and Harry Langdon in “Zenobia”


The Hal Roach feature Zenobia (1939) was released on this date.

This is an interesting movie for all sorts of reasons.

One is that it is a very late Oliver Hardy feature WITHOUT LAUREL. This occurred because of Hal Roach’s clever tactic of keeping Laurel and Hardy on separate contracts with staggered expiration dates, so he could negotiate with the two men independent of one another and have the upper hand in the dealings. By 1939 Laurel was fed up and he held out, briefly going on strike. It is inaccurate to say as people often do, however, that Harry Langdon “replaced” him in the team, although Roach probably wanted to make Laurel frightened that that was the case. Hardy and Langdon are just two comic actors in the ensemble here (ones who happen to have star billing).

Second reason this is an interesting movie is that it was made during a period when Hal Roach was really stretching his legs as a producer. He was seeking greater legitimacy and was achieving it, with star-studded mainstream prestige pictures like Topper (1937) and Of Mice and Men (1939). (Unfortunately, World War 2 was to derail those aspirations).  In addition to Hardy and Langdon, Zenobia features Billie Burke, Alice Brady, Jean Parker, Stepin Fetchit and Hattie MacDaniel, major studio players from outside the usual Roach universe.

Third, it’s a period picture, also unusual Roach territory. The “Old South” was very popular Hollywood fodder in the late 30s, thanks to pictures like Showboat, Jezebel, Mississippi, Showboat and Gone With the Wind. Zenobia is set in Mississippi in the 1870s. Hardy displays his range as a character vastly different from the Ollie of the “L & H” pictures. Here he is a gentle, lovable small town doctor who has lost most of his society patients because he has taken the words of the Declaration of Independence to heart (“All Men are Created Equal”). “Equal”, with the exception, as we learn in an unintentionally painful scene, of black people, as Hardy repeatedly tries to explain to a small African American boy who apparently works for him as a servant, and who keeps asking why whites and blacks cant socialize. Pesky kid with his inconvenient question! Still, Hardy offers the boy a quarter if he’ll learn the Declaration by heart, and the boy does. In a ridiculously long segment, the kids recites the entire opening section of the founding document, bringing about a change of heart in the film’s antagonist, Alice Brady as the governor’s wife, who opposes her son’s wedding to Hardy’s daughter. (I just knew there was an angle!) Notable also in the film are Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fethcit as servants. Stepin Fetchit is funnier than usual here.

The rest of the plot concerns the affection for Hardy by an elephant named Zenobia owned by medicine man Langdon. When the elephant is sick, Hardy is called in. He untangles the elephant’s tail. In gratitude, the elephant follows Hardy wherever he goes including his daughter’s wedding party, which proves most inconvenient. With the governor’s wife’s backing, Langdon sues Hardy for alienation of affection on the part of the elephant. It all comes out alright in the end, and Zenobia gives birth to a baby elephant.

The closest thing to a “Laurel” in the film is Billie Burke as Hardy’s ditsy wife and he relates to her in the expected fashion, although with a good deal more patience than he normally extends to Stanley.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy including Zenobia please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 



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