All month long, TCM is devoting Tuesday nights to prison films. Tonight (actually the wee hours of tomorrow) they’ll have these three “comedy classics” with jailhouse settings.
2:45am (EST): Jail Busters (1955)
The Bowery Boys. Not for the first time, the boys purposefully commit a crime so they can go undercover in jail to get the goods on a gang of crooks who are in there. It is a stupid plan of course! The guy who was supposed to have arranged everything (Lyle Talbot) is crooked himself and hangs the boys out to dry. Percy Helton plays the warden!
4:00am (EST): Pardon Us (1931)
Laurel and Hardy’s first feature length film Pardon Us (1931), directed by James Parrott. The title is a joke—it’s a prison comedy. Get it? Pardon us? Watching this film, I’d not be a bit surprised to learn it was a major influence on the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art the Thou? (Yes, yes, Sullivan’s Travels but also this). I think this movie is easily one of Laurel and Hardy’s best features.
The fact that the pair are incarcerated is a joint responsibility. The movie starts out with them buying ingredients for beer. It’s Ollie who gets the bright idea of selling their surplus homebrew, thus the crime is at his instigation. Later however it is Stanley who tries to sell some to a policeman (he thinks the uniform was that of a streetcar conductor).
A major theme throughout the film is Stanley’s bad tooth, which for some unnatural reason causes him to make a raspberry sound when he speaks, triggering all manner of trouble for the pair. There isn’t much of a plot, but this tooth noise, like a musical motif waves through the film and drives most of the action. This noise antagonizes guards, the warden, and the bull goose of their cell, who later respects him for it. They become involved in an escape plan; everyone gets caught right away but them/ They blend in with a bunch of black field hands on a cotton plantation by putting on blackface. Ollie even sings a minstrel song that Stan dances to. (It’s unfortunate to modern eyes, but there it is). In a scene of masterful tension, the warden’s car breaks down right where they’re standing, obligating the boys to fix the vehicle. They almost make it through the episode — until Stan’s tooth noise blows their cover. Later, back in prison, Stanley accidentally foils another prison break due to his mishaps with a tommy gun, and the boys are about to get an early release when…
5:00am (EST) Hold ’em Jail (1932)
Wheeler and Woolsey . In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!
For more on slapstick film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc