Putting Pants on Philip is a great comedy and a masterclass from Oliver Hardy!. As well as being my opinion, this also appears to be the general consensus from film fans, but the stand-out from this film, for me, is just how good Ollie is in it. He never appears to be going after laughs, he’s never trying too hard. He just plays it straight (I suppose like he always does), and he is all the funnier for it.
It’s fair to say that whilst being a great comedy, it’s certainly not a ‘Laurel & Hardy’ comedy. Ollie plays the part of …wait for it…Piedmont Mumblethunder (rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it), who has the task of welcoming his Scottish nephew Philip (Stan) who has just arrived fresh off the boat from…well, Scotland, I assume!
Without going into a needless description of every scene, Ollie basically has to escort Stan around the town and keep him entertained. The day doesn’t go as planned, however, as Stan draws lots of attention from the passing
townspeople (which is a massive understatement) as it seems that nobody in small-town USA has ever seen a man in a kilt before. There are some great gags during these scenes, especially the one where Stan’s big sneeze, brought on by snorting a bit of snuff, makes his underwear slip down and, unbeknownst to everyone, he steps out of the aforementioned under-crackers and steps onto a pavement vent that blows his kilt up, causing a number of ladies from the gathered mob to faint.
Ollie, who is a very well known and honourable figure in the town, is of course mortified by all these goings-on and keeps trying (and failing) to distance himself from Stan.
We discover that Philip’s (Stan’s) biggest flaw is his weakness, or to be more accurate, his addiction to the ladies. As soon as a lady walks past him and catches his eye, he’s off like a rocket chasing them down the street, a trait that Harpo Marx also famously adopted.
All this, makes Philip a very animated character indeed and because of that, it’s easy for the viewer’s attention to be drawn to him. But this is where Oliver Hardy’s genius shines through magnificently. In fairness, he isn’t given that much to do – his only real task throughout the film is to react to Stan and all that’s going on around them. In a way, this is very similar to Max Davidson‘s task in ‘Call of the Cuckoos‘, but where I tired very quickly of Davidson’s repetitive performance, I couldn’t get enough of Ollie’s masterful display here. This is where Hardy excels, above all other areas. The ability to subtly play his role in the background, not appearing to do all that much, but in actual fact he’s stealing the scenes with his mannerisms, small gestures, slow-burns and discreet (and often not so discreet) looks to camera. In a way I guess this is a reflection of how he was as an actor, reputedly being happy to do as he was asked and directed, play his part and let everyone else around him do all the busy stuff.
Even after very recently being officially announced as a new comedy team, the Hal Roach studios immediately dispensed with the newly established ‘Laurel & Hardy’ branding and even more inexplicably stepped away from the ‘Stan & Ollie’ characters and marketed ‘Putting Pants on Philip’ as another ‘All-Stars’ comedy. Thankfully though, even as ‘Philip & Piedmont’ the film is quality and as it transpired to be the final outing for the boys as non-Stan & Ollie characters, we can easily overlook these confusing elements.
The film’s reception was, then as now, pretty positive. ‘Moving Picture World’ 10th December 1927 reported:
“Putting Pants on Philip” M-G-M – Two Reels: Hal Roach has a sweet one in this for comedy, diverting situations and a clowning idea that is put across in sprightly fashion by Stan Laurel. Laurel is a young Scotch immigrant, come to this country to quote the titler, “To recover a half-dollar lost by a relative in 1888”. He has a great foil in Oliver Hardy, as the Scot’s relative, assigned to look after him in the new land. The plot revolves about Hardy’s efforts to supplant Stan’s kilties with pants. In the so-doing, uproarious burlesque results. The action is fresh, the situations full of drollery, and the idea as original as has caught this reviewers eye in months. Don’t miss it.”
There are indeed a lot of laughs to be had here. Stan and Babe are on fine form and carry the film completely on their own, there being a notable absence of any supporting cast members from the Roach ‘Stock Company’.
The next film would see a return to the shabby suits and bowler hats and this time, thankfully, they were pretty much here to stay.