“That’s My Wife is one of the very best of the team’s early pictures”, at least so says Randy Skretvedt in his summing up of the film, and I have to agree with him. There are some films that make you smile, some that make you chuckle and then there are those that make you laugh so much that your sides ache – and that’s what this film does to me. It’s fair to say the end sequences of this picture are risqué, certainly by 1929’s standards and they just make me howl! I can’t watch them enough.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, in true L&H film-making style, we must start at the beginning.
The plot of ‘That’s My Wife’ is straight forward enough. Stan came to visit Ollie and his wife for 5 minutes and ended up staying for two years, much to the disgust of Mrs. Hardy, played by Vivien Oakland. “Either he goes, or I do!” is the ultimatum thrown down by Mrs. Hardy and Ollie’s lack of an immediate and suitable response, of any kind, results in his wife smashing a couple of plant pots and slamming the door behind her as she leaves.
Following her departure, Stan and Ollie then fall out. There’s a nice gag here where Ollie starts to pace the room, punching the air in frustration and Stan copies him as if he’s also been slighted. There follows a bit of pushing and shoving as the boys fall out, which results in Stan storming off upstairs to pack his bags. Ollie realises that without a wife, he’ll now no longer benefit from his Uncle Bernal’s significant inheritance. Just then, out of the blue, who should knock at the door, but Uncle Bernal himself, come to meet Ollie’s wife for the first time.
Somehow, Ollie convinces Stan not to walk out on him, but instead to dress up in drag and play the part of his wife for this brief meeting with Uncle Bernal (well you would, wouldn’t you?!)
‘Uncle Bernal’ is played brilliantly by an actor named William Courtright, whose only other appearance in a Laurel & Hardy film is as the butler, the very first character on-screen in ‘Duck Soup’ (1927). It’s his reactions to what’s happening around him throughout the rest of this picture that makes everything that the boys do, that much funnier. He’s like the mount and the frame to the boys ‘painting. On their own, the boys would be funny, but add Courtright’s reactions and it all becomes so much better. Ollie tries to prepare his uncle with “She’s not much to look at – But what a clown!”, but his silent face speaks volumes as he sees Stan (or Mrs Magnolia Hardy) for the first time as if to say “My God, what an ugly woman”…
Not content to simply chat over a coffee at home, Uncle Bernal insists the threesome go for “…a little dinner and dancing at The Pink Pup”, and it’s within the familiar surroundings of ‘The Pink Pup’ that the rest of the farce is played out. There are a couple of reused gags from our previous visit to the nightclub in ‘Their Purple Moment‘ (1928), with Stan falling on top of his date/partner whilst simply walking into the club, and a waiter tripping face-first, multiple times into a tray full of a squishy, cakey like substance.
Stan attracts the attention of a drunk (he’d have to be) sitting at a nearby table. Although he’s no Arthur Housman, the drunk is humourously played by British comic, and another graduate from the Fred Karno Company, Jimmy Aubrey. Aubrey, uninvited, joins the table and makes some advances towards Stan/Mrs. Hardy, much to the disgust of Uncle Bernal, who insists Ollie ‘do something forceful’. Ollie responds by tipping a bowl of very thick looking soup over Aubrey’s head. The drunk then leaves the club, taking with him a fresh bowl of soup…(huh?).
All fairly standard L&H action so far, but, here’s where it switches up a gear. A criminal working the nightclub, in disguise as a waiter, steals an expensive necklace from a lady diner, and then as a search of all the patrons is announced he immediately ditches the jewels by dropping it down the back of Stan’s dress…and cue hilarity!
In the development of the trouser changing scenes in ‘Liberty‘ (1928), the following sequences are comedy dynamite. Stan senses there’s a foreign object in his dress and employs Ollie to help him to ‘subtly’ remove it, without drawing any attention to themselves. Now, if you or I were in this position (as if!), I suspect we’d probably sneak off to the toilets and privately investigate – but not our boys. Instead, they take to the dance floor!
Whilst we know what they’re up to, the nightclub staff, fellow dancers, diners and not forgetting, of course, Uncle Bernal, certainly do not. The boys proceed to dance around, with Ollie trying his damnedest to get his hand down the back of Stan’s dress. They wiggle and jiggle and Ollie even lifts him into the air and shakes him to get the necklace to fall out until they are told by the management to “cut out the wrestling”. The comic looks of disgust are matched by the embarrassed faces of the boys as they continually keep getting caught in very compromising positions. They’re discovered in phone booths, behind screens and are even revealed on stage as the curtains drawback for the evening’s floor show as “Garrick and Lucille in ‘The Pageant of Love”. This is the last straw for Uncle Bernal, who’s exasperated and revolted expressions have been a joy to witness.
Finally, with one last slip, Stan falls on top of Ollie and his wig comes off, announcing to the world that Mrs. Hardy is actually a man in drag (NO!), and Uncle Bernal denounces his nephew and leaves, promising to gift his fortune to an animal hospital.
Our last scene with the boys has Ollie pitifully stating that he’s lost his wife and his fortune and asks “What could be worse?”, just as a drunken hand from off-screen appears and tips a bowl of soup over Ollie’s head.
There’s a lovely moment here, right at the death, as the screen starts to fade to black, where Stan looks at Ollie and gives him that wonderful wide smile of his and Ollie’s depressed expression, cracks and he can’t help but smile back as the soup runs down his face. It’s a really nice moment, that fits the Stan & Ollie characters beautifully, as once again they are back to square one -two friends with just each other in the world. But, I do wonder whether that smile of Ollie’s was supposed to happen in the script, or whether Babe just couldn’t hold his stony countenance any longer and the ridiculousness of the scene, with the soup running down his face was too much for him and he broke up. Whatever the reason, I’m glad it was left in as it adds one final smile and a feel-good moment for the viewer to end on.
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