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  Zenobia The Elephant In The Room
Year: 1939
Director: Gordon Douglas
Stars: Oliver Hardy, Harry Langdon, Billie Burke, Alice Brady, James Ellison, Jean Parker, June Lang, Olin Howland, J. Farrell McDonald, Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, Philip Hurlic, Hobart Cavanaugh, Clem Bevans, Tommy Mack, Robert Dudley
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Carterville, Mississippi in 1870, and Mary Tibbett (Jean Parker) and Jeff Carter (James Ellison) are getting married, he has just proposed and Mary tells her mother (Billie Burke) almost immediately, such is her joy. Mrs Tibbett feels she must inform her husband Dr Tibbett (Oliver Hardy) too, so dispatches their manservant Zero (Stepin Fetchit) to find him and tell him the good news: he races across town and meets the doctor who has been delivering a baby, but unfortunately Zero cannot remember what the news was, thereby panicking his master. Once they both reach home, Tibbett still has trouble finding out the pressing information, eventually getting it from young houseboy Zeke (Philip Hurlic): he is delighted, but an elephant is about to throw a spanner in the works...

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy remain one of the most beloved comedy double acts in screen history, and after their silent days they barely made a film without each other, but Zenobia was different as Ollie was solo here, without Stan thanks to a contract dispute with their boss and the man who had given them their opportunities, Hal Roach. He wanted to renegotiate their contracts and give Hardy less money than Laurel, which the latter was not happy about at all, basically telling him you either pay us the same or you don't get us at all. While this was going on - it was eventually resolved, though you could argue the team were never the same again - Hardy appeared in a starring role here, although it was not accurate to say he was performing the sole comic role in the film.

It had been intended as a vehicle for the boys until the disagreement arose, so Roach promptly had Laurel's part rewritten and offered the role to another of his roster of comedians, former silent star Harry Langdon, offering us a glimpse of what it would have been like to see Langdon and Hardy if things had worked out differently. If they had, and if they were like this, then you cannot imagine they would have gone on to the success they did, for watching Ollie here is a strange experience; he's not as dumb in character as he was with his regular partner, but he does get to carry out various bits of business with the elephant belonging to Langdon's snake oil salesman Professor McCrackle, a relationship that was the main selling point, animal antics having never gone out of style.

But there was another comedian in the cast who Hardy played scenes with, and one who is not as well-recalled as he or Harry for that matter, and that was Stepin Fetchit. He will remain a troubling presence when discussing African American cinema, as while he undoubtedly paved the way for many more black actors to get a break in showbiz, the manner in which he went about it helped to establish a stereotype thankfully we have left behind, one of the lazy, slow-witted black man who was subservient to whites and at times borderline incomprehensible. What was frustrating was that Fetchit, or Lincoln Perry as he was actually named, was an intelligent man who found himself trapped by playing this personality; it made him the first African American actor to be a millionaire, so you could observe he had the last laugh.

Or you could if he had not lost his fortune thanks to poor financial decisions, though he went on to reconcile his place in history with many who found him embarrassing come the Civil Rights movement, which was pleasing, but didn't change the fact his performances are difficult to enjoy when they are so loaded with controversy, and so it is here. He plays well with Hardy and Hattie McDaniel (who won her groundbreaking Oscar that year - not for this) as the housekeeper, and interestingly the film didn't shy away from the racial issues, as Dr Tibbett cites the Declaration of Independence as proof all men are created equal, and has Zeke recite the whole thing at climactic courtroom scene where the doctor has been accused of stealing the elephant's affections. This is a scheme by Jeff's mother (Alice Brady) to break up the engagement she snobbily disapproves of, indicating Tibbett's tolerance is not greeted likewise by many of the townsfolk, but in the main this was mild comedy and animal-based slapstick we were offered, with any serious concerns sincere but light. Music by Marvin Hatley.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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