This week’s mystery movie was the 1939 Hal Roach production “Zenobia,” with Oliver Hardy, Harry Langdon, Billie Burke, Alice Brady, James Ellison, Jean Parker, June Lang, Step’n Fetchit, Hattie McDaniels, Phillip Hurlic, the Hall Johnson Choir and “Miss Zenobia.” Directed by Gordon Douglas, screenplay by Corey Ford from an original story by Walter De Leon and Arnold Belgard. Photography by Karl Struss, photographic effects by Roy Seawright, art direction by Charles D. Hall, set decoration by W.L. Stevens, musical score by Marvin Hatley, gowns by Omar Kiam, wardrobe supervision by Harry Black, produced by A. Edward Sutherland.
The film is usually described as being set “in the antebellum South” but it takes place in 1870.
“Zenobia” was released on VHS but has never been commercially released on DVD in the U.S. French Amazon is selling a copy for 9.99 Euros.
A tip of the hat to Howard Mandelbaum for suggesting “Zenobia” a few months ago, when I said I was running out of circus pictures to use as mystery movies.
Writing in the New York Times (May 15, 1939), B.R.C. said (warning: racist language ahoy):
A rough idea of what would happen to “Gone With the Wind” if Hal Roach produced it may be obtained from “Zenobia” (at the Globe), an antebellum, costume romance in slapstick, in which an elephant adopts Oliver Hardy and, it appears, Harry Langdon has adopted the partnership perquisites formerly reserved for Stan Laurel.
In line with Mr. Roach’s familiar policy of tossing every loose idea, person or property around the studio into his scripts, the picture also contains Billie Burke, Alice Brady, Stepin Fetchit, the Hall Johnson choir, the Declaration of Independence recited by one of Mr. Roach’s comic pickanninies, an elephant and June Lang. If you don’t find something to like in that program, you’re probably the type that’s bored at circuses.
For Monday, we have a mystery lad.
Update: This is Philip Hurlic.
For Tuesday, we have a mystery merchant who is stunned by such goings-on.
Update: This is Tommy Mack.
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (Monday’s mystery lad) and E. Yarber (mystery movie and Monday’s mystery lad).
For Wednesday, we have two mystery guests who do NOT approve of such goings-on.
Update: This is Billie Burke and Robert Dudley.
Brain Trust roll call: E. Yarber (Tuesday’s mystery guest), Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie and Tuesday’s mystery guest), Sylvia E. (mystery movie and Monday’s and Tuesday’s mystery guests) and Mike Hawks (mystery movie and Monday’s and Tuesday’s mystery guests).
Be sure to come back Saturday to read Mr. Yarber’s entries on the mystery movie. Most enlightening!
For Thursday, we have the mystery love interest of the picture….
Update: This is Jean Parker and James Ellison.
… and our mystery lad has some non-mysterious companions.
Update: This is Hattie McDaniel, Philip Hurlic and Stepin Fetchit.
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (Wednesday’s mystery guests), Gary (mystery movie and all mystery guests), Jenny M. (Wednesday’s mystery woman), E. Yarber (Wednesday’s mystery guests and a nice entry on the film), Sarah (Wednesday’s mystery woman), Mike Hawks (Wednesday’s mystery guests), David Inman (Wednesday’s mystery woman), Anne Papineau (Wednesday’s mystery woman), Sylvia E. (Wednesday’s mystery guests) and Lee Ann, Megan and Thom (Wednesday’s mystery woman).
Update: This is Harry Langdon.
Update: This is Zenobia and Oliver Hardy.
Brain Trust roll call: Mike Hawks (Thursday’s mystery guests), Mary Mallory (mystery movie and all mystery guests), Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s mystery guests), E. Yarber (Thursday’s mystery guests and another interesting entry on the history of the film and its stars), Beachgal (mystery movie and all mystery guests), McDee (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests), Hawked Off (Monday’s mystery lad), Anne Papineau (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests), Tucson Barbara (mystery movie and all msytery guests), Sylvia E. (Thursday’s mystery guests), Sue Slutzky (Thursday’s mystery guests), Lee Ann, Megan and Thom (mystery movie and mystery guests), Sue Slutzky (mystery movie and all mystery guests), Roget-L.A. (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests) and Benito (mystery movie and mystery pachyderms).
An interesting guess. But alas, I’m afraid not.
Philip Hurlic in Zenobia?
Today is Tommy Mack, a bit player who left Hollywood in the late 40s, apparently for Australia since that’s where he turned up for a final 1972 credit in a Harry Secombe comedy.
With Zenobia itself, the natural question for anyone to make with a Oliver Hardy comedy is “Where’s Stan?” To answer that, we have to begin with the rather startling admission that the comedy partnership of Laurel and Hardy was originally as contrived as the musical group known as The Monkees.
Hal Roach had two comedy series in the 1920s: Harold Lloyd and Our Gang. Now, the kids in Our Gang could be replaced as soon as they got old enough to ask for money (Philip Hurlic included), but when Lloyd went off to bigger things, Roach was left without a central comedian. He responded by creating an adult version of the Our Gang team known as the All-Stars. This was sort of the Celebrity Big Brother of its day, featuring actors whose names might have been familiar though their careers were on the downswing (like Mae Busch, who had worked with Sennett and Von Stroheim in better days).
Stan Laurel was fronting a series of movie parodies produced by Joe Rock when Roach got a distribution deal with MGM, the top of the line. Laurel broke his contract with Rock and signed with Roach, figuring he’d easily dominate the All-Stars and become the next Lloyd. Unfortunately, Oliver Hardy, who had more experience and versatility, was also appearing in the films. Director Leo McCarey realized he now had two strong players and began experimenting with them as a team, shifting the balance between them from comedy to comedy until the right chemistry began to emerge. Stan fought this process at first, but came to realize that Hardy brought him the popularity he sought.
However, since Laurel and Hardy had come to Roach separately, their individual contracts were renewed at different times. Roach was able to use this to keep them from lobbying him as a unit for Lloyd-like salaries even after they’d graduated from shorts to successful feature films. In frustration, Stan finally decided to sit out a year and wait until Hardy’s contract was up at the same time.
Roach decided this was the time to divide and conquer, so he began tempting Hardy with solo projects, of which Zenobia was the only one to see the screen. It was the second feature by Our Gang director Gordon Douglas, between the OG spinoff General Spanky and and L&H’s final Roach film Saps at Sea. Gordon would move on to a long career helming such performers as Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and giant ants.
Tommy Mack in ZENOBIA.
Not sure of the movie yet.
Mon. – Philip Hurlic
Okay. The movie is Zenobia 1939
Mon – Philip Hurlic
Tues – Tommy Mack
Weds. – Billie Burke (I think) and Robert Dudley
Philip Hurlic and Tommy Mack in ZENOBIA.
Chic Sale today.
Interesting guess, but alas, I’m afraid not.
Billie Burke and Robert Dudley.
From Monday: Philip Hurlic, Tommy Mack, Robert Dudley, and Billie Burke in Zenobia.
Billie Burke and ?
Wednesday brings us Preston Sturges regular Robert Dudley standing beside Billie Burke, the same year she broke into Technicolor as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz. Her casting here was undoubtedly a result of concurrently playing the similarly bewildered Mrs. Topper in Hal Roach’s series of ghost comedies. The Topper films were a contributing factor in the making of Zenobia because at the time Roach saw them as a way of breaking out of the slapstick film market and allowed him to risk breaking up his previous meal ticket, Laurel and Hardy, with this Hardy solo venture.
As Hardy’s wife in Zenobia, Burke presided over a domestic staff consisting of Hattie McDaniel and Stephen Fetchit, who had played similar roles a few years earlier for Will Rogers in John Ford’s Judge Priest. Zenobia was clearly meant to invoke the same small-town Southern atmosphere, something that would have deeply appealed to Oliver Hardy’s sense of roots, and the subplot of two young lovers kept apart by social caste was pretty much the same in both films.
While Ford gave Rogers scenes with the black characters that crossed the racial divide, however, the servants were generally subordinate here. Hardy’s scenes with Fetchit’s “Zero” show the employer having little patience with the fumbling character and Fetchit revealing none of the flashes of concealed intelligence that Ford gave him in Priest or Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, where he was implicitly one of the gang. This was the year of Gone With the Wind, after all, a time when the post-Civil War South was lionized. (A newspaper insert in Zenobia sets the story in 1870, a generation before the events of Rogers’ Judge).
The message here is summed up in a scene between Hardy and Hurlic where the doctor informs the little boy that his medical bag has black pills and white pills with different purposes. While we always have to keep the timeframe of old movies in mind, this is a bit more explicit rhetoric than say, Pardon Us, where Laurel and Hardy go into blackface to blend with a benign set of cotton pickers, a scene bringing Hardy back to his early days in minstrel shows. While the racial aspects here aren’t overtly ugly, they do show us the assumed norms of the time. Still, Ford breaks up the climactic trial of Judge Priest with the non-sequitur of a patriotic appeal to the Confederacy, while the climactic trial here breaks up after the non-sequitur of Hurlic reciting the Declaration of Independence, so at least these characters seem content with the way the war ended.
I’m not sure what movie this is, but I know actress Billie Burke when I see her.
Billie Burke and Robert Dudley.
Billie Burke today?
Wednesday, I do believe that is Billie Burke.
Billie Burke for today.
Jean Parker, James Ellison, Hattie McDaniel, Stepin’ Fetchit
ZENOBIA. Philip Hurlic Monday, Tommy Mack Tuesday, Billie burke and Olin Howland yesterday, Jean Parker and James Ellison, and Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit, and Hurlic today.
Jean Parker & James Ellison; Hattie McDaniel & Stepin Fetchit.
The second picture is of McDaniel, Hurlic and Fetchit, who were discussed in my previous comment. Fetchit’s career was slowing down by this time. After appearing in seven films in both 1934 and 1935, Zenobia was his only appearance in 1939, and he wouldn’t reappear until a 1943 short. After Ford had him reprise his Judge Priest role in 1953’s The Sun Shines Bright, he’d make a few cameo appearances in the 1970s after becoming a notorious symbol of racial stereotyping.
Having previously noted the influence of Gone With the Wind on the attitude toward the South here, we can’t forget the Oscar-winning performance of McDaniel in that film. She’s not the only cast member in both, however. Olin Howland, who plays an obnoxious lawyer in Zenobia, reappears as an obnoxious carpetbagger in GWTW.
James Ellison, the youthful lead in picture #1, was Hopalong Cassidy’s first sidekick and would be the male lead in Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie. If one wonders how infuriated Stan Laurel was with Hardy’s solo turn here, Ellison’s love interest Jean Parker turns up in the RKO vehicle The Flying Deuces shortly thereafter, directed by Zenobia’s producer Eddie Sutherland with Harry Langdon as one of the writers. Obviously Laurel was not carrying a grudge over the picture.
In fact, this is a good point to examine the Laurel and Hardy features made immediately before and after Zenobia.
Stan made Block-Heads knowing full well that this would be the final project before his contract expired, and possibly the last Laurel and Hardy film ever. Hal Roach was doing everything possible to suggest Laurel was out for good. He proposed putting Ollie in a new series of domestic comedies (though MGM already HAD a Hardy Family) and also played up a new Langdon and Hardy team (an announced follow-up to Zenobia was never made).
One can easily view Block-Heads as a commentary on the situation. Stan and Ollie are introduced in the trenches of WWI. Their commander orders them to separate. Hardy goes off with the crowd, while Stan is left in limbo, presumed dead. On his own, Hardy becomes a simpering henpecked husband, much like he may have become in the family series Roach had considered. Stan reappears and proceeds to destroy the tenuous order Ollie had tried to create without his partner. In what could have been our final view of L&H, the fully reunited pair are chased off camera while an enraged husband fires an elephant gun at them. If this was the end, they weren’t going peacefully.
While this may seem a harsh view of Hardy, who had been a successful star in his own right for years before McCarey paired him with Laurel, Stan corrected the balance once Roach finally relented and signed them as a team.
A Chump at Oxford was their comeback feature, though The Flying Deuces was released first because L&H returned to the Roach studio to shoot additional footage for the former. In Chump, the big revelation is that the loyal, humble Stanley character established for over a decade has been a sham all along. The “real” Stan turns out to be an insufferable genius who threatens to break up his partnership with Hardy through sheer arrogance. Only in the final moments of the film is order restored and Hardy delighted to be reunited with the Stanley we’re familiar with.
It may be taking things too far to see any commentary in their next vehicle, Saps at Sea (directed by Zenobia’s Douglas), but there are still parallels when we consider that this is their last film for Roach. Laurel and Hardy buy a boat that isn’t meant to leave the dock. When they’re set adrift with the help of a hungry goat, they find themselves at the mercy of a ruthless stowaway. In real life, the team certainly left their original creative home for uncharted waters at Fox and MGM, and soon discovered their work was now under the control of studio retainers who had little interest in the comedy style they had so carefully developed.
This week’s movie is Zenobia.
Monday we have Philip Hurlic
Tues is Tommy Mack
Wed’s actress is Billie Burke along side Robert Dudley
Thurs we have as our lovers, Jean Parker and James Ellison
Thurs we also have Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel along with Phiip Hurlic
Friday we should have Oliver Hardy and Harry Langdon
For Thursday we have James Ellison, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit. I believe the movie is Zenobia from 1939.
‘Mystery Lad’ in Monday and Thursday mysteries looks to me like Philip ‘Lucky’ Hurlic (1927-2014)
Was leaning toward “Zenobia,” and now that I see Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit, Zenobia it well may be.
Monday – Philip Hurlic
Tuesday – Tommy Mack
Wednesday – Billie Burke and Robert Dudley
Thursday – Jean Parker, James Ellison, Hattie McDaniel, Philip Hurlic, Lincoln Perry
Thursday: Tom Brown and Anita Louise in “Judge Priest”
Thurs – Jean Parker and James Ellison
Hattie McDaniel, Philip Hurlic and Stepin Fetchit
I’m guessing that tomorrow will bring Oliver Hardy and the title elephant, Zenobia
This was a fun one. Looking forward to Saturday as usual and to the extra info from Mr. Yarber.
Fri – Forgot to include Harry Langdon with my ‘Oliver Hardy and Zenobia’ guess yesterday.
Also Thursday: Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit. I’m not sure about the little boy.
For today, it’s Zenobia with Jean Parker, James Ellison, Hattie McDaniel, Phillip Hurlic, and Stepin Fetchit/Lincoln Perry. Wednesday’s other guest is Robert Dudley. Tuesday’s is Tommy Mack.
Disregard most of my last comments. I have figured out the movie. It’s “Zenobia.” So, Monday’s guest is Philip Hurlic. Tuesday: Tommy Mack, Wed: Billie Burke and Robert Dudley, Thurs: Jean Parker and James Ellison, and Hattie McDaniel with Stepin Fetchit.
Thursday: Jean Parker, James Ellison, Hattie McDaniel, Philip Hurlic and Stepin Fetchit. The mystery movie is Zenobia (1939) from Hal Roach Studios.
Zenobia 1939, starring TWO elephants! That poor kid will have to recite the Declaration of Independence soon.
Harry Langdon; Oliver Hardy.
Harry Langdon, Oliver Hardy, and Zenobia.
Miss Zenobia and her co-stars Harry Langdon and Oliver Hardy.
For Friday we finally get down to Harry Langdon, Zenobia herself, and Oliver Hardy.
In his contentious autobiography “The Name Above the Title” (AKA “The Axe Beneath the Grinder”), Frank Capra presented a devastating portrait of Langdon as an overextended non-entity whose career went straight to oblivion as soon as Capra wasn’t in charge of it. This harsh view has unfortunately been one that everyone encountering the comedian has had to surmount ever since.
In reality, Langdon handled the Hollywood meat market as well as anyone. If he made it to the top of the ladder, he soon settled into place a rung or two beneath. Harry never stopped working, but simply wasn’t in the limelight. Keaton had an even worse fall and wound up in cheap shorts before getting a handhold back into the majors with Red Skelton. If Langdon had lived long enough to see James Agee’s famous 1949 essay on silent comedians, in which he was ranked with Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, he might have had the chance to begin a second career as Keaton managed to do.
Stan Laurel brought Langdon in as a writer on Block-Heads, A Chump at Oxford, The Flying Deuces and Saps at Sea. Given that Stan’s own future with Roach was looking bleak at the time, he could easily have felt that he’d also end up an off-camera gagman somewhere (which is how he began with Roach in the first place), and extended Langdon the same opportunity he would hope for himself. After Saps at Sea, Laurel and Hardy left not only Roach, but their supporting cast, crew, and creative control.
Though Roach needled Laurel with declarations that Zenobia would be the start of a new Langdon and Hardy series, Langdon’s role is so secondary that you could just as easily see Zenobia as the beginning of the new Hurlic and Hardy team. Playing a more mature character than the man-child he established in silents, what we see here is probably closer to the persona Langdon had in his Vaudeville years, where his biggest sketch was as a motorist confronted with a collapsing automobile. He carries off the part of a traveling snake oil salesman with a good mixture of bombast and vulnerability, but it’s not a breakout role.
Hardy himself had to step into a part written for Roland Young, who would have been paired with his Topper wife Billie Burke in an attempt to draw the audience from those films. If you watch a lot of Hardy’s non-Laurel work, it’s obvious that “Ollie” was only one of the characters he was able to play. When Stan was sidelined with diabetes after their final Fox film, he gave his blessing as Hardy appeared solo with John Wayne in The Fighting Kentuckian (Wayne spent the shooting in awe of his co-star) and a cameo in Riding High (directed by Langdon’s nemesis Capra, of all people).
As for poor Zenobia, she never got over being typecast as an elephant. Any future roles she may have found were strictly uncredited, just another face in the crowd.
Harry Langdon, Oliver Hardy, and the eponymous Zenobia
Friday – Harry Langdon and Oliver Hardy.
For Friday (as predicted) we have Oliver Hardy and Harry Langdon