Even though the 1936 Laurel and Hardy feature The Bohemian Girl is not ranked among their best by the duo’s fervent fans or film historians, I have a fondness for it because I saw it at an early age before I was even aware of their silent films or the movies which would later become all-time favorites – Way Out West (1937), A Chump at Oxford (1940) and Sons of the Desert (1933). What stood out were the hilarious sight/audio gags such as Ollie’s bafflement at his partner’s slight-of-hand tricks, the horse scrubbing sequence, and Stan’s switch from high soprano to basso while singing; those have a resonate power to make you laugh in the worst of times. Unfortunately, most operetta aficionados dislike it because the music is secondary to the narrative and is not given a showcase deserving of the libretto. And L&H devotees find the music as insufferable and annoying as those musical passages in the MGM Marx Brothers comedies where you just want the boys to get on with their business. For those who fall between both camps and have never seen The Bohemian Girl, this is your homework.
After the financial success of Fra Diavolo (1933, aka The Devil’s Brother) and Babes in Toyland (1934, aka March of the Wooden Soldiers), producer Hal Roach was temporarily convinced that Laurel and Hardy fared best in screen adaptations of popular operettas. As a result, the film rights to Michael Balfe’s 1843 musical, The Bohemian Girl, were secured and the boys found themselves playing gypsies in 17th century Bohemia. Despite some tailoring to fit the comic duo’s unique talents, the movie version of The Bohemian Girl (1936) was partially faithful to the original operetta with Stan Laurel cast in the atypical role of a gifted thief and Oliver Hardy as his friend and cuckolded husband of a shrew (Mae Busch) who flirts openly with her lover, Devilshoof (Antonio Moreno). When Devilshoof is punished by Count Arnheim’s soldiers for an offense, he takes revenge by abducting Arline (Darla Hood of Our Gang fame), the only child of the Count. Soon Devilshoof and Ollie’s wife run off with Stan’s stolen jewels, leaving the boys to raise the little girl on their own. Twelve years later, Arline (now played by Julie Bishop) has blossomed into a beautiful gypsy girl but is put in harm’s way when her community is persecuted as undesirables by the Count and his menacing henchman, Captain Finn (James Finlayson).
Despite a light and whimsical tone, The Bohemian Girl is dark around the edges unlike most of Laurel and Hardy’s features from this period. Those who saw this film as children will be forever haunted by the grotesque final shot of the boys, emerging from a torture chamber – Ollie stretched by the rack to the size of a giant while Stan has been crushed down to dwarf size. Could there be a more graphic representation of Laurel and Hardy as outsiders and social outcasts? The sexual humiliation suffered by Ollie is also front and center with Mae Busch puncturing his ego at every opportunity. First, she deceives him over the identity of the abducted child, Arline, in this exchange:
Hardy: Whose kid is that?
Busch: It’s none of your business.
Hardy: What do you mean it’s none of my business? I demand to know.
Busch: Well, if you must know, she’s yours.
Hardy: Mine? Well, why didn’t you tell me before?
Busch: Because I didn’t want her to know who her father was till she was old enough to stand the shock.
But Hardy’s pride in being a father is quickly crushed by Busch’s farewell note: “Thanks for the jewels. I am leaving you forever. P.S. You are not the father of that child. Your wife.” The hurt is further compounded by Stan’s thoughtless comments on the situation which only add salt to the wounds.
But if The Bohemian Girl occasionally flirts with more disturbing plot elements, it is a much more carefree affair than the actual filming of the movie. It was supposed to be co-directed by Hal Roach and James Horne but Roach was so preoccupied with running his own studio that the project was turned over to Horne and Charley Rogers. In the midst of filming, Stan remarried his second wife, Virginia Ruth Rogers (the first ceremony wasn’t legal), and then came down with the flu, halting production. Then, tragedy struck. A few days after the film’s sneak preview, co-star Thelma Todd was found dead in her garage, the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Rumors would soon surface stating that her death was arranged to look like a suicide and that she was actually murdered over her business dealings with high profile mobsters involving her profitable roadside cafe on the beach. It was no secret that Todd was once married to a henchman of infamous gangster Lucky Luciano.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding Todd’s death were never solved but Stan, who was a close personal friend of the actress, requested that most of her scenes be deleted from the film prior to release since they would only generate the wrong kind of attention from the press and reviewers. Although she can still be glimpsed in the film, most of her scenes were reshot with Zeffie Tilbury in the role of the Gypsy Queen’s daughter; even her one remaining song in the film was dubbed by someone else.
While The Bohemian Girl was in production in Hollywood, Europe was entering a dark period in history. In September of 1935, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws which stated that citizens ‘not of German blood’ would be disenfranchised – an edict that would have a devastating effect on non-Aryan residents. In this light, the subtext of The Bohemian Girl with the Gypsies being harassed and persecuted by the Count is even more telling, though this aspect was less obvious to American audiences than it was to Europeans.
While not as popular as some of Laurel and Hardy’s previous efforts such as Sons of the Desert (1933), The Bohemian Girl delighted most of the comedy team’s fans. Mussolini was said to be a rabid fan of the comedians and actually approached Hal Roach in 1937 with a business proposition involving the creation of Cinecitta studios and possible film collaborations. Not surprisingly, the deal with Il Duce was quickly nixed when Roach’s more politically astute colleagues pointed out his ignorance of the current world situation.
Interestingly enough, when The Bohemian Girl played Italy, it was seen as a subversive film by Fascists and it encountered censorship around the globe. According to Simon Louvish in Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy, the movie “caused Japan, Sweden and Norway to ‘delete scenes of Gypsy kissing.’ Hungary deleted scenes in which ‘Hardy, awkwardly and for comedy effect, holds up and attempts to rob a gentleman’, and Latvia decreed: ‘Delete scene of Laurel’s wife hitting him and Hardy’s wife striking him on head with a spoon.'” The Bohemian Girl was banned outright in Nazi Germany for dealing sympathetically with Gypsies, who were ranked with Jews as a pariah people.
Of course, few of these complaints can be taken seriously when viewing The Bohemian Girl today. What remains is a handsomely produced period comedy with some unexpected twists – Stan playing a more resourceful and occasionally aggressive version of himself as a change of pace – and a few classic routines, the most famous being the scene where Stan agrees to help Ollie bottle homemade wine and gets slaphappy drunk in the process. An inebriated Stan wasn’t an uncommon sight in a Laurel and Hardy feature; he’d already done a drunk scene in the previous Fra Diavolo and would do so again in Swiss Miss (1938) but here alcohol makes him bold and fearless before his more formidable enemies, a situation that only heightens the hilarity.
* This is a longer and revised version of my article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website
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