'Riding High'


In 1950, Oliver Hardy made his final solo appearance without his partner, Stan Laurel. Bing Crosby was filming "Riding High", Frank Capra's remake of his own 1934 racetrack story "Broadway Bill". Bing was an old racetrack and golf course crony of Babe Hardy's, so when Bing's latest picture called for a perennial loser on the ponies, Babe seemed a natural choice – after all, it was a role Bing saw Babe play often in real life!

Oliver Hardy minus Stan laurelIt was strictly a cameo, and Babe leaped at the opportunity to poke a little gentle fun at himself. In the film, two of Bing's cohorts – a phony Southern colonel (Raymond Walburn) and his sidekick (William Demarest) – are looking for an easy sucker to gyp out of some betting funds. The mark is Babe ("Pick ‘em and pluck ‘em", chortles Colonel Walburn), who appears to be having a devastating run of luck. But for 20 bucks, Demarest will provide Babe with the name of a sure winner -- Doughboy. Babe's to keep it strictly to on the Q-T, but he spreads the word like wildfire: "Put all your money on Doughboy!"

Word soon spreads its way to Walburn, who gets swept away in the hysteria. He puts Babe's 20 bucks on Doughboy – who, of course, finishes dead last. The scene ends with a semi comatose Babe being carried away, muttering "Doughboy" over and over and over ...

It's an interesting scene for a lot of reasons, beginning with Babe's entrance. The camera starts at Laurel and hardy Oliver in Riding Highhis feet (and a litter of losing betting stubs), pans up his corpulent frame, and stops at his derby-topped face. It's almost as if Capra is springing a surprise on the audience, teasing them before announcing, "Hey, look who it is!". But you have to wonder: Would audiences in 1950, who hadn't seen a new Laurel & Hardy movie in five years, even recognize Ollie? Or was the roly-poly figure with the bowler hat so firmly ingrained as an icon that audiences would automatically start laughing?

Bing Crosby and Oliver Hardy in Riding HighJohn McCabe describes Babe's character in "Riding High" this way: "This is not Ollie. There is no time in the film for this individual to become anyone." But you could look at this fellow as a twist on Ollie – that is, Ollie without Stan. We first hear him muttering about his wife, in fear of explaining his losses. You can almost picture Mae Busch at home with a rolling pin! But where is Stan, to help him stand up to the missus and scheme up an alibi? This "Ollie" is just a shell of himself without Stan.

As for Walburn's scam, it certainly would have been much funnier if Stan had been invited to play. Stan would be easily duped but hesitant, while Ollie – man of the world that he is – could have confidently taken charge and handed over ALL their savings. (Minus two bucks for the bet, of course!) End the scene on "Here's another nice mess ..." and you could have had a memorable vignette with the boys – one, perhaps, that might have helped to re-establish Laurel & Hardy in Hollywood.

 by Chris Sequin .


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