Sure is a long way from those Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia . . .
Here's a genuine oddity: a feature-length silent Western produced by the Hal Roach Studio and featuring two of the studio's most famous comedians, Oliver Hardy and James Finlayson, in serious roles. Actually, the top-billed star of NO MAN'S LAW is Rex the Wonder Horse (and no, I'm not kidding), for this film was made at the height of the "animal adventure" craze initiated by the great success of dog star Rin Tin Tin. Rex is certainly a magnificent-looking stallion, but he isn't our protagonist; he turns up only occasionally at key moments to perform good deeds while the plot is driven primarily by the actions of the humans on hand. Hardy in particular has a great deal of screen time, albeit in a role that could hardly be further afield from the way we tend to remember him.
It should be noted that this isn't the kind of Western that boasts cattle stampedes, large scale shoot-outs, hostile Injuns or the Pony Express; there isn't even a saloon. In fact, the entire cast consists of only four people, stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The story concerns an old miner (played by Finlayson) and his daughter (Barbara Kent) who live in a tumbledown shack in a remote portion of a bleak and dusty desert. Here they are menaced by a pair of villains, one of whom, Spider O'Day (Theodore Von Eltz), turns out to be better than he seems, while the other, Sharkey Nye (Hardy), is a no-good, greedy, sadistic, cowardly sleaze-ball. That's right, this movie gives us a look at what happens when dear old, tie-twiddling Ollie goes bad, and it's not a pretty sight. Hardy himself is made to appear quite ugly: his hair is buzzed short, he's unshaven, he wears an eye-patch over one eye, and his clothes are so stained with sweat you can practically smell him.
I happened to see NO MAN'S LAW at a public screening with a small audience, and perhaps it goes without saying that Hardy's initial appearance was greeted with chuckles. And indeed, his first scene with Von Eltz has elements of intentional humor, as when Sharkey expresses his fear of dying in the desert and winding up as food for buzzards. Ollie's expressions and gestures are just as we remember them, and his get-up looks funny at first. But as the movie rolled grimly along it became increasingly clear that this would be no comedy, and the laughter dwindled. The mood of NO MAN'S LAW is quite gloomy and dark, as the heart of the story concerns violent conflict between the male characters over the possession of a gold mine-- and, eventually, over the fate of the miner's daughter. Sharkey Nye proves to be an absolute rotter who attempts to kill the old man and rape the girl. As a lifelong Laurel & Hardy fan it's difficult to describe how I felt while watching Ollie portray this character. Seeing him try to actually murder Finalyson can only be compared to seeing Elmer Fudd blasting away at rabbits and ducks with real buckshot. It's only the fact that Sharkey is such an inept and ultimately unsuccessful villain that keeps this movie from being an even more disturbing experience than it already is.
On a more pleasant note, youthful leading lady Barbara Kent is cute as a bug, making her entrance flouncing around the shack in a pair of over-sized pajamas and later taking a nude swim, very much like Mabel Normand in MICKEY. (Mabel's longtime director Richard Jones, who helmed MICKEY, acted as supervisor on this film and co-authored the script, so the similarity is surely no coincidence.) Miss Kent, who rather resembled Paulette Goddard, brings some vivacity and desperately needed perkiness to this project.
In sum, NO MAN'S LAW is certainly a fascinating novelty for Laurel & Hardy fans-- and, of course, for any remaining fans of Rex the Wonder Horse --but it's not exactly a joy ride, and I must confess I was a little relieved when it was over. Relieved, and ready to take another look at WAY OUT WEST or SONS OF THE DESERT, to help expunge Bad Ollie from my thoughts and remember the guy who always makes me laugh.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?