A collegiate comedy that offers cross-dressing, a touch of sci-fi and a water ballet
This wacky two-reel comedy was produced by Hal Roach during the period when he was still looking for a star performer. In 1926 the Our Gang kids were the studio's biggest draw. Harold Lloyd had long since departed, and although Charley Chase was making some great comedies he somehow never got the acclaim he deserved. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were each under contract to Roach in '26, but not yet performing as a team. At this point Stan preferred to work behind the camera: he directed Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes but did not appear in it. He didn't receive a writing credit, either, but the gags have a distinctly "Laurel-esque" flavor.
This film's top-billed performer is Helene Chadwick, a perky young lady who slightly resembles Colleen Moore. Our setting is a college, and we're told that Helene's character manages a popular clothing store near the campus, and is "needle-and-threading" her way through school. In keeping with most collegiate comedies there are no scenes showing students in class or doing any scholastic work whatsoever. Instead, the young folks shop, swim, and dash around all night in the dorms dressed in pajamas. (Ah, dear college days!) Miss Chadwick is a fairly pleasant leading lady but doesn't make much of a lasting impression, while most of the heavy lifting, comedically speaking, is handled by good ol' Jimmy Finlayson, who plays the college's sour-tempered Dean. Things kick into gear when a student devises a "magic plaster" that acts as a rejuvenation agent, restoring youth to anyone who comes into contact with it. Perhaps it goes without saying that it's the stuffy Dean who accidentally sits on the plaster and then spends most of the film's running time cavorting like a college boy --and an unusually silly one, at that. The comic highpoint comes when Finlayson and Helene Chadwick dive into the campus pool and perform a surreal underwater courtship ballet, complete with slow-motion "chase."
The most unexpected player here is Ted Healy, as the student who concocts the magic plaster. Healy was a vaudeville comic who formed the original Three Stooges, known as Ted Healy & His Stooges in their initial stage incarnation; he went on to work solo as a character actor in lots of '30s features. Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes marked his movie debut and was I believe his only appearance in a silent film. I've heard that Healy was a tough, hard-living guy, so his performance in this comedy surprised me: he comes off as downright fey, at one point skipping and dancing like Eddie Cantor. Later, he dresses in highly unconvincing drag and runs around the dorm in a dress. Go figure.
The first half of this film is fairly entertaining but it runs out of steam before the finale. Much as I enjoy the unique comedy stylings of Jimmy Finlayson I feel his shtick works best in brief doses, in support of other comedians, and neither Chadwick nor Healy are strong enough personalities (here, anyway) to pick up the slack by themselves. Even so, this short has its moments, and fans of the Roach Studio's silent output will want to give it a look.
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