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The Bootleg Files: Zenobia

BOOTLEG FILES 581: “Zenobia” (1939 comedy starring Oliver Hardy, Harry Langdon and Hattie McDaniel).

LAST SEEN: An unauthorized posting from a TCM telecast is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A 1997 VHS video release.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A film that slipped through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is not a priority.

In 1939, producer Hal Roach announced that he was creating a new film that teamed Oliver Hardy with Harry Langdon. This was not something that Hardy welcomed, but he had no choice. Hardy and his longtime partner Stan Laurel were signed to separate contracts with Roach – their teaming came about by accident rather than design – but after a dispute involving the production of the team’s 1938 feature “Block-Heads,” Roach terminated Laurel’s contract. With Hardy still under contract for another year, the producer looked about for a vehicle to fit his rotund comedy star.

But how did Langdon fit into this scenario? The one-time silent film superstar had a rough transition to the talkies, and by the late 1930s he had problems getting on-camera work. He joined Roach’s studio as a gag writer on “Block-Heads” – earlier in the decade, he was starring in the studio’s two-reelers – and the producer imagined that he could relaunch Langdon’s career as a substitute for Laurel.

However, the first Hardy and Langdon film, “Zenobia,” did not present the performers as a comedy team, despite a surplus amount of publicity still with the pair posing in Laurel and Hardy-style situations. Instead, Langdon has a supporting role while Hardy is given the rare opportunity to shine as a light comedy character actor.

“Zenobia” takes place in 1870 in the small town of Carterville, Mississippi. It is a typical Hollywood reinvention of the Old South, with nary a trace of the Reconstruction tumult to be found. Hardy plays Dr. Henry Tibbett, a beloved doctor with a gentle sense of humor. When the father of a newborn baby boy asks the doctor how much he needs to pay for his services, the doctor looks at the man’s five girls and says with a laugh, “This one’s on me!”

The Tibbett home becomes the center of social attention when the doctor’s daughter Mary (Jean Parker) is engaged to Jeff Carter (James Ellison), the son of a prominent local family. But there is bad blood between Dr. Tibbett and Jeff’s mother (Alice Brady) – the woman is a hypochondriac and the doctor refused to indulge her phony illnesses, which resulted in her arranging for the town’s better families to boycott his practice. That denial of access to wealthy patients, coupled with the doctor’s penchant for helping those who cannot afford to pay him, has resulted in the Tibbett family being at much lower economic level than the Carters. Indeed, things are so bad that the Tibbetts had not paid the salaries of their cook (Hattie McDaniel) and butler (Stepin Fetchit) for a year, although neither complained about being kept in unpaid servitude.

Needless to say, Mrs. Carter is upset with the engagement and schemes to terminate it. While she is plotting, the doctor gets a call from one Professor McCarkle (Langdon), a snake oil salesman in a traveling carnival. It seems the professor’s elephant Zenobia has fallen mysteriously ill – and while Tibbett protests that he is not an “elephant doctor,” his bravely tries to find what is ailing Zenobia. But it seems he is a little too successful – the quickly-cured Zenobia is so grateful that she follows the doctor out of the carnival and throughout the town, with the enraged professor launching a lawsuit against Tibbett for alienation of Zenobia’s affections.

Will Mary and Jeff manage to get married despite his mother’s meddling? Will the professor get Zenobia to come back to the carnival? Well, what do you think?

Although the basic core of “Zenobia” is silly and predictable, there is a great deal of curious business laced through the movie. For starters, while the film engages in predictable racial stereotyping involving McDaniel and Fetchit, there is a strange (for 1939) subplot of Dr. Tibbett sharing his obsession for the Declaration of Independence with a young black boy (Philip Hurlic), who is encouraged by the doctor to memorize and recite the patriotic text. It is a lopsided call for equality, not only in terms of race but class status – the doctor cites Jefferson’s document for his desire to treat the less wealthy members of his community, albeit the poor whites.

It also seems that while Hardy was more than credible in taking over a sophisticated and complex role – his scene when he explains his ethical convictions to his daughter offered a degree of maturity and humility that very few actors could pull off credibly. But Roach was not ready let go of the “Ollie” persona of the Laurel and Hardy films. Thus, there is some slapstick involving the doctor’s examination of Zenobia – the elephant sits on him, he winds up hanging from a ceiling rafter, the elephant picks him up, and so forth – as well as few overdone “Ollie” double-takes that feel out of place for someone of Dr. Tibbett’s personality. But the film makes no attempt to recreate Langdon’s adult-baby persona from the 1920s, let alone a Laurel imitation. Instead, he mostly plays his role straight, and is he quite effective as both the unrepentant charlatan of the carnival stage and the worried parent of the sick pachyderm.

Roach put a great deal of care into “Zenobia” and brought in a lot of talent on both sides of the camera. And for a work that some critics dismissed as a throwaway flick, the film carried a hefty amount of Academy Award cred. Among its cast, Billie Burke (just coming off an Oscar-nominated role in the Roach production “Merrily We Live”) played Tibbett’s flighty wife, while Alice Brady received an Academy Award for her role in “In Old Chicago” and Hattie McDaniel would win the Oscar for another film about the Old South that was released in 1939. The Academy Award influence was also felt behind the camera: director Gordon Douglas helmed the Oscar-winning Our Gang short “Bored of Education” while cinematographer Karl Struss earned his Oscar for the silent masterpiece “Sunrise” and composer Marvin Hatley was Oscar nominated for “Way Out West” and “Block-Heads.”

Sadly, “Zenobia” was a box-office flop when it was released – audiences wanted Laurel and Hardy, not the Hardy and Langdon teaming that Roach falsely promoted. Sensing that the title might have confused audiences, the film was rechristened “Elephants Never Forget” for its British release. While few moviegoers saw the film, those who were among the early purchasers of televisions caught it in 1948, when “Zenobia” had its small screen premiere with broadcasts on KTLA in Los Angeles and WPIX in New York.

A VHS video of “Zenobia” was released in 1997, but to date the film has been absent from the U.S. DVD market. However, an unauthorized video posting on YouTube (taken from a TCM presentation) provides the opportunity to enjoy this odd but interesting endeavor. And despite its imperfections, “Zenobia” has a peculiar charm and it is not deserving of the obscurity it has received.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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