Saturday, February 12, 2005

Obscure Comedians Ate My Brain!!! part two: Pat and Patachon

Before Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and Laurel and Hardy, one double-act dominated international film; Carl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen, known in most countries as Pat and Patachon.

It is generally accepted that Pat and Patachon were the world's first internationally famous comedy team. They began their career in Danish short comedies in 1921 and then branched out into features produced throughout Europe and the UK. By the late 1920s, Pat and Patachon's European popularity rivaled Chaplin's, being particular favorites of Soviet and German audiences. The outbreak of WWII brought their film activities to a near halt, their last film as a team being produced in Denmark in 1940. Schenstrøm died two years later at the age of 61. Madsen retired from movies until 1948 when he tried to revive the act with a new partner, Carl Reinholdz. He died the following year at the age of 59.

Soviet audiences in the 1920s loved Pat and Patachon. The team's unmistakable physiques were exploited for some truly beautiful Russian avant-garde movie posters. This is the cover of a 1926 souvenir pamphlet from my collection.

Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible for me to properly assess the merits of Pat and Patachon. Their films are extremely rare in Europe, let alone the US. A scant two titles have been released to video, Mädchenräuber and Blinde Passagiere (both 1936). I've seen the latter and thanks to 8mm home movies, I've also seen silent clips from their first talkie, Alf's Carpet (1929) and Pat und Patachon im Paradies (1937). Besides the scarcity of material, there are language and cultural barriers to deal with as well. Much like Laurel and Hardy, Schenstrøm and Madsen's characters are naive rubes who frequently run afoul of a sophisticated world, having nothing but one another to cling to for support. But unlike Laurel and Hardy's urban-dwelling innocents, Pat (the tall one with the mustache and putty nose) and Patachon (the short one) are earthy rural bumpkins and much of their humor seems to derive from their inability to adapt to modern life. In 1920s Europe, it's not hard to imagine the appeal to audiences who themselves were becoming accustomed to increasingly speedy lifestyles. But eighty years later it seems that much, if not most, of P&P's "fish-out-of-water" humor has been hopelessly diluted. And when it comes to slapstick, the pacing of the material I've seen is so measured and deliberate as to drain the life from as simple a gag as getting a kick up the backside. Watching Blinde Passagiere was like wading through molasses with 80 pound weights chained to my ankles.

Wonderful poster art, dull movie..

Blinde Passagiere presents Pat and Patachon as animal caretakers employed by a cash-strapped circus. The troupe is departing by ocean liner to New York (I think) and Pat and Patachon are tearily dismissed at the dock by the circus owner's lovely daughter. But a chase after a lottery ticket Pat has purchased leads both to accidentally end up on the ship as stowaways. Also on board without a ticket is the circus owner's daughter's bland accordian-playing beau, who ends up teamed with P&P a la Allan Jones in A Night At the Opera. Needless to say, after lots of running around and ducking in and out of doorways, the circus is saved, the boy gets the girl, the oily villain gets the shaft, and Pat and Patachon end up with a winning lottery ticket. The only real surprise is how few actual visual gags there are in the film. There's a lengthy scene in which P&P feed the circus animals (stealing food from the ship's kitchen to do so) that contains not one single gag, unless watching a chimpanzee eat can be considered a gag. Later, when Pat and Patachon are chased around the deck by the ship's cleaver-wielding cook, the entire sequence was shot silent and clearly improvised. Pat and Patachon were literally left to their own devices, and the results are at least as good as your great aunt's home movies. (In fact, this sequence is so off-the-cuff that the chase at one point stops entirely and cuts away to a shaky, out-of-focus shot of Patachon standing on the deck, pointing to a Zeppelin in the sky. Although the name of the zeppelin can't be made out on film, it's either the LZ-127, Graf Zeppelin, or its ill-fated sister ship, the LZ-129, Hindenburg, which made its first flight in March of 1936.)

This latter-day criticism from someone who doesn't even speak German may be completely unfair to the team. They're certainly likable enough, projecting a kind of blissful Harry Langdon-like innocence. It's also likely that their best, and funniest, work was done in silents. The director who teamed them in Denmark, Lau Lauritzen, definitely has a solid reputation of his own. But funny or not, Pat and Patachon's historical importance is undeniable. And, hell, any comedy team that can spawn a pair of imitators called "Rat and Ratachon" has my attention, anyway.


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