‘Zenobia’ Blu-Ray Review – Oliver Hardy Gets Upstaged By An Elephant In Vintage Comedy

If you ask anyone to name a classic comedy duo from the Golden Age of Hollywood, it is almost certain that they will mention either Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. Comedy teams allowed audiences to witness an interplay of personalities which brought out the best out of each performer, and these two pairings were among the best to ever be seen on screen. They were so powerful together that it was often odd to see them apart from one another. In the late 1930s, Stan Laurel was in a contract dispute with Hal Roach (The Little Rascals), who had put both Laurel and Oliver Hardy into separate contracts rather than a team contract to give them less power when dictating their careers. Roach thought he could get around this by forming a new team; Harry Langdon was a comedic star from the silent-era of films who never quite hit in the talkies, so by pairing him with an already established comedy superstar there was hope sparks would fly. Unfortunately, this effort, 1939’s Zenobia directed by Gordon Douglas, was a massive failure and Hardy soon got to return to working with Laurel. The film is an odd one in the career of Hardy, but there is enough interesting material within it to satisfy fans of the performer. 

The film lures you in with a false sense of what the actual plot might entail. We first see young Mary (Jean Parker) in some of the film’s opening scenes accepting the proposal of Jeff Carter (James Ellison). Carter’s family is known for its prominence, which leads Mary to fear that his mother (Alice Brady) will not look kindly upon her parents, Dr. Tibbett (Hardy) and his spacey wife (Billie Burke). Dr. Tibbett is a kindly man who can often be found practicing medicine free of charge to those of little means, but such actions are more admirable on a human level than in a class sense. Those who are familiar with Hardy may be surprised to see him playing the role in a reserved register rather than something more combative. Dr. Tibbett is thrilled that his daughter is getting married, but he is none too thrilled that his daughter has to worry about these two families seamlessly blending. She has reason to worry, though, as Carter’s mother meets her expectations and slyly plans various schemes that might reveal to her son that his fiancee is not good enough for him. 

So this is a story about the culture clash between two families, right? Not exactly. We have not even gotten to Harry Langdon and the titular Zenobia yet. Langdon plays a traveling snake oil salesman named Professor McCrackle who has a beloved pet elephant named Zenobia. Whenever Zenobia starts feeling unwell, McCrackle tricks Tibbett into trying to help her out, but in the end he does such a good job that Zenobia “falls in love” with him and starts following him around instead of McCrackle. This leads to a ridiculous court case in which Tibbett gets sued by McCrackle for “alienation of affection.” If you did not read the synopsis, there is no way you could have seen this coming. Now, Langdon is not Stan Laurel, but he does a fine enough job inhabiting this more defeated character. The problem is that he does not have the essential chemistry with Hardy necessary for major laughs, plus they barely have any scenes together throughout the narrative. The key scenes between them at the beginning as Tibbett inspects Zenobia offers the best witticisms and physical comedy.

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There is something intriguing about seeing Hardy play someone less volatile, but if we are being honest he gets more mileage out of his bigger characters. The stealth comedic duo in this film is actually Billie Burke and Alice Brady. Burke can be a bit too broad with her characterization at times, but she absolutely nails the scene in which she has to keep changing the menu to suit the fussy Brady. The actual romantic couple at the center of the film are fairly bland, but the movie does not dwell on them overly long. The most eyebrow-raising aspect of this film is the depiction of African Americans. The film takes place in 1870 so the depictions of the servants lean into the mammy and empty-headed caricatures that can be hard to stomach. Stepin Fetchit does his best to make his depiction garner laughs, but seeing him in that position at all is objectionable. The film even fumbles a chance to note the irony of a young black boy reading the Declaration of Independence to save the day, but the concept of “all men are created equal” apparently only goes so far with these characters. 

Racist portrayals are not the sole downfall of this movie; any classic film fan has to be prepared for the possibility of such egregious material popping up and everyone has their own scale of what they can tolerate. Zenobia falters more in its inability to weave its two narrative threads together in a way that feels natural. The action with the elephant is fun because elephants are adorable, but it seems out of left field when we are supposed to be dealing with this elitist family. There are plenty of good laughs to be had throughout, but there is enough here to give you pause and realize that it is not anywhere near the greatest comedies of yesteryear. The total rejection of audiences of the team was unwarranted, but by the time you reach the end you will be glad that Hardy found his way back with his one true partner. 

Video Quality

Zenobia makes its Blu-Ray debut thanks to ClassicFlix with a brand new 1080p master from a new 2K restoration from the original 35mm nitrate film elements. Especially after you view the restoration comparison in the special features, you can see what a truly magical presentation that is. The new transfer shows off a great amount of depth and enhanced detail within the film’s composition. Black levels are very deep with no overwhelming occurrence of black crush or compression artifacts. There are a few instances where white levels bloom just a bit. The contrast is well defined, and the track only experiences the most minor specks of damage and scratches. The gorgeous black-and-white photography shines in high definition with natural grain intact. There is a pleasing amount of detail present with nice textures on the clothing and within the production design. ClassicFlix has done some excellent work here. 

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Audio Quality

The Blu-Ray comes with a decent DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track that serves this movie as well as can be expected given the age of the source material. Dialogue and background noises are represented in perfect harmony with all competing elements, even if it can sound a bit hollow. This track does present with a minor amount of age related wear and tear and some slightly shallow sounding music. The music never overpowers the dialogue or other important information. There are optional English (SDH) subtitles included for the feature film. The folks at ClassicFlix have done their best to prove the most stable track possible for this one. 

Special Features

  • Restoration Comparison: A five-minute video which gives some background information on the restoration efforts undertaken by ClassicFlix and a demonstration of the material before and after being cleaned up. The difference is significant!
  • Trailers: There are trailers provided for Africa Screams, Casanova Brown, Merrily We Live, The Noose Hangs High, and Out Of The Blue.

 

Final Thoughts

Zenobia is a peculiar entry into the career of Oliver Hardy that yields a decent number of laughs but does not feel completely baked like his work with Stan Laurel. The film does surprise by showing off a comedic prowess from Billie Burke that you otherwise may have overlooked. ClassicFlix has given new life to this unique piece of film history with a new Blu-Ray featuring a fantastic A/V presentation. If you are a Laurel and Hardy fan, you will want to check this out just for the sake of curiosity. Thankfully, you will also get a few laughs out of it. 

Zenobia is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.  

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: ClassicFlix has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.

 

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