When I mention the name of “Hal Roach,” the first thing you generally think of is the legendary producer-director’s “Lot of Fun,” which was responsible for many of the funniest comedy shorts in the 1920s/1930s, with stars like Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase and Our Gang. Every so often—and this is something that’s touched upon in Richard M. Roberts’ reference book, Smileage Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter—Roach experimented beyond his comedy safe room…a great example being a series of quickly-made westerns starring “Rex, the King of Wild Horses.” The debut film of the amazing stallion—a sort of equine equivalent of Rin-Tin-Tin, whose films in the 1920s were producer Daryl F. Zanuck’s ticket to bigger and better things (in fact, Rex and Rinty teamed up for a pair of serials in the 1930s: 1934’s The Law of the Wild and The Adventures of Rex and Rinty the following year)—was titled The King of Wild Horses (1924), and featured Roach star Charley Chase in a small “straight” role.
Other successful films to follow included Black Cyclone (1925—starring Guinn “Big Boy” Williams of Riders of Death Valley fame) and The Devil Horse (1926—with ace stuntman-director Yakima Canutt). 1927’s No Man’s Law has much of its footage featured in the Robert Youngson compilation 4 Clowns (1970), because the villain of Law is played none other than by Oliver Norvell Hardy.
Hardy is “Sharkey Nye” (love that name) in Law, a thoroughly unrepentant reprobate who’s partnered with Spider O’Day (Theodore von Eltz)—a man whose rap sheet isn’t quite as long as Sharkey’s but who’d definitely have difficulty passing a sainthood exam. The two men happen upon a gold mine claim owned by grizzled prospector Jake Belcher (James Finlayson), who’s working the digs with his adopted daughter Toby (Barbara Kent). Jake hasn’t been too successful in the prospecting game, but his new mine has revealed a wealth of untold riches…one that Sharkey and Spider would only be too happy to relieve him of the burden and responsibility. Our bad guys cause a cave-in that leaves Jake with a pair of busted legs—and are about to finish him off when Toby happens along with new horse pal, Rex.
The four principals spend a night together in Jake’s cabin, with Sharkey and Spider wondering why the old cuss just doesn’t die already. Toby starts to take a shine to Spider, and there is much friction between him and his partner because of this. Sharkey and Spider play a game of checkers to decide who will croak the old geezer and get the mine (oh, and the girl) but when Spider wins, Sharkey shoots him with a rifle mounted on the cabin wall. Sharkey goes after Toby—and it’s implied that he wants a little more from her than just “condescending to his escortage,” to paraphrase a title card from the Laurel & Hardy comedy Double Whoopee (1929)—and that’s when the heroic Rex goes into action, tearing up Jake’s cabin and stomping Mr. Nye into a little ol’ greasy spot. The film concludes with the prospect (sorry about the pun) that Toby and Spider will start a life together.
To be honest: if Oliver Hardy and Jimmy Finlayson (the marvelous character actor who played the squinting nemesis in so many of Stan & Ollie’s films) weren’t in No Man’s Law, it’d probably be a fairly forgettable oater; the casting of these two clowns in “straight” roles (I put straight in quotes because Fin does kind of provide a bit of comic relief) is the novel draw, though you can’t discount actress Kent’s nude swim in the movie (made possible via a moleskin body suit) which is certainly not without its charms if you know what I mean, and I think you do. A 1927 Photoplay review is most laudatory of Kent, calling her “a very charming leading lady and show[ing] a great deal of promise” but ultimately dismissing the fifty-five minute feature as “for Rex fans only.”
I had already seen the footage cribbed from the film in 4 Clowns, and No Man’s Law had been on my radar for quite some time—I ran across it in the clearance bin at my friend Martin Grams’ Finders Keepers, and decided to take it for a test drive. The Finders Keepers version is the same as the one that is offered by Sinister Cinema (there’s an “SC” watermark on the film for about the first half-hour), and I think ReelClassicDVD and Grapevine Video also have it on hand. (The website Silent Era says that both the 2008 Sinister release and the 2011 Grapevine version were mastered from a 16mm reduction print.)
At the time Oliver Hardy appeared in Law, he was already working with Stan Laurel though the duo weren’t officially being billed as “Laurel & Hardy.” But Ollie’s a real hoot in this film; you can catch him doing bits of “Hardy” business throughout (the scene where he dumps Fin out of a wheelbarrow could have been featured in an L&H short), and it’s curious that his Sharkey doesn’t wear a cowboy hat but rather a battered derby (sound familiar?). Many have pointed out that Hardy was responsible for some first-rate character performances in non-L&H vehicles (his role as John Wayne’s sidekick in The Fighting Kentuckian is frequently singled out for praise) and I really enjoyed watching him in this. Hardy’s Nye is just an unpleasant individual—watch him in the beginning as he and von Eltz’s O’Day are eating by a campfire; Sharkey doesn’t even bother with the niceties of a knife and fork. Later in the movie, as Nye lasciviously watches Toby bathe in the altogether (Toby, not Sharkey), he sticks his finger in his ear, looks at it, then wipes it on his shirt. (Nice!) The subtlest thing about the character is that he wears an eye patch over one orb…even though there’s nothing wrong with his eye, which suggests that he’s so dishonest even his patch is a fabrication.
It’s not escaped notice that No Man’s Law is fairly racy stuff for your average oater—the frolicking of Ms. Kent in a mountain stream is evidence enough of that, but there’s something virginally sexual about Babs that was probably put in place to give Hardy’s character motivation for wanting to ravish the young maiden. Toby is introduced wearing a man’s nightshirt, the size of which is a bit too big and allows the audience a tantalizing peek of shoulder. There are a number of titillating scenes with Kent’s character disrobing, and she exhibits a coquettish flirtatiousness in her scenes with von Eltz’s Spider that serve to magnify her charms. (A while back I bought the Criterion DVD of Lonesome , in which she stars with Glenn Tryon, on the recommendation of Dennis Cozzalio and I hope to have a look at it one of these days.) I’ve seen Kent in movies like Flesh and the Devil (1926) and her turns as Harold Lloyd’s leading lady in Welcome Danger (1929) and Feet First (1930) and am a huge fan (she’s got a nice Mabel Normand quality about her); but if not for the fact that she has a fierce protector in star Rex the Horse (and you can’t tell me that’s not odd) I think Toby would have been in trouble some time ago.
I imagine that most diehard Laurel & Hardy fans have already made an acquaintance with No Man’s Law—but on the off-chance you haven’t, Oliver’s villainous turn makes it well worth a look-see, and Barbara Kent is the cherry on the sundae. (Sorry about that—probably could have phrased that a little better.) Finlayson does a few “Fin squints” in the film (the fun thing about Fin’s silent work is that you can even hear him in your head saying “D’ohhhhh…”) and von Eltz makes an okay hero though he’s a bit bland for my tastes. (Von Eltz had a prolific career in silents, appearing in such films as Manslaughter and Bardelys the Magnificent, before settling into character roles in the sound era—you’ve probably seen him as the slimy Arthur Geiger in 1946’s The Big Sleep.) Apart from this film and the 1931 serial The Vanishing Legion, I haven’t seen too much of Rex’s work—but his delivery of comeuppance to nasty ol’ Sharkey Nye is definitely something that remains in the memory.