By Doug Gibson
"Zenobia," a 1939 Hal Roach comedy feature is an charming film, albeit one that failed to attract audiences. It's mostly forgotten today, except for routine once-a-year airings on Turner Classic Movies. The film, from Hal Roach, pairs rotund Oliver Hardy with silent- and early-talkies era comedian Harry Langdon. This was because Hardy's iconic partner, Stan Laurel, was engaged in a contract dispute with Roach. Langdon, a close friend of both Laurel and Hardy, stepped in to film "Zenobia," with no real intention of taking Stan Laurel's place, although there was talk of a second Hardy/Langdon feature, that ended after "Zenobia" failed at the box office. Laurel eventually returned to Hal Roach, but soon after the pair left for good, moving to 20th Century Fox.
But let's talk about "Zenobia." It takes place in Carterville, Mississippi, in the post-Civil War deep South, although to be honest the residents there appear to have been spared the recent horrors of war. Hardy plays -- way out of character -- Dr. Henry Tibbett, a mild-mannered country doctor whose finances are a bit shaky because long ago he decided not to use his medical skills to get wealthy. Nevertheless, he lives in a rented mansion with Mrs. Tibbett (Billie Burke), his daughter Mary (Jean Parker) and their three servants, Zero (Stepin Fetchit) Dehlia (Hattie McDaniel) and their child Zeke (Phillip Hurlic). Daughter Mary is engaged to marry a rich young man, Jeff Carter, played by James Ellison. Jeff's snobbish mother, Mrs. Carter (Alice Brady) loathes the match is working to get back with a former girlfriend, Virginia, played by June Lang.
Despite this subplot, this is a gentle film, and no matter how dastardly the machination of Mrs. Carter and Virginia to dash Jeff and Mary's love, there's never any danger of the pair being split up. All ends well and even mean Mrs. Carter apologizes at the end. What's most interesting is that Burke -- who was Glinda the Good Witch in Wizard of Oz -- provides most of the comedy, and not Hardy. Burke proves herself adept at comedy, playing a scatterbrained but quick-witted, and loyal spouse to Hardy's gentle, good-natured Dr. Tibbetts. (watch a scene of Burke's wit above)
This domestic set up is damaged by the performance of Fetch-it as the servant, Zero, who perpetuates a racist stereotype that unfortunately was a part of Hollywood in that era. "Zero" mumbles, whines, cowers and cringes throughout the film. However, the contrast between his performance and that of McDaniel is interesting. McDaniel, who won an Oscar as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, delivers a strong performance, in which she never surrenders her dignity or self-respect.
Now, time to mention the main plot and Harry Langdon's excellent contribution to "Zenobia." Langdon plays Professor McCrackle, a traveling tonic salesman who also has an elephant, named "Zenobia," who travels with him. One day, when Zenobia is feeling poorly, McCrackle begs Dr. Tibbetts to treat his elephant. Because he's such a nice man, Tibbetts treats Zenobia. His treatment works so well that the elephant becomes enamored of the doctor and won't leave him alone, following poor Hardy's doctor and occasionally picking him up. Upset that he's no longer number one with his elephant, Langdon's McCrackle is convinced, with some help by the scheming Mrs. Carter, to file an alienation of affection lawsuit against Dr. Tibbetts.
It's an amusing plot, and Langdon is excellent in scenes with Hardy. He's too good a comedian and actor to try to imitate Laurel. Instead, Langdon utilizes his understated comedic talents and blend of timidity, deadpan blank face and "Little Elf" voice to generate a fair share of laughs. His best scenes with Hardy are when Zenobia is being treated by the doctor, as well as his efforts to keep the elephant away from Hardy's Tibbetts. In the final courtroom scene, which is the strongest point of the film, Langdon is hilarious as he is constantly interrupted while trying to testify using a memorized script.
So why did the film fail? It cost $637,000 and grossed only $351,000 worldwide, according to the Langdon biography "Little Elf. " It's not Langdon's fault. One reason may be that audiences were so used to Laurel and Hardy comedies that they couldn't accept Oliver Hardy in a role that was mostly non-comedy. In fact, when he's treating Zenobia is the closest he gets to traditional "Hardy comedy" and audiences probably wanted more. Also, while Burke is very good in comedy, and witty, it must have seemed strange to audiences to see her, and not Oliver Hardy, getting the laughs. Another reason may be that there is very little drama in this comedy. As mean as Mrs. Carter, Virginia, and others are, you don't really feel that there's any tension in the film. The New York Times described Zenobia as "Gone With the Wind" as devised by Hal Roach, and there's truth to that. Carterville seems like somewhere in NeverLand, an alternative multiverse. Finally the biggest reason Zenobia failed so badly was that the public didn't want to see Hardy with anyone else other than Stan Laurel.
The New York Times also gave props to Langdon, writing (from Wikipedia) "...Harry Langdon has adopted the partnership prerequistes formerly reserved for Stan Laurel...Harry Langdon's pale and beautifuly [sic?] blank countenance...has probably already excited the professional jealousy of Mr. Laurel..."
However, Langdon never intended to attempt to supplant Laurel, a man who went out of his way to help Langdon through tough stretches in the 1930s, and is due a lot of credit for providing momentum that insured the last several years of Langdon's career was fairly busy, and prosperous.
Zenobia is worth watching, and I'm glad it's frequently on TCM, as it provides both a glimpse at the versitility of Oliver Hardy and the comic talents of Harry Langdon.