The Soilers (Hal Roach, 1923)
I continue my look at silent films with gay themes:
The sissy is a stock character, common in silents, although he neither began nor ended there. Very rarely he gets to be the star, but usually the sissy is in a supporting comic relief role. He’s flamboyant, has stereotypically gay mannerisms, dress, and speech, and is assuredly meant to be read as gay, but how his sexuality is addressed varies from film to film. Most of the time, it simply isn’t mentioned at all. Sometimes he’ll be given a nominal female love interest – sometimes in addition to a less overt male one, letting those in the audience choose to see what they want to see. What’s uncommon is a film where the sissy is explicitly and undeniably gay, but The Soilers (1923) is just such a film.
In the early 1920s, Stan Laurel acted in a series of spoofs of popular films (Mud and Sand, When Knights Were Cold, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde, etc.), most shot and released only months after the originals hit the screen. The Soilers is a spoof of The Spoilers, first a novel by Rex Beach, twice adapted for the silent screen in 1914 and 1923.
In The Spoilers, Roy Glenister stakes a claim during the Alaskan gold rush that proves to be immensely valuable. The government and law enforcement are both corrupt and under the control of Alexander McNamara, who abuses the courts to steal Glenister’s claim. I can’t say for sure about the book, because I’ve never read it, or about the ’23 film, because I’ve never seen it, but in the ’14 version at least, the story culminates with a knock-down-drag-out fight between Glenister and McNamara that lasts so long and gets so violent that it’s ludicrous. The Soilers broadly covers the same ground: Bob Canister (Stan Laurel) strikes it rich, Smacknamara (James Finlayson) jumps his claim, and it ends with an even more cartoonishly violent, prolonged flight.
But the topic of this review is gay characters. In The Spoilers, a woman named Cherry Malotte is in unrequited love with Glenister. In The Soilers, the Malotte equivalent is a sissy. He doesn’t have a name, so I’ll give him what in the 1920s was considered a stereotypically gay name, Clarence.
We first see Clarence shortly after the fight breaks out. Canister and Smacknamara are brawling across the table when Clarence walks in from the back room. He shows not the slightest care for the fight, but walks up to the table, moves Canister’s head aside, and carefully selects one of the papers. He then turns and strolls out, much to the amazement of the fighters, who’ve paused to watch him leave. They’re interrupted several more times in a similar manner. Eventually, the fight makes its way to the back room, where we see Clarence calmly filing his nails as Canister and Smacknamara try to kill each other.
The fight drags on and winds up downstairs in the saloon. Canister, at last, is victorious, but no one seems to care much – not his mining partners and certainly not Helen (Ena Gregory), whom Canister had been in love with. One person is impressed, however. From the window, Clarence clasps his hands at his heart and cries “My hero!” Canister shrugs him off. Clarence picks up the potted flower from the windowsill, gives it a smell, and then drops the pot on Canister’s head. Canister goes down and the street cleaners toss him in the back of the garbage truck.
The Soilers was originally a two-reeler, but that version isn’t in circulation today. I’m not sure if it even survives. I’ve seen the commonly available one-reel cut-down several times and have multiple copies of it in my collection. It’s focused on the fight – the lead-up is trimmed almost to nothing. A while ago, I obtained a copy of the international release, which is also a one-reel cut-down, but it’s a different cut – one that preserves considerably more of the pre-fight sequences. I never really liked The Soilers before, but the additional footage greatly improves the film. Who knew that it actually had a plot after all?
The fight is overly long, and while I’m sure that’s on purpose and part of the parody, it’s still the weakest part of the short. There’s one cut scene that I found funnier: Canister visits the town of Ping-Pong for the first time, which we’re told “is a peaceful place… you might be indiscriminately massacred in the streets, but in perfect tranquility”. There’s a shoot-out going on between everyone and everyone else, with Canister strolling down the center of it all, casually stepping over bodies. It’s very simple, but it’s a good spoof of the original film and the humor flows naturally from it. The fight sequence just tries too hard, in my opinion.
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon