In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult.
1939 film: Zenobia (1939)
Release date: April 21, 1939
Cast: Oliver Hardy, Harry Langdon, Billie Burke, James Ellison, Jean Parker, Alice Brady, June Lang, Olin Howland, J. Farrell MacDonald, Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit, Hobart Cavanaugh, Zenobia the elephant
Studio: Hal Roach Studios
Director: Gordon Douglas
Set in 1870, Dr. Tibbett (Oliver) is a country doctor who no longer cares for the rich people in town. His daughter Mary (Parker) becomes engaged to Jeff Carter (Ellison), whose mother Mrs. Carter (Brady) is one of the high society people Dr. Tibbett used to care for and Mrs. Carter doesn’t believe Mary is good enough for her son. Mrs. Carter schemes for her son to marry Virginia (Lang). Amidst the engagement news, Dr. Tibbett tries to care for a carnival elephant, Zenobia.
• Oliver Hardy’s first film without Stan Laurel since their comedic partnership began. It was his only film where he was a solo lead. Hardy released three films in 1939, and “Zenobia” was the only film Hardy made without Stan Laurel.
• Jean Parker was in six films released in 1939.
• James Ellison was in five films released in 1939.
• Working titles were It’s Spring Again and Zenobia’s Infidelity
• Roland Young was considered to play the lead
• Hattie McDaniel is billed as Hattie McDaniels
My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Most people don’t know Oliver Hardy without Stan Laurel. From the start of their comedic career, one wasn’t seen without the other — until 1939.
In 1939, Stan Laurel broke his contract with Hal Roach Studios, and Oliver Hardy was cast in his first and only solo, lead role. Rather than the frustrated man in a tizzy, Hardy plays a country doctor, Dr. Tibbett, who tired of caring for imaginary illnesses for the rich people in town. He cut ties, because he felt he was being phony and wanted to care for people who truly needed him. Hardy’s character is also a sweet and doting father. His decision to no longer care for the wealthiest family in town has put the rest of his family in trouble.
Dr. Tibbet’s daughter, Mary played by Jean Parker, is in love with Jeff Carter, played by James Ellison, who has proposed. Mary worries Jeff’s mother, played by Alice Brady, won’t give her consent due to the Tibbett’s social standing.
A carnival comes to town and Zenobia the Elephant is ailing, so her trainer, Professor McCrackle (Harry Langdon) calls for Dr. Tibbett. The problem is, Zenobia takes to Dr. Tibbett and begins following him around.
“Zenobia” (1939) easily could have been an over-the-top, zany and annoying comedy. But it’s not. This is a sweet and charming movie that is really very cute.
Though his performance and this film weren’t appreciated by critics and audiences in 1939, Oliver Hardy gives a very warm and subdued performance. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see this side of him more often.
Though Harry Langdon wasn’t a stand-in for Stan Laurel, 1939 publicity built him up that way. But Langdon and Hardy really aren’t a comedic duo in this film. Though they have a few funny scenes together, but their characters don’t have equal screentime, and I feel like Langdon’s role is supporting while Hardy’s is a lead.
While “Zenobia” (1939) is generally overlooked in the film lists of 1939, it is fairly important as far as the screen team of Laurel and Hardy goes. This is the first film Oliver Hardy made since his collaboration began in 1927 that Hardy acted without Laurel. The film was supposed to star the comedic team, however, Stan Laurel didn’t resign his contract with Hal Roach. Hardy still had time left on his contract and proceeded with the film.
Outside of Hardy, the supporting cast is top-notch as well. Billie Burke played her usual dizzy and confused matron, playing Hardy’s wife. But somehow you never can hate her confused characters, because of her little chirping voice.
Jean Parker is as lovely as ever in the film, and James Ellison is reliable as always. These two generally were in lower budget films in the late-1930s and early-1940s, but are always pleasant to see on screen.
We also see Hattie McDaniel in this film, and little Philip Hurlic reciting the Constitution is a highlight.
Of course, the true star of the film is Zenobia the elephant.
Is “Zenobia” (1939) the top film of 1939? No. But it is an awfully pleasant comedy that deserves your attention.