Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Hat Mix-up Routine

A gag can sometimes travel an odd route.  Laurel & Hardy made it their stock-in-trade to occasionally mix up their derbies by mistake.  Hardy would look silly in a derby too small for his head and Laurel would look silly in a derby too big for his head.  The routine made its debut in Do Detectives Think? (1927).

Director Leo McCarey presided over a number of these derby mix-ups starting with one fast-paced version featured in the 1928 comedy We Faw Down

Years later, this comic business came up again when McCarey was put in charge of adapting the stage play The Awful Truth into a film.  The play had already been the subject of two previous film adaptations and McCarey decided to make his adaptation different by reshuffling scenes and inserting more exaggerated comedy into the proceedings.  As it worked out, he centered a pivotal scene on another hat mix-up.  Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are having second thoughts about finalizing their divorce.  Grant arrives at Dunne's home to discuss the matter without realizing that Dunne has another visitor - suave music professor Armand Duvalle (Alexander D'Arcy), who was the cause of their break-up in the first place.  Dunne quickly hides Duvalle in her bedroom for fear that Grant might get the wrong idea.  Grant is getting ready to exit the home when he picks up the wrong hat - Armand's hat - and the hat, which is much larger than his own, slips down over his eyes.  Grant becomes suspicious and soon discovers Armand.

Ray Milland recreated this scene in a musical remake of The Awful Truth called Let's Do It Again (1953).  Writer Richard Matheson was watching this very scene when a strange idea popped into his head.  Matheson imagined a man suddenly finding his clothes are getting smaller and coming to the realization that he is shrinking.  The strange idea went on to form the basis of the sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Interestingly, Bob Hope got the idea he was shrinking when he mixed up hats in Never Say Die (1939).

In a span of thirty years, the hat mix-up routine went from inspiring slapstick comedy to inspiring screwball comedy to finally inspiring science fiction.  That is truly a hat trick.

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