(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
As the final film of Laurel & Hardy’s Hal Roach era, one wants to like Saps at Sea more than one eventually does. It’s not as painful as, say, Utopia, but there’s certainly an awful lot of filler here — no small feat for a movie only 57 minutes long. Critics of L&H used to say that their weaker features suffered from “padding.” This one has enough padding to serve as L&H’s exploding mattress in They Go Boom!
The, er, story here is that Stan and Ollie work at a horn factory, and the loud noise from the horns eventually drives Ollie to a nervous breakdown. Reaching, maybe, but still plausible. But as soon as Ollie’s boss tells him to go home and relax, and Stan and Ollie leave the factory, laboriousness ensues. Stan and Ollie’s car horn gets stuck, and Stan semi-wrecks the car in his efforts to stop the horn, while a crowd of onlookers laugh at his antics.
(It’s an unwritten law of cinema that the harder on-lookers laugh at the on-screen comic, the less funny his antics are; witness Jerry Lewis’s Hardly Working, where dozens of extras seem to have been hired for the sole purpose of guffawing at The Star.)
The situations at Stan and Ollie at their apartment are pretty mechanical, too. Ollie’s doctor (James Finlayson!) makes Ollie use his “lung tester,” a balloon that you know in a second is there only to explode the apartment. Then the apartment gadgets go haywire — water comes out of the left faucet when the right one is turned on, the refrigerator plays music while the radio freezes over, etc., etc., ad nauseum. L&H seem to be rehearsing some unsung 20th Century-Fox writers for future material here.
Things get a little livelier when Stan and Ollie board a dockside boat to calm Ollie’s nerves. An escaped killer named Nick (Rychard Cramer) hides out on the boat, which is inadvertently set to sea, and Nick “shanghais” Stan and Ollie. Cramer, whose best-known previous L&H stint was as the hostile judge in Scram!, is definitely one of the most memorable L&H villains ever. His scenes provide suspense and hilarity.
Even for its offhandedness, Saps at Sea provides some nice moments of nostalgia, including the final L&H appearances of Finlayson, Charlie Hall, and Ben Turpin. It even ends with Ollie telling Stan, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” (You think this is a nice mess, Ollie? Wait until you get to Twentieth Century-Fox!)