(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)
Pack Up Your Troubles is a mixed kit bag indeed. Those who criticize Laurel & Hardy’s later Twentieth Century-Fox features for being too disjointed conveniently forget that many of The Boys’ features for Hal Roach — such as this one — can stand well on their own where disjointedness is concerned.
Laurel had no qualms about re-working plotlines from L&H’s silent films into their later talkies. So it’s surprising that Duck Soup was a forgotten L&H silent film for so long, since this feature begins with that short’s motif — an officer putting Stan and Ollie to work — right down to using the silent film’s easily recognizable park setting (from the look of things, maybe even the same park bench). The only change here is from the relatively minor chore of fighting a forest fire to getting enlisted in World War I.
The movie’s military scenes are fairly funny, particularly the one where Stan and Ollie mistake sarcasm for genuine orders and deposit some garbage in the general’s quarters. (Director George Marshall made his non-ballyhooed acting “debut” as the menacing Army cook when the real actor failed to show up. He does a fine job as a L&H villain worthy of comparison with Walter Long and Rychard Cramer.)
Then the gooey subplot kicks in. Stan and Ollie’s Army buddy Eddie Smith offers the movie its tired complications. Eddie is estranged from his parents because they quarreled about the woman he married, and Eddie’s baby daughter gets dumped in his lap by his departing wife. When Stan and Ollie try to find out the names of Eddie’s parents, Eddie stubbornly refuses to give in to their request. So you know darned well that somehow or other, Stan and Ollie are going to get stuck with the kid.
Sure enough, Eddie gets killed in battle, and Stan and Ollie rescue the child from a guardian brutal enough to have warranted the rescue scene to be edited out of early TV prints of the movie — not exactly the kind of thing to get us in the mood for comedy. Then Stan and Ollie try to find the grandparents and quickly discover there are far too many Smiths in the world. (The movie’s best single gag might be Stan returning from Poughkeepsie to report about a red-herring Smith he checked out.)
The movie’s attempt to milk Stan and Ollie’s poverty for comedy is a bit strange. They run a lunch wagon to keep afloat, and at one point they are menaced by an ill-tempered social worker (Beau Hunks‘ Charles Middleton) who aims to get the girl placed in an orphanage. In his 1975 L&H book, John McCabe claims that Ollie’s riposte to the social worker was the origin of a much-told one-liner. But when Ollie says it backwards — “How much would you charge me to haunt a house?” — one wishes Groucho Marx had been present to deliver the line instead.
Stan and Ollie’s attempts to get their lunch wagon “refinanced” are also strained. When the bank president realizes what The Boys are trying to use for collateral, he laughs derisively and tells them he’d have to be unconscious to grant such a request. Conveniently, a ceramic bust is made to fall on the man’s head and knock him cold. We’re then meant to believe that Stan and Ollie take the man’s remark literally and are thus free to abscond with the money. But surely not even Stan at his most brain-dead could misinterpret this remark in such a way as to make The Boys commit a crime.
The movie does have a cute wrap-up, if you make it that far. But Pack Up Your Troubles clearly shows that Laurel and his creative staff were still having their problems stretching The Boys’ antics to feature length.