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.
The following is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, a blog project that is so epic, it took three blogs to host it! (Click on the appropriate blog name [to follow] to read each section of the blogathon.)
At the beginning of Laurel & Hardy’s movie Block-Heads (1938), Stan and Ollie are part of an army company in World War I that is preparing to go “over the top.” Private Stan has been ordered to stay behind and guard the trench until further notice. Stan quietly tells Ollie, “Gee, I wish I was going with ya. Take care of yourself, won’t ya?”
Ollie kindly replies, “Don’t worry about me, Stan. I’ll be back. We’ll all be back.”
This is simply the beginning of an hour-long, typically silly romp with Stan and Ollie. But the real Laurel & Hardy couldn’t have guessed how prescient those words would be.
Since the beginning of Laurel & Hardy’s success as a comedy team in 1927, their movies’ producer, Hal Roach (above, center), had kept Stan and “Babe” (as Hardy was affectionately known off-screen) under separate, overlapping annual contracts. In other words, when Stan’s contract was due to expire, Babe’s contract would still have another year to run, and vice versa. Roach later admitted that this was his way of keeping power over the comedy duo.
Upon the completion of Block-Heads, Stan left the Roach Studios amidst a flurry of lawsuits going back and forth between Roach and Laurel for various reasons. Due to the animosity between the two men, it was widely believed that Block-Heads might be the last-ever Laurel & Hardy movie. Meanwhile, Babe remained under contract with Roach. Publicly, Roach did his best to appear nonchalant about the separation.
In the 1920’s, Harry Langdon was a shining silent-film comedian, at one point rivalling Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd in terms of popularity and box-office. By the late ‘20s, Langdon’s star had fallen, and in the ‘30s, he was appearing in minor short subjects for Hal Roach and working as a gag writer for him. (He contributed to Block-Heads.)
Roach bought the rights to a short story that he turned into a feature film titled Zenobia. The movie featured Babe in a major role as a country doctor, and Langdon as more or less Babe’s sidekick.
The movie is set in the Old South and plays like a low-rent Gone with the Wind, but its supposed appeal was in its “teaming” of Langdon and Hardy. However, the duo shared very few scenes together, and Babe alone was responsible for the few scenes in the movie that worked.
After Zenobia bombed with the critics and the public, Roach realized where the box-office appeal lay. On April 8, 1939, attorneys representing Roach and Laurel worked together to drop all legal action between the two men, and on that same date, Stan and Babe signed separate but concurrent one-year contracts with Roach.
At the same time, a former musical producer named Boris Morros decided he was to become a movie producer and wanted to make his debut with Laurel & Hardy. Roach agreed to loan out the comedy duo for Morros’ production The Flying Deuces.
Ironically, Deuces was directed by Edward Sutherland, who had produced Zenobia under Roach’s auspice. Roach had nothing good to say about Sutherland’s work, and in turn, Sutherland later summed up his work on The Flying Deuces by stating that he’d “rather work with a tarantula” than with Stan Laurel again.
The most likely reason for Sutherland’s surly attitude was that, until Laurel & Hardy were forced to make movies via the Studio System in the 1940’s, Stan Laurel was always the uncredited director of Laurel & Hardy comedies, no matter who sat in the director’s chair. Even though it was made outside of the Roach Studios, The Flying Deuces was no exception.
The movie began life as a script from Alfred Schiller, a writer hired by Borros. Schiller appeared to understand little about the delicate characterizations of Stan and Ollie. He wrote them as being wiseguy rivals for the same girl, and with Ollie saying nasty things such as, “Go on, beat it, Frog!” to a French gentleman.
Stan was not happy with this script but, as he and Babe were in the midst of making the Roach feature film A Chump at Oxford while the Deuces script was being prepared, the most he could do was editorialize in writing. When Stan would come to something in the script that he didn’t like or was out-of-character, he’d cross it out and write in the margins, “OUT. OUT. OUT.” Later, after Stan watched an early cut of the film, he submitted five pages of “Cutting Notes” to the movie’s editor. Thus, The Flying Deuces was the only non-Roach-produced L&H film in which Stan was allowed as much creative control as he’d had at the Roach Studios.
Eventually, the movie became so much like Old Home Week that it was practically an ersatz Roach production. Stan insisted to producer Morros on having Roach veterans Charley Rogers and Harry Langdon on the movie’s writing staff. Art Lloyd, whose photography at Roach’s aided in making Stan look child-like — “Wash me out, Artie!” Stan would insist, “No shadows!” — photographed Deuces as well. And Roach repertory players Sam Lufkin, Arthur Housman, Rychard Cramer, and (most memorably) James Finlayson were commandeered for the movie.
Act II: Love Is In the Air.
(This paragraph = SPOILER ALERT 1) The movie’s main plotline has Stan and Ollie on a cook’s tour of Paris, where Ollie falls in love with a beautiful local girl named Georgette (Jean Parker). Georgette strings Ollie along, never telling him that she is already married. When Ollie proposes to Georgette, she politely but firmly declines. At first, Ollie is so heartbroken that he tries to commit suicide (and drag Stan along with him!). But at the last moment, a local officer (Reginald Gardner) convinces Ollie to join the Foreign Legion to help him forget his past love. Stan, of course, tags along.
In real life, the movie resulted in a much happier ending for the twice-divorced Babe. When shooting on The Flying Deuces began on July 22, 1939, Babe and the others were introduced to the movie’s script girl, Virginia Lucille Jones. Stan eventually liked Lucille’s work so much that he brought her back to work on A Chump at Oxford and the follow-up L&H feature Saps at Sea.
Babe had thought his relationship with Lucille was strictly professional. But one day during work on Saps at Sea, Lucille tripped and fell on a rolled-up carpet, hit her head against one of the cameras, and landed in the hospital. Suddenly, Babe realized he had feelings for Lucille. The duo’s courtship began by Babe sending Lucille a box of roses and a note wishing her a speedy recovery.
Things blossomed from there, and eventually Babe proposed to Lucille before they’d even been out on a date. Lucille was not completely adverse to marrying Babe but was still unsure until she talked to her mother, who told her what a nice gentleman she thought Babe was. Lucille accepted Babe’s proposal; they went out on their first date on New Year’s Eve, 1939, and they married on March 7, 1940, the marriage lasting until Babe’s death in 1957.
Act III: The Producer Who Came in from the Cold.
The Flying Deuces’ biggest behind-the-camera surprise: Laurel & Hardy, and the rest of the movie’s cast and crew, had no idea that they were working with a spy. Producer Boris Morros, having emigrated with his Russian family to America in 1922, became a Soviet spy in 1934, at one point using a sheet-music company he owned as a cover for Soviet espionage. In 1947, Morros became a counterspy for the FBI. In 1960, Morros co-wrote the screenplay for Man on a String, a movie loosely based on Morros’ spy exploits. Ernest Borgnine played the Morros role.
Anyone who has seen Laurel & Hardy’s 1931 featurette Beau Hunks won’t be much surprised by The Flying Deuces, which is an expanded version of the same storyline. The same actor, Charles Middleton (shown above, and best known to ‘30s movie buffs as Ming the Merciless in Universal’s Flash Gordon serials), even plays the French Legion commandant in both movies. (Middleton also played a villain in Laurel & Hardy’s feature film Pack Up Your Troubles  and their short subject The Fixer Uppers .)
The caricature of Laurel & Hardy in the movie’s first scene was drawn by Harry Langdon.
The movie features two of the duo’s all-too-rare but delightful musical outings. In the first, Ollie sings “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” and Stan does an eccentric soft-shoe dance to the music.
The second number is far more fantasy-like. (SPOILER ALERT 2) At one point, Stan and Ollie are to be shot at sunrise by a Foreign Legion firing squad. As they await their fate in a prison cell, a bored Stan plucks at his bed’s springs and discovers that they sound musical. With that, he pulls up the bedsprings and, harp-like, proceeds to play “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” on the springs a la Harpo Marx. (The following photo and paragraph = SPOILER ALERT 3)
Lastly, in real life, Stan Laurel believed in reincarnation, but nothing was above satirization for Stan, even his own beliefs. The climax of The Flying Deuces features The Boys trying to pilot an out-of-control airplane; eventually, the plane crashes. Stan survives, but we see Ollie ascending to heaven. In the movie’s epilogue, Stan, now a lonely vagabond, happens upon and happily reunites with Ollie, who has come back to life as a horse (complete with his toothbrush mustache).
A major source for this article was Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies (1987, Moonstone Press), a delightful biography by Randy Skretvedt. Whether you are a hardcore Laurel & Hardy buff or you are just starting out on your “journey” with Stan and Ollie, this book will provide an endless source of inspiration and delight.
We hope that this article has provided you with an adequate education of Laurel & Hardy’s contribution to 1939 American cinema!
It’s inevitably the more looked-down-upon Laurel & Hardy shorts that yield the nicest surprises. “A fairly pedestrian little picture,” sniffs Randy Skretvedt about The Fixer Uppers in his book on the team. But while this is hardly a reputation-cementing flicker on the lines of Big Business or The Music Box, it has some funnier-than-usual dialogue for an L&H picture, and it yields a fair amount of laughs.
Stan and Ollie are greeting-card salesmen, a job they carry out as competently as they do most of their vocations. (Ollie’s dignified reading of the card’s couplets is almost the high point of the movie. I won’t spoil the punchlines by quoting them here. If you’re curious, check out the greeting-card section at the Way Out West on-line Tent; most of them are posted there and can actually be E-mailed to very indiscriminate friends.)
Stan and Ollie’s first customer is Mae Busch, which ought to send up warning flags right there. It turns out she feels neglected by her husband and wants to involve Stan and Ollie in a scheme to make him jealous and rekindle their romance. (She wants to use Stan and Ollie in a ruse to make her husband jealous? Warning Flag No. 2.) Her lessons in passionate kissing (particularly with the usually asexual Stan) are another highlight of the movie.
Pierre, the irate husband (Charles Middleton, later to give The Boys a hard time at the Foreign Legion in The Flying Deuces) catches Ollie and the woman in what used to quaintly be called “a compromising position,” and the scheme works too well — he challenges Ollie to a duel at midnight and exchanges cards with him (Ollie’s is a greeting card, of course).
Ollie drowns his sorrows in beer until Stan, in another of his rare bright moments, points out that Pierre can’t possibly find Ollie if he runs away. After Ollie chastizes Stan for not pointing this out sooner and saving him some grief, he phones Pierre to tell him off. Stan adds for good measure, “Say, listen, if you had a face like mine, you’d punch me right in the nose, and I’m just the fella that can do it!” Stan and Ollie celebrate by getting snockered and passing out. Some helpful cops find Pierre’s card on Ollie, assume that the card bears Ollie’s home address, and are kind enough to deliver Stan and Ollie to Pierre’s home and tuck them into bed so that Pierre can discover them there.
Pierre’s wife tells Ollie to play dead when Pierre shoots him — the gun is full of blanks. Ollie does his dropping-dead fall with his usual flourish, and all appears to be well, until Pierre tells his wife that he now will chop the body into little pieces. Stan and Ollie hastily beat it out of the apartment. Ollie hides in a trash can; Stan later knocks on the can to give Ollie the all-clear, but Ollie has unfortunately been taken out with the trash by the local sanitation department (at midnight??).
Jackie Gleason once said there are three stages in a comedian’s career. The first stage is when the audience can’t predict what the comedian will do; second is when the audience can predict it but enjoys the predictability; and third is when the comedian is so predictable that the audience is turned off. The Fixer Uppers finds Laurel & Hardy firmly lodged in Stage 2 — no great surprises in the act, perhaps, but still great fun to watch.
The Flying Deuces is usually dismissed as one of Laurel & Hardy’s back-burner numbers, but it’s probably their last movie where they operated at “full speed.” As L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt has meticulously detailed, it was the only non-Hal Roach-produced feature where Laurel was allowed his usual creative control. The movie gets right down to business and then breezes along for just over an hour.
Here, Stan and Ollie are a couple of Des Moines tourists in Paris. (How a couple of nondescript Iowans made it all the way to France is the first of this movie’s great, unsolved L&H mysteries.) Ollie has a schoolboy crush on Georgette (Jean Parker), the local innkeeper’s daughter, who milks Ollie for candy and laughs while neglecting to tell him that she’s already married to Francois (Reginald Gardiner), a Foreign Legion officer. (As opposed to the usual, outright shrewish L&H mates, Georgette seems downright passive-aggressive. Another unsolved mystery.)
Ollie’s “courting” scenes, and his dainty reactions when Georgette kindly but firmly snubs him, are among the great Ollie-as-courtly-Southerner routines. (After the snub, Ollie takes a leaf from Greta Garbo and declares to Stan, “I want to be…ay-lone.“)
Eventually, Ollie decides there is nothing left but to commit suicide. But he doesn’t want to be that much ay-lone — he decides to take Stan with him. (Ollie’s explanation to Stan is one of their best-ever pieces of dialogue.) All this, plus a runaway shark in the river where Ollie intends to off himself, result in a funnier mock-suicide scene than Charlie Chaplin’s in City Lights. (At one point, the shark’s fin pokes Ollie’s upturned behind, and Ollie, unaware of the shark’s presence, turns to Stan and gently commands, “Don’t do that.” Unsolved Mystery No. 3: What did he think Stan was doing to him, anyway?)
Eventually, Francois appears on the scene and advises The Boys to join the Foreign Legion to help Ollie forget his unrequited love (a/k/a Mrs. Francois, though Francois happily doesn’t know that). Much of the rest of the movie’s comedy results from Stan and Ollie’s tragic misconception that they need stay in the Legion just long enough for Ollie to forget, then they can shuffle on back to Des Moines. This eventually results in Stan and Ollie being sentenced to a firing squad at dawn, before which Stan tries to placate Ollie by playing a Harpo Marx-like number on his bedsprings. (For once, the unbridled scope of Ollie’s camera-looks matches their equally outrageous reason for being.)
They barely escape their sentence and end up in a runaway plane — a hilarious sequence which, if perhaps not completely convincing, is still far more satisfying than the 25-cent car ride we got from them in County Hospital.
Between the movie’s “freak ending” (for once, an oddly touching one), and the movie’s rich use of L&H/Roach co-stars (James Finlayson, Charles Middleton essentially reprising his role from Beau Hunks, and Rychard Cramer in an uncredited but appropriate cameo), The Flying Deuces is quite above-average among L&H’s later movies.
TRIVIA NOTE: This is the movie on which set Oliver Hardy met a script girl named Lucille Jones, who became Mrs. Hardy in 1940.
(I have also written a blog entry that details the story behind the making of this movie. Click here to read it.)