Laurel & Hardy in PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES (1932) – As nondescript as a Smith

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(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.

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Laurel & Hardy in THEIR FIRST MISTAKE (1932) – Poor baby

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In his seminal book on Laurel and Hardy, Charles Barr declares, “Their First Mistake is a film about the Stan Laurel character.” More accurately, this 1932 short subject is a film about the Stan and Ollie characters’ relationships, to each other and to their on-screen wives. This short, made fairly early on in their sound-movie career, is nearly a summation of many L&H themes that appeared before and after. In this film, we have:

* an extremely hostile wife (de rigeur in most L&H films)

* perhaps L&H’s most extreme expression of their childlikeness

* their devotion to each other at the expense of any other relationships

Armchair analysts (and you’re reading one of them right now) have for years made hay of the supposed homosexual subtext in Laurel & Hardy movies. It’s always risky to make such inferences about movies that their own creators stated were meant only for a few laughs. But in this film in particular, such symbolism is so blatant as to be unavoidable.

Their First Mistake opens with Mrs. Arabella Hardy (Mae Busch) chastizing her husband Ollie for spending too much time with Stan, when the phone rings and who should it be but Stan? Ollie answers the phone and fools his wife by addressing the caller as “Mr. Jones.” This causes an immediate identity crisis in Stan, who checks out his mirror image and his wallet I.D.’s to make sure he’s still himself.

Ollie tells his wife that the caller was his boss, Mr. Jones, inviting him to a company outing. Mrs. Hardy beams with pride until Stan comes to Ollie’s apartment to tell him that it was he on the phone. Mrs. Hardy chases Ollie around the apartment and beats him with a broom, scaring Stan just far enough out of the apartment to observe the fracas from an outdoor window. Ollie makes a hasty exit, knocking Stan down as they both head for Stan’s apartment across the way. Mrs. Hardy pounds on the door and announces that if Ollie spends any more time with Stan, she’s leaving him.

Ollie seems more concerned with placating Stan, with whom he finds himself alone on the bed. They engage in a prolonged conversation while indulging in mindless behavior — Ollie playing finger games, Stan polishing his shoes with the bedsheet. Barr finds this scene fascinating in its childishness, but actually, anyone looking for gay L&H subtext couldn’t do better than this scene. The pair’s coyish pre-coital activity, combined with some surprising dialogue — “She says I think more of you than I do of her”; “Well, you do, doncha?”; “Well, we won’t go into that” — seem ready for cataloguing in the Celluloid Closet sequel.*

Stan suggests that Ollie adopt a baby — not out of any parental desires, but to keep Mrs. Hardy occupied during his and Ollie’s outings. Ollie proclaims this a brilliant idea (Well, he would, wouldn’t he?) and tells Stan to head for the adoption agency with him. Stan, his brilliance already evaporated, asks, “What for?”

In the next scene, Stan and Ollie are bringing an adopted baby back to Ollie’s apartment. (Amazing — two not-too-bright men have more trouble getting a bank loan in Pack Up Your Troubles than they do in adopting a kid.) Along the way, they offer a congratulatory cigar to a curious neighbor (Mistake director George Marshall). They find the apartment empty and are then visited by a process server (L&H veteran Billy Gilbert). The process server proffers two summonses from Mrs. Hardy — one to Ollie for divorce, the other to Stan “for the alienation of Mr. Hardy’s affections.” (Sadly missing is the scene in which Mrs. Hardy would prove her case.)

There follows a nice parody of the old abandoned-lover theme, with Ollie as the jilted mother and Stan as the selfish deserter. “Why, it was you who wanted me to have this baby,” wails Ollie, “and now you want to leave me flat!” Stan declares that he has a reputation to protect (this from a man who began the film by inviting Ollie to a cement-workers’ ball in the hopes of winning a free steam shovel). Ollie blocks Stan’s exit, waking the baby in the process.

The rest of the film consists of their efforts to quiet the baby, and it is here that the movie’s frenzied maternal symbolism comes to a head. Much ado is made of bottle nipples, and every time Stan tests the baby’s milk for warmth, he can’t resist swigging a few chugs before reluctantly passing it to the baby. At one point, Stan’s “white magic” routine (doing out-of-this-world tricks manner-of-factly) reaches its peak when he nonchalantly pulls a full milk bottle out of his nightshirt, where he was “keeping it warm.” Ollie’s camera-look reactions here speak volumes.

The final scene shows the baby, Stan, and Ollie asleep in bed. To stop the baby’s incessant crying, Ollie sleepily passes a milk bottle across the bed — ostensibly for the baby, but the bottle reaches only to Stan. After getting his face doused with milk, Stan’s mouth finds the mother lode and indulges appropriately. Surprisingly, the baby stops crying until Stan finishes the bottle and is offered another one by Ollie. One would almost think the baby smart enough to protect her caretaker’s needs before her own–but then, if the baby was that smart, she wouldn’t be with these two guys to start with.

So Stan finishes off a bottle-and-a-half of milk, plus a complete nipple chewed and swallowed, before Ollie wakes up enough to realize what has happened. The scene is quite funny on its own, but the infantile imagery of Stan — his face doused with milk, contentedly suckling — is almost eye-popping. It’s like an image out of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

It seems as though the film could continue in this vein forever, but sadly, it closes on a throwaway gag (Ollie chastizing Stan for drinking the baby’s milk, then spilling the remainder on himself — more symbolism, perhaps?). L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt states that an alternate final scene, proposed but not filmed, showed Arabella Hardy returning to the Hardy apartment with a baby she adopted. (How easily were babies adopted in 1932, anyway?). This scene would have provided a fitting conclusion — with Mrs. Hardy, like her husband, indulging in a familial gesture, yet doing it entirely independent of her spouse.

It’s always dangerous to indulge in the kind of pedantic analysis that kills most comedy. Yet Their First Mistake, quite funny on its own terms, offers the ultimate statement on Stan and Ollie’s relationship: No matter how many (or what kinds of) people are involved in their lives — wives, babies, cement workers — Stan and Ollie are really most concerned with nurturing and protecting each other.

*POSTSCRIPT: This essay was originally published in Britain’s Laurel and Hardy Magazine, because of which a reader lambasted me for trying to imply any hint of homosexuality in Stan and Ollie’s relationship. However, The Celluloid Closet, the 2000 documentary about cinema’s depictions of gayness — which I hadn’t seen before writing this essay — does indeed use the “We won’t go into that” clip from Their First Mistake as an example of the movie’s subject. So apparently, I’m not the only one who noticed this.