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.

Laurel & Hardy in WITH LOVE AND HISSES (1927) – Regulation comedy

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As seems appropriate for a movie that derives most of its comedy from offensive odors, With Love and Hisses mostly stinks. As L&H’s Flying Elephants is largely derivative of Charlie Chaplin’s His Prehistoric Past, With Love and Hisses tries to milk the last drops of comedy from territory already covered in Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms.

There are small traces of great L&H comedy to come, as when Hardy’s brute of a sergeant lords it over Laurel at the beginning, but they’re quickly abandoned as the movie settles into the trite kind of filler that Laurel & Hardy would eventually transcend. Laurel’s mincing routine during military formation is only a faint echo of funnier military mess-ups in L&H’s Pack Up Your Troubles and The Flying Deuces.

The movie’s most-quoted gag is when Hardy’s troops, having taken a skinny-dip at a nearby pond and then being left without their uniforms, stick their heads through a movie billboard of The Volga Boatmen and walk back to camp “dressed” this way. But even that decent-enough gag is protracted via a run-in with some hornets.

The movie’s opening title tells us that “There were cheers and kisses as the Home Guards left for camp — the married men did the cheering.” By the time With Love and Hisses is over, it’s mostly the audience who is cheering the movie’s end.

Laurel & Hardy in MEN O’ WAR (1929) – Sailing along for laughs

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Men o’ War is the breeziest of Laurel & Hardy’s early sound shorts (it was their third). It has plenty of delightful visual humor and just enough dialogue to make the ridiculous (i.e., L&H) sublime.

Maybe it doesn’t hurt that the movie establishes its setting with idyllic visuals depicting an old-fashioned day in the park — a grandstand band playing, people walking and canoeing. Into the scene walk a couple of inanely chatty women, followed by bachelor sailors Stan and Ollie. Surely two matches made in heaven.

It happens that one of the women has lost a pair of gloves, and Stan and Ollie have stumbled upon a pair of ladies’ underwear mistakenly dropped by a laundress. Stan and Ollie jump to the predictably wrong conclusion and have quite an interesting introductory conversation with the women.

Eventually the mistake is tactfully rectified, and the quartet go to a soda fountain, where the pair find that Stan has only 15 cents to spare for four 5-cent drinks. This results in a reprise of a routine from Should Married Men Go Home?, rendered far funnier here thanks to some hilariously pedestrian dialogue. One of my favorite L&H non-sequitors occurs when Stan and Ollie do a painful tit-for-tat routine and Ollie helpfully tells the girls, “Just playing together,” as though this is how all sailors passed the time of day.

The movie’s weakest part — not painful, just disappointing — is the movie’s finale, where the quartet’s canoe wreaks havoc with other boaters. This tries very hard to be a Two Tars-like reciprocal-destruction routine, but it plays more like a collision course until it, like L&H’s canoe, finally sinks.

The story behind Laurel & Hardy’s THE FLYING DEUCES (1939)

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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.)

Movies Silently is covering the silent-film era; Once Upon a Screen is covering cinema’s “Golden Age” of 1930 to 1952 (to which I am making my blog contribution); and Silver Screenings is covering the “Modern Era” of 1953 to 1975. Also, please give a round of applause to Flicker Alley, the blogathon’s sponsor!

And now, our feature presentation:

TitleCard

Prologue.

Intro

Act I:  At War with the Producers.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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connections

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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 [1932] and their short subject The Fixer Uppers [1935].)

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The caricature of Laurel & Hardy in the movie’s first scene was drawn by Harry Langdon.

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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.

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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)

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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).

Closing Credits.

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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!

TheEnd

Laurel & Hardy in LOVE ‘EM AND WEEP (1927) – Better than the remake

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It’s easy to brush off the silent versions of L&H comedies that were later remade with sound and with an understanding of Stan and Ollie as a team. But ironically, Love ‘Em and Weep is a far livelier comedy than its L&H remake, Chickens Come Home.

For one thing, even though the story is quite the same in both versions (right down to some of the dialogue), the earlier version is one reel shorter —

which gives you less time to analyze the movie’s sense of misogyny and more time to appreciate its fine comic performances. Here, James Finlayson assays the role later to be taken by Oliver Hardy, that of a respected businessman blackmailed by an old fling of his (Mae Busch in both versions). As is typical in Roach/Pathe productions, Laurel and Hardy hardly have a scene together (Hardy’s role is a glorified walk-on). But Finlayson well demonstrates why he was one of Hal Roach’s Comedy All-Stars before L&H hit it big. Much of his work is as florid as when he later reacted to Stan and Ollie, but he also plays the cuckolded husband quite well.

Laurel, in the same role he played in the later L&H version (the businessman’s partner, caught between a rock and a hard place), is hilarious and displays nearly all of the typical, beguiling Stanley mannerisms, seemingly lacking only a partner to bounce off of. And Mae Busch, besides being funny in her vamp role, is a winningly good sport in the film’s final reel, where she mostly serves as a mannequin for Finlayson and Laurel’s physical comedy.

It’s a good thing Stan and Ollie finally made it big as a team. Based on the evidence of this very funny short, it’s a wonder Hal Roach didn’t try to team Laurel with James Finlayson more often.

THE CHIMP (1932) – Laurel & Hardy monkey around

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Chimp is essentially Angora Love or Laughing Gravy with a monkey. It starts out interestingly, with Stan and Ollie as performers for an underwhelming traveling circus. In their usual well-meaning way, they manage to destroy what’s left of the enterprise, forcing the owner to declare bankruptcy and divide the circus’s acts among the unpaid performers. Stan gets the flea circus; Ollie gets Ethel the gorilla (Charles Gamora).

The rest of the movie involves them trying to sneak the gorilla past their hotel room’s manager (Billy Gilbert). They also try to avoid the circus’s wayward lion, who unconvincingly chases them during their escapades. (Stan and Ollie run down a path, then the movie conspicuously intercuts a shot of the lion roaming the same path. Not exactly enough to strike fear into moviegoers’ hearts.)

The funniest moments involve H.M. Walker’s intertitles (“The night was dark — they usually are”) and a lion-chase moment where Stan tells Ollie, “I just saw M-G-M!” The rest is pretty mechanical stuff, especially when the manager hears L&H talking to Ethel the chimp and thinks they’re having amenage-a-trois with Ethel his wife. Something about the incongruity of great movie comics with guys in chimp costumes (remember The Marx Bros.’ At the Circus?) practically screams out desperation.

OUR WIFE (1931) – Don’t Laurel & Hardy make a cute couple?

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Who says Laurel & Hardy don’t have subtext? The gist of Our Wife is that Ollie is eloping with his fiancee (Babe London). Watch Stan’s face when Ollie reminds him that he’s the “best man.” It could well be the first time in his life that Stan was best anything.

Our Wife is amiable middle-level L&H — not a classic along the lines of The Music Box or Helpmates, but still a sure-fire laugh-getter. For me at least, the reason it’s denied classic status is the horrible cutaway shots to Ollie’s wedding cake being gradually ravaged by more and more flies. (Couldn’t somebody have put a glass cover over the blankety-blank thing?) Ollie eventually chastizes Stan for spraying bug spray on the cake to eradicate the flies, but by that time, we in the audience are gratified that somebody did something to relieve our nausea.

There’s also the movie’s middle section, where Stan, Ollie, and Ollie’s bride try to squeeze themselves into a getaway car that’s slightly larger than a Matchbox model. (Those who think Laurel had no directorial finesse should view the movie’s first shot of the car sitting quietly under a street light, followed by Ollie’s bride coming into the shot and towering over the car.) The scene is a bit drawn-out (which is more than one can say for the car), though it’s still a hoot. (The car was probably crowded as soon as Stan got into it — it never occurred to him that two plus-sized people might not fit into it easily??)

The final scene at the preacher’s office is a nice, near-freak ending. No physical distortions here, but there is the parson’s wife (Blanche Payson, who gave her all in a single still shot in Helpmates) punching a deserving Stan in the chin, and cross-eyed preacher Ben Turpin performing a most unusual wedding (at least for 1931). (Let’s put it this way — the conservatives in “red states” probably won’t enjoy the joke.)