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:
Act I: At War with the Producers.
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!