DUCK SOUP (1927) – Our first glimpse at the “real” Stan and Ollie

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The following is my entry in The Silent Cinema Blogathon, being hosted Oct. 24-26, 2015 by the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click on the above banner to visit the blogathon and read an assortment of great blogs related to the era of silent movie classics!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Duck Soup‘s interest for movie academics might be more historical than hysterical. Yet even on that basis, it’s as worthy of L&H buffs’ attention as Unknown Chaplin is to Charlie Chaplin fans, or The Beatles Anthology is to Fab Four aficionados. It’s a worthy addition to the L&H canon, and it helps make our mental image of them more complete.

For years Duck Soup was a lost movie, and it was assumed the film was one of Stan and Babe’s back-burner Pathe numbers, where they each performed in the movie but not as a team. Then a print turned up in the 1970’s and showed that Stan and Ollie were (or should have been) a bonafide team from the start. Ollie badly needs a shave, but other than the vagabond garb, Stan and Ollie were far closer to the way we now “know” them then they were in their other Hal Roach/Pathe productions. Why they “began” as a team and then went back to doing separate appearances in the same movie remains one of movie comedy’s great unanswered questions.

But there’s enough recognizable “Stan and Ollie” byplay to warrant at least one viewing. For one thing, Duck Soup is the quite recognizable origin of its talkie version, Another Fine Mess (1930). Both films were based on an old vaudeville sketch written by Stan’s dad (though Pop later complained loudly about what his son had done to the source material).

Duck Soup shows Stan and Ollie on the run from local police, though unlike the talkie version, they are not trying to avoid arrest but are instead trying to avoid the zeal of a sheriff looking for help in putting out a forest fire (Was this a common kind of recruitment in 1920’s Los Angeles?). In later films (with their personas more firmly established), whenever Stan and Ollie are on the run from the law, it’s usually due to their fear of authority figures. Here, the cause is just plain laziness.

Anyway, Stan and Ollie hide out in a millionaire’s mansion, and as luck would have it, the millionaire is out of town and has advertised for boarders to rent the house. Ollie and Stan quickly assume the disguises of the millionaire and his maid.

And “quickly” is the key word here. The most unrecognizable element in this L&H film is its frenetic pace, making it closer to typical Hal Roach/Pathe fare than to the later, more leisurely paced L&H shorts. Also, there are no particularly memorable “set pieces” here — unlike Another Fine Mess, where Ollie revels in his disguise, or Stan has a hilarious conversation with the wife of the would-be boarder (Thelma Todd).

Yet it still makes for fascinating viewing, not least because of its view of a surprisingly undeveloped ’20s Los Angeles. The movie also shows that even from the beginning, Stan and Ollie intuitively worked as a team–it just took their own movies a little while longer to figure that out.

TRIVIA NOTE: Duck Soup proved to be an especially sturdy movie title. Six years after Laurel & Hardy used it, former L&H associate Leo McCarey nabbed it for his classic Marx Bros. movie; nine years later, Hal Roach nabbed it back for an Edgar Kennedy short subject. Maybe Judd Apatow will be using it next.

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Final recap of the SEE YOU IN THE ‘FALL’ BLOGATHON

Happy first day of autumn! but unhappy last day of blogathon! However, we had some terrific entries devoted to favorite moments in TV and movie physical comedy, so let’s complete the list with our

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Here are recaps from the previous days of the blogathon:

Day 1 recap * Day 2 recap * Day 3 recap

And here are the entries for our fourth and final day! (Click on each individual blog’s name to be linked to the blog entry.)

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Reel Distracted brings us M. Hulot again trying to make sense of modern life, in Jacques Tati’s Playtime.

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Wolffian Classic Movies Digest gives us Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in the classic comedy-drama The Kid.

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In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood examines what happens when a wife (Doris Day) must deal with misbegotten news from her hypochondriac husband (Rock Hudson) in Send Me No Flowers.

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What happens when a monster-smash comedy team meets up with monsters who like to smash things? Critica Retro finds out in her study of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

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And finally, Once Upon a Screen takes a close look at Laurel & Hardy delivering a piano (and lots of laughs) in their Oscar-winning short subject The Music Box.

My heartfelt and feverish thanks goes out to all of the bloggers who contributed their time and talents to making this blogathon such a success, and to the many readers who lapped it up — we couldn’t have done it without any and all of you!

Now that we’re finished, maybe it’s time for a drink…

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Day 3 recap of the SEE YOU IN THE ‘FALL’ BLOGATHON

Well, there were only three submissions today. Happily, we can report a drop only in quantity, not in quality, as we present the

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(To read any of the Day 3 entries that you missed, just click on the appropriate blog’s name to get linked to it.)

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Silver Screenings takes a look at Laurel & Hardy’s Foreign Legion misadventures in The Flying Deuces.

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Silent-ology adores a good love story — even if it’s just Buster Keaton courting Roscoe Arbuckle in drag, in Good Night, Nurse!

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And forgive me for stealing my own spotlight, but I just had to honor the 71st anniversary of the release of the short subject Gents Without Cents, in which The Three Stooges showed us just how slowly they turned.

And if you missed the first two days of our blogathon, here are links to our previous recaps:

Day 1 recap * Day 2 recap

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Now, then…keep us bookmarked, because we still have one day left in this blogathon tribute to physical comedy. And as for those eight blog entrants who haven’t yet submitted their entries: Don’t try to hide from us…we know where to look!

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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 SLIPPING WIVES (1927) – Hal Roach Presents Priscilla Dean

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Ironically, Duck Soup, the first movie that showed Laurel & Hardy as a bonafide team, was followed by Slipping Wives, another one of those Pathe alternate-universe numbers. The first anomaly is the opening title: “Hal Roach Presents Priscilla Dean.” Who? If she was one of Hal Roach’s Comedy All-Stars, it’s a good thing L&H hit it big when they did, because even though she’s the star of this show, her non-presence makes Mae Busch look like Meryl Streep.

Then the credits treat us to Laurel and Hardy receiving third and fourth billing, which unfortunately is quite appropriate, given their sub-standard antics here. Even given that their Pathe comedies allowed for little of their later interplay or character development, their slapstick here is pretty forced. Ollie (er, excuse me, Jarvis) is a snooty butler, Stan (here nom de plumed as Ferdinand Flamingo) is an intrusive outsider, and so Ollie spends most of the movie beating Stan up. Other than a brief and hilarious moment where Ollie forcibly bathes a fully-dressed Stan, this doesn’t allow for much risible comedy.

Most ironic of all is that the plot of this wheezer was later re-worked as The Fixer Uppers, regarded by most L&H buffs as one of their weaker shorts. But at least in the later movie, the plot was simple and everything was in character. Here, the meager plot — Dean, neglected by her artist-husband, hires Stan as a pawn to make the husband jealous — is quickly larded down with what film critic Roger Ebert calls “The Idiot Plot,” where the movie would be over in two minutes save for a contrived misunderstanding. In this case, the contrivance is that Stan keeps mistaking the wrong man for the husband, and he keeps flirting with Dean in front of some man who wants him to flirt with her. This makes for an awfully long 23 minutes.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it’s astounding the way this movie treats us to glimpses of future L&H comedies. Stan’s mannerisms and Ollie’s daintiness (not to mention one brief but loving look at the camera); a two-shot of Stan and Priscilla Dean that reminds us of Stan and Thelma Todd’s hilarious by-play in Another Fine Mess; Stan taking a fully-clothed bath in what appears to be the same bathtub where he does a similar number four years later in Come Clean…these are like comic teasers to take us away from the dreariness of L&H’s current situation. Despite the presence of Pathe’s trademark rooster at movie’s end, there’s little to crow about here.

(Much has been made of a brief scene where Stan pantomimes the story of Samson and Delilah, an obvious echo of Chaplin’s David-and-Goliath routine in The Pilgrim. It’s cute, but once L&H hit it big as a team, Stan would be making his own contributions to physical comedy instead of ripping off someone else’s.)

Laurel & Hardy in 45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD (1926) – Together at the Hal Roach Studios, but still not quite together

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45 Minutes from Hollywood is a cute little comedy, but in retrospect, it’s even more alien to Laurel & Hardy-style comedy than the usual Hal Roach/Pathe movies where Stan and Ollie appear in the movie but not together. Here, Laurel doesn’t appear until the final scene and doesn’t even get a screen credit.

The story revolves around a mama’s-boy who must go to Hollywood to pay the family’s rent. Once there, he gets mixed up with a gang of bank robbers who have dressed as movie-actors-and-crew who are supposedly faking a bank robbery for their film. (Hope you followed that.) In a tag-along subplot, Hardy plays a house detective who gets mixed up with one of the robbers. Near the end, Laurel plays a hotel tenant who gets mixed up in the middle of the film’s final chase. (Obviously, Hal Roach [who also gets a story credit here] thought that if he mixed up enough disparate elements, some comedy would eventually emerge. More often, though, the final result is not so much disparate as desperate.)

The funniest gags are some of H.M. Walker’s intertitles. We get an immediate take on the family’s grandfather, courtesy of the title that tells us he “saw a 1910 beauty contest [and] they had to blindfold him to get him home.” Later, when the mother gives her son the money to pay their debt, she warns him to “beware of confidence men and assistant directors.”

(There’s also a cute inside joke where Grandpa is thumbing through a fan magazine and gets all worked up about a photo of Vivien Oakland. Non-L&H buffs will be scratching their heads over this reference, but Oakland memorably appeared in the L&H shorts We Faw Down and Scram!, and the feature film Way Out West.)

As for Laurel & Hardy, considering that they never get together in the movie, they have some surprisingly Laurel-&-Hardy-esque moments: Ollie, when he plays coy to try to placate his angry wife; Stan, when he is crying about getting beat up only for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (However, it’s pretty obvious that Stan’s role was intended for James Finlayson, as he is made up to look like Fin, right down to the walrus moustache.)

45 Minutes from Hollywood is a funny enough 20 minutes from Hollywood. But astonishingly, Laurel & Hardy’s very next movie would get them together properly — before separating them again for a few more films.