(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)
Perhaps years of indoctrination with Laurel & Hardy’s Twentieth Century-Fox features have lowered my tastes. But after hearing that A-Haunting We Will Go was the worst low-budget fright flick this side of Ed Wood — and before Fox released the movie on DVD — I was treated to a rare print of it by John Brennan, moderator of the glorious Laurel & Hardy Central website. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not that bad. Not any Way Out West, mind you, but in the Fox scheme of things, pretty tolerable.
To be sure, it has a lot of just plain stupid stuff in it, including the first appearance of a couple of Fox cliches. Our first item of idiocy is what we might call “The Moronic MacGuffin,” famous among L&H/Fox viewers as the machine that couldn’t possibly do what it claims to do, yet Stan and Ollie fall for it every time. Here, it’s the “Inflato,” which a couple of con men (one of them Richard Lane, who made a better L&H sidekick in The Bullfighters) hawk to L&H as a device that will exponentially increase their money; put a one-dollar bill through the machine, and it can be changed to a ten or a hundred. This routine might have been tolerable if treated as a throwaway, but unfortunately Ollie does a long monologue (more typical of L&H’s later jingoistic MGM features) about how he plans to help the national cause with this monetary savior. Aw, c’mon, Ollie, just pay your dinner bill with the phony maloney and get on with it.
The other Fox cliche making its debut here is the group of lingo-spouting gangsters, who seem to be in the movie primarily to pad out its 63-minute length. (However, one of the gangsters is played by The Maltese Falcon veteran Elisha Cook Jr., which at least gives this motley crew a thin veneer of legitimacy.)
And far from being menacing, these senior J.D.’s seem as child-like as our heroes. One minute they’ve got Stan and Ollie trapped at either end of a stage during a live performance; then, as soon as the performance is over, they’ve scattered again and are muttering dialogue such as “Where did those two jerks go?”
The plot is no great shakes either: In order to get out of town in a hurry and avoid a vagrancy rap, Stan and Ollie accept a job accompanying a coffin that is being delivered to Dayton, Ohio. L&H are unaware that the coffin contains a live gangster who also needs to leave town quickly. (So he needs chaperones?) Unfortunately, the coffin gets mixed up with another coffin being shipped in as a prop for a performing magician named Dante. Through a dreary number of contrivances, Stan and Ollie end up as Dante’s assistants in the live show, and by movie’s end they even get the gangsters arrested or sent to reform school or something.
But Laurel & Hardy — the real guys, not Stan and Ollie — achieve a fair number of laughs just by taking hoary material and giving it their personal touches. Laurel biographer Fred Guiles cited this movie as one where Babe Hardy tried to act with the mock-elegance of his Roach movies, “the material defeating him at every turn.” Yet you can just about see the moments where Stan must have looked at the script and told Babe, “This speech won’t work — let’s add some shtick in the middle of it and make it funny.” And funny shtick they do.
And despite decades of claims by Fox-conspiracy theorists, it doesn’t seem as though Fox deliberately went out of its way to make L&H unfunny. Co-writer Stanley Rauh saw Dante the Magician doing his act on an L.A. street corner and thought he’d make a decent counterpoint to L&H, which he does. He’s not the world’s most astounding magician, but he at least seems in sync with L&H’s sensibilities. Whenever Stan and Ollie muck up one of his tricks, rather than complain about their incompetence, he just grins and says, “Never a dull moment!”
There are also some nice gags that don’t seem far removed from Stanley’s former dabblings in white magic, as when Stan emerges from a booth at one end of a stage, re-enters the same booth, and then re-enters seconds later at another booth at the stage’s other end.
(Also, look quickly for two other casting ties to L&H’s past and future. The investigating police lieutenant is played by Edward Gargan who, like Richard Lane, later earned his props with L&H in The Bullfighters, as the innocent man caught up in L&H’s tit-for-tat water-fountain routine. And look quickly for a pair of girls whom Stan and Ollie accost at a flight of stairs. The blonde girl went by the stage name of Diane Rochelle, but she was actually Margaret Roach, daughter of L&H’s famed former producer.)
Like their silent short Habeas Corpus, the next-to-negligible scariness of A-Haunting We Will Go recalls a bygone era when horror-comedies were just plain more polite. If you think they’re degraded in their Fox efforts, imagine Stan and Babe trying to make hay with their dainty comedy in the middle of something like Scary Movie. That kind of modern-day gross-out comedy is scarier than anything a ’40s Fox exec could come up with.