By 1921 both Stan Laurel and Oliver (Babe) Hardy had a string of solo films behind them, released by various movie studios. Babe was in supporting roles, usually cast as a villain
(or ‘Heavy’) and Stan was the headliner of his own series of comedies, trying to carve out a career as a leading star, following in the footsteps of his much more famous music hall colleague and roommate, Charlie Chaplin.
Between 1914 and 1921, Stan had featured in a little over a dozen pictures, albeit as the lead player, whereas Babe Hardy had featured in over two hundred and thirty films and was a well seasoned professional in the movie business by the time he appeared in his first film with the young British comic, who would become his comedy partner and friend for the rest of his life.
Whilst on the whole ‘The Lucky Dog’ is your average standard knockabout bit of silent slapstick and certainly of it’s time, it has a very prominent place in movie history, being the very first film Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in together.
Until relatively recently, there had been much doubt as to the exact age of this film, with prominent authors John McCabe and Randy Skretvedt suggesting different years. McCabe puts the film in 1918 in his first book, ‘Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy’ and 1916 or 1917 in ‘Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy’, while in his early editions of ‘Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies’, Randy Skretvedt decided on 1919.
The uncertainty surrounding the filming of this modest yet historic movie was finally put to rest however, when Dave Wyatt, writing in the Summer 2004 edition of ‘Bowler Dessert’ (Number 63), presented some very interesting and definitive research.
Wyatt drew attention to an article originally written for an Italian magazine entitled ‘Griffithiana’ from October 1996, by Bo Berglund. The article mentioned the fleeting appearance, in the early scenes of the film, of a car licence plate that proves that the picture had to have been made after January 1920. This discovery blew the original dates completely out of the water. Armed with this new information and taking into account Stan’s vaudeville tour dates and Ollie’s shooting schedules, it was deduced that filming of ‘The Lucky Dog’ had to have taken place either late January or early February 1921.
The same article also sheds some light on where the film was made, by piecing together letters painted on a fence in a number of shots in the same scene, with Stan and the tram. Although not all of the letters are visible, the researchers were able to make enough out to piece together the words: ‘LOS ANGELES OSTRICH FARM’. Dave Wyatt goes on to say that this Ostrich Farm was located on Mission Road in Los Angeles, very close to Selig Studio, which became the studio of Louis B. Mayer, making it very likely that this was where ‘The Lucky Dog’ was produced. Bravo Detectives Wyatt and Berglund!
The film itself was produced by Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, and was a ‘Stan Laurel Comedy’ with Oliver Hardy playing his typical supporting role as a heavily mustachioed villain.
Although looking fairly ‘primitive’ for 1921, ‘The Lucky Dog’ contains some decent bits of comedy, very slapstick in nature for sure, but there are some scenes worthy of note.
We meet Stanley Laurel, “So broke he couldn’t buy metal polish for a thumb tack”, leaving his boarding house. His landlady, annoyed at not being paid, throws his bag at him, which falls to the floor and just as Stanley bends to investigate the bag, she takes a swipe at him from behind with her broom. Stan bends too low though and the lady is sent spinning around and around. She tries another swing, but the same thing happens…up to seven times until finally Stan remains upright long enough and turns to face her, then tenant and broom finally and rather violently meet.
The blow sends Stan hurtling backwards into the street (this landlady can swing!). As he sits upright on the tram lines (you just know what’s coming), his injuries appear to have given him some sort of concussion, as he soon starts to see fairies…or are they angels..anyway, he sees some maidens dancing around him. We too, as the audience, can see these transparent dancers, which is actually quite an impressive special effect for your standard 1920s silent comedy.
In his daze, he imagines one of the maidens coming to kiss him, so he closes his eyes and puckers up. At this precise moment, a little stray dog runs up into his arms looking for affection. Stan eventually becomes sensible of the fact that he is not kissing a maiden, but has a stray mutt licking his face. And so, we are now introduced to the ‘lucky dog’ himself.
It is during these early sequences that Stan has a couple of impressive and potentially back-breaking stunts, first involving bouncing off a stationary tram and landing straight onto his back, and then seconds later a moving motor car drives past and scoops him up in its grill. I think these pieces of action really demonstrate the knockabout skills that Stan must have learned as his bread and butter during his years as a British music hall and American vaudeville comedian with Fred Karno’s troupe.
Eventually, Stan collects his belongings, which have been scattered on the road and stuffs them all into his bag, unaware that the little stray dog has stowed himself away inside. Suddenly, to Stan’s surprise, the bag starts running off down the street, (thanks to some hidden puppy power, of course) and Stan gives chase.
And so we come to the main action of interest, at least to Laurel and Hardy fans, as we come to the very first on-screen meeting and bits of ‘business’ between our two heroes.
Stan chases the bag along the line of a fence, which turns a sharp left corner and continues in a new direction. At the corner, he dives on top of the possessed bag, finally bringing it to a halt. Unbeknownst to Stan, around the corner Babe Hardy is mugging some poor chap at gunpoint. Although they are completely unaware of each other, Babe and Stan end up standing back to back (actually they’re bottom to bottom as Stan bends over to pull the dog from the bag). Babe then takes a huge wedge of folding money from his victim and crams it into his back pocket, or so he thinks! He actually crams it into Stan’s.
Liberated from his cash, Babe’s victim is allowed to run free and Babe turns on his heel and almost falls over Stan. Now it is Stan’s turn to be held at gunpoint. Babe growls the first ever line of dialogue between the two comedians “Put ‘em both up insect, before I comb your hair with lead!”
There follows some nice business between the two as Stan, holding the dog under one arm, makes life difficult for an honest robber. Eventually, Babe finds the bundle of cash in Stan’s back pocket and begins counting it. This completely bamboozles Stan, who’s never seen so much money before, let alone had it in his pockets. He visibly tries to process all this in his mind, in true Stan style, and even double checks with Babe that the money came out of his pocket.
In the end, Stan takes the money back off Babe to count it for himself. He then distracts Ollie and makes him look the other way, runs around behind him, kicks him in the ass and runs off down the street, with Babe in hot pursuit. The following chase sequence with dog in tow is a good bit of fun, with Babe’s gun jamming every time he gets a chance to shoot at Stan.
The rest of the film has Stan meeting a lady at a dog show. Stan uses his little stray dog to get into the show, but causes so much trouble that a lot of the dogs escape. Stan’s new ladyfriend’s pedigree dog is one of those that runs away and so Stan gives her his dog, at which she appears overjoyed. I couldn’t help but think it a little odd how casually the lady takes losing her ‘thoroughbred’ pet only to be overjoyed with the gift of Stan’s mutt as a replacement. But hey-ho, perhaps best not to think too deeply about these things!
Stan then ends up driving home with the lady, to meet her father, much to the annoyance of the lady’s boyfriend! (Yes, it is turning into something of a farce). The annoyed boyfriend hires a hitman (you guessed it, Babe Hardy) to come back with him to the house and “…plans a revenge that’s worse than the telephone service.”
Back at the house, there are some nice scenes with Stan and Babe interacting. Babe’s gun continues to jam and Stan tries to help him fix it. Finally, the plotting pair throw a stick of dynamite under the sofa, that Stan and the lady’s father are sitting on, only for the ‘lucky dog’ to come running out from underneath, dynamite in mouth, chasing the baddies away. In the end, the naughty ones are blown up (in a cartoon fashion), and Stan, the lady and her father, oh and not forgetting the lucky dog, live happily ever after.
Although the film is far from a typical ‘Laurel and Hardy’ comedy, there are teasing glimpses throughout of the magic that would eventually follow. The boys themselves are easily recognisable, but their characters couldn’t be further from the Stan and Ollie that we have come to know and love. There was clearly some way to go before the potential of the team would be realised.
I think the dog actually deserves some credit in this film, as it plays its part very well and is the cause of a few chuckles.
For their very first ‘pre-teaming’ film, ‘The Lucky Dog’ is watchable, reasonably enjoyable and is about as historically important a film as you can get.
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