Filmed late January – early February 1921 Produced by G.M. Anderson for Amalgamated Producing Company Directed by Jess Robbins, Photographed by Irving Ries, Two Reels, Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Babe Hardy, Florence Gilbert, Jack Lloyd
Before their initial encounter in 1921, jobbing actors Stanley Laurel and Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy both had a string of film credits to their names, released by various movie studios. Babe, having featured in more than two hundred and thirty shorts, sometimes as the lead, but more often cast as a supporting villain, or ‘Heavy’, was a well seasoned and respected professional in the movie business. At the same time, whilst only having just over a dozen films under his belt, Stan was headlining his own series of comedy shorts, trying to carve out a career as a leading star and follow in the footsteps of his ex. music hall colleague and roommate, who had become, by this time, the biggest movie star in the world, Charlie Chaplin.
By 1918, following spells making films at Nestor, LKO, Hal Roach’s Rolin Film Company and also at Vitagraph, appearing alongside one of the hottest comedic stars in Hollywood, Larry Semon, Stan’s attempts to become a headlining movie star hadn’t achieved the levels of success that he’d hoped and ultimately, needing to earn a living, he returned to the arduous vaudeville circuit with his stage partner and common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg.
Two years later Stan received another opportunity to re-start his film career. The offer came from none other than Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson. Anderson had recently started a new film company, called Amalgamated Producing Company and was keen to add a series of comedies to compliment the westerns already in production and Stan was identified as the comic that could carry the series. However, before the series could be made, there was the small matter of funding to be addressed. And so, in order to encourage potential sponsors, Stan was signed up to film a pilot that Anderson could use to attract the necessary financial support for the proposed series of ‘Stan Laurel Comedies’. The name of the pilot was The Lucky Dog.
In conversation with the author on Episode One of The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, Rob Stone, the ground-breaking author on the solo work of Stan and Babe, discussed how Babe Hardy became involved in the project:
“…Meanwhile, Babe Hardy was very successful as a star and supporting comedian, and by 1918 he was in L.A. and eventually went to work for Jimmy Aubrey. Jimmy was not one of these guys who liked sharing the credit, and the trade papers constantly said, “Jimmy Aubrey and Babe Hardy in their new film”, and eventually, Jimmy Aubrey had enough of that. So, he…fired, almost his entire unit! He fired his director, Jess Robbins, Irving Ries, the cameraman, Oliver Hardy, and a couple of the other supporting players because they were getting too much of the publicity…
So, [in] early January 1921, he fires all these guys, meanwhile, G.M. Anderson had hooked up with Stan Laurel and they were looking to film a pilot for what they hoped would be a series of comedies…So, basically, [The] Lucky Dog is the Jimmy Aubrey/Vitagraph unit, that had just gotten fired…
Jess Robbins had worked with Anderson at Essanay, so they knew each other. So, it was serendipitous that they were all free at that moment and so that’s how the film got made…”
Until relatively recently, there’d been much doubt as to the exact age of the 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, but these books were written, of course, before any hard dating evidence had come to light.
The uncertainty surrounding the date and location for the filming of this modest yet historic movie was finally put to rest when Bo Berglund, writing in the October 1996 edition of Italian magazine, Griffithiana, presented some very interesting and definitive research.
Berglund’s article mentioned the fleeting appearance, in the early scenes of the film, of a car license 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 from the scene with Stan and the tram. Although not all of the letters are visible at any one time, researchers were able to make enough out to piece together the words: ‘LOS ANGELES OSTRICH FARM’. To back this up, in an interview recorded in 1959, Stan himself recalled the film being made at the Selig Studio, which would later become the studio of Louis B. Mayer, and which was close to Mission Road in Los Angeles, where the Ostrich Farm was located.
Whilst on the whole The Lucky Dog is your average knockabout bit of silent slapstick and certainly of its time, it has a prominent place in movie history, being the very first film Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in together.
We meet Stanley Laurel, “So broke he couldn’t buy metal polish for a thumbtack”, leaving his boarding house. His landlady, annoyed at not being paid, throws his bag at him, which falls to the floor, and just as Stan 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 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, at this moment the tenant and broom finally and rather violently meet.
The blow sends Stan hurtling backward 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 fairy-like 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, playing the part of a heavily mustachioed villain, is robbing 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 stuffs 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 seat of his pants, and runs off down the street, with Babe in hot pursuit. The following chase sequence with the dog in tow is a good bit of fun, with Babe’s gun jamming every time he gets a chance to shoot at Stan.
Once he’s given his assailant the slip, Stan wanders off and tries to ditch the dog in a dustbin, until, that is, he realises he’s being closely observed by a policeman. Stan makes his excuses and quickly departs and round the next corner, he takes a shine to a posh looking lady who is about to enter her dog in a dog show. Stan, keen to impress the lady, uses his little stray dog to try to get into the show, but he is denied due to the fact that his dog is not a pedigree.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Stan sneaks into the show anyway and immediately he and his little mutt cause so much trouble that a lot of the dogs run riot, causing absolute chaos in the show and ultimately they escape out into the streets and leg it.
Stan’s new lady friend’s pedigree dog is one of those that escapes and she is understandably upset, so Stan gives her his dog, at which she appears overjoyed. I can’t help but think it a little odd how casually the lady accepts losing her pedigree pooch, only to be immediately overjoyed with the gift of Stan’s mutt as a replacement. But, perhaps best not to think too deeply about these things!
Stan ends up driving home with the lady, to meet her father, much to the annoyance of the lady’s boyfriend! (Yes, it now turns 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. In a quiet moment, Babe sits beside Stan on the sofa and tries to shoot him in the head. Stan sticks his fingers in his ears, so as not to hear the loud gunshot, but Babe’s gun jams every time he tries to pull the trigger. In true Stan-style, he tries to be helpful and assist Babe by fixing the gun for him.
Finally, the plotting pair of Babe and the boyfriend, throw a stick of dynamite under the sofa, that Stan and now also 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 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.
Unfortunately, ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson’s attempts at selling The Lucky Dog to financial backers drew a blank and it took around 12 months and much persistence from Anderson until a contract was finally agreed with Metro Pictures Corporation for the production of a series of eight Stan Laurel comedies.
Despite this, after the cameras stopped rolling on The Lucky Dog, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy parted ways and their paths wouldn’t cross on-screen for another five years. For their first ‘pre-teaming’ film, The Lucky Dog is watchable and reasonably enjoyable but most of all it’s just about as historically important a film as you can get.
To listen to the audio version of this blog, check out Episode One of my podcast HERE
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