Now this is more like what we expect from a film starring Laurel & Hardy!
Widely thought of as the first “Laurel & Hardy” film, the story was based on a sketch entitled ‘Home From the Honeymoon‘ written in 1905 by Stan’s father, Arthur J. Jefferson. As well as a playwright, A.J. Jefferson was also a theatre manager of some repute and following a dispute, with one of the comics appearing in ‘Home From the Honeymoon’, Jefferson replaced the actor with his own son, Stanley.
Fast forward another 20 years or so, and Stan Jefferson, now going under the name Stan Laurel and employed at the Hal Roach Studios, re-writes his father’s sketch, that he would obviously have been so familiar with and includes himself in the cast.
The story must have appealed to Stan greatly, as he re-cycled and re-worked it three years later, under the title ‘Another Fine Mess’ (1930) and also re-used the boys’ opening scene for their 1932 feature-length outing ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’.
The film opens with a brief scene showing Colonel Blood, played by James A. Marcus, preparing to leave town to begin a big hunting vacation. His aged butler, played by William Courtwright, who would work alongside the boys again three years later as Ollie’s Uncle Bernal, in the hilarious short ‘That’s My Wife’ (1929), is attempting to help, but proceeds to do quite the opposite and drives the colonel to distraction.
We are then introduced to Stan and Babe’s characters, Marmaduke Maltravers (Hardy) and James Hives (Laurel), who are two vagrants, sitting on a park bench, minding their own business. Babe is earnestly attempting to read the newspaper, whilst Stan is convulsed with laughter at the comic strips or ‘‘funnies’, much to Hardy’s annoyance.
An article in Hardy’s newspaper reveals that vagrants/hoboes are being drafted to help fight forest fires, that are currently ablaze and out of control. Of course, Stan and Babe are soon accosted by the Forest Rangers and, rather than being drafted, the boys run away, on foot and also by stealing a bicycle, and are chased closely by the rangers.
They give the rangers the slip and hide out in a large palatial house, where some french doors have been left open. This is the house of Colonel Blood, who has since departed on his vacation and whose butler and maid are also just leaving, to sneak a few days away for themselves.
From their hiding positions, the boys overhear that the house is to be empty for a few days and, once the service staff have left, they come out of hiding and settle in to their new lodgings, albeit short term lodgings), and they sit down and treat themselves to a slap up meal. All the while, the rangers are sniffing around outside, trying to discover where their cowardly vagrants have fled to.
Before long, the doorbell rings as Lord and Lady Tarbotham, (William Austin and Madeline Hurlock), have come to enquire about renting the property. In the 1930 re-make, the Tarbotham characters are re-written as Lord and Lady Plumtree, with Charles Gerrard and Thelma Todd ably and memorably inhabiting the roles.
The remainder of the film has Stan quickly dressing up as Agnes the maid as Babe tries to pass himself off as the master of the house, Colonel Blood. As the prospective tenants have never seen either Blood nor his maid before, the charade goes swimmingly. That is until the real Colonel Blood returns unexpectedly early and all hell breaks loose. James A. Marcus, has a worryingly dangerous and unhinged air about him, much more terrifying than his 1930 counterpart, James Finlayson, who takes over the part as Colonel Buckshot. Finalyson would play the part much more humorously, as one would expect, but Marcus’ Colonel Blood was much more convincing as someone you wouldn’t want to cross.
This is enjoyable stuff to watch, as well as very interesting from a historical point of view of the boys’ character development. Some decent laughs here and there and Stan’s performance in drag as Agnes the maid is great (although the reprised role in ‘Another Fine Mess’ is arguably better, as the ability for Stan to play with dialogue opposite Thelma Todd, adds a lot more depth to his characterisation).
The film’s reception appears to have been fairly positive if this review from ‘Moving Picture World’ (April 2nd 1927), is anything to go by:
“‘Duck Soup’ Pathe -Two Reels: Two tramps certainly manage to fall in soft in this Hal Roach comedy. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appear in these roles. It is an amusing comedy with quite a lot of laughable situations, several of which are of a familiar type but cleverly handled. The two gentlemen of leisure learn that the owner of a mansion has gone away and they invade it. A couple,played by William Austin and Madeline Hurlock, come along and the tramps rent the place to them and, of course, the real owner comes along and the tramps rough-house him. As the result of all this, there is a lot of complications that will evoke laughter from the majority of patrons”.
‘Duck Soup’ is the first time we have the boys working together as a team and from all appearances their on screen characters are pretty much fully formed in this film. Okay, so there’s still quite a lot missing, such as Ollie’s bowler hat, little moustache and his tie twiddling and Stan’s trademark head scratching and crying etc, etc, and ignoring the vagrant costumes, you have to look at this film and think – that’s it! Surely after this, the producers and directors at the studio must have realised what quality they had on their hands and started to sculpt them into a cinematic, golden partnership…right?
You could be forgiven for thinking that every one of the boys’ films, from here on in, would build on the solid foundation blocks of ‘Duck Soup’ and the team as we know it would start to gain some traction….but sadly that wasn’t the case.
There was, frustratingly, still a further five films of the boys playing random separate parts before Stan and Ollie got the chance to be a team once more. But, when that did eventually happen, there was no going back.
Sadly, the quality of existing prints of ‘Duck Soup’ has been pretty poor, therefore ones’s enjoyment of it has, arguably, been slightly hindered. However, some great news published on social media very recently (September 2019), by Randy Skretvedt, citing movie historian and author Steve Massa:
“Long lost, then rediscovered in a cropped, foreign titled sound re-release in 9.5mm, “the first Laurel and Hardy” film has been restored by Lobster Films close to its original form following the rediscovery of a beautiful, full aperture nitrate print at the BFI. This appears to have been a British re-release and is the main source for this new digitization restoration. Censored sequences from the Library of Congress completes the film.”
So, there is hope that we may yet be able to appreciate this important film in the quality that it was meant to be seen. That will, of course, depend on the restorers acquiring the rights to release their version on DVD/Blu Ray, and that is never a certainty. We can but hope…
What are your thoughts on ‘Duck Soup‘? Do you think it is overshadowed by its 1930 remake ‘Another Fine Mess’, or do you think the original can’t be beaten? Do let me know your thoughts…
To sources of recommended reading for more information on ‘Duck Soup’ are:
John Bengtson’s blog, ‘How L&H Made Duck Soup’
Danny Lawrence’s book, ‘The Making of Laurel and Hardy’