Filmed Sept 20, 1926 to October 2, 1926
Released March 13, 1927
Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by Fred Guiol
Photographed by Floyd Jackman, Titles by H.M. Walker
Two Reels, Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Madeline Hurlock, William Austin, James A. Marcus
Widely thought of as the first “Laurel & Hardy” film, Duck Soup 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 twenty years or so, and Stanley Jefferson, now going under the adopted stage name, Stan Laurel and employed at the Hal Roach Studios, re-wrote his father’s sketch and included himself in the cast.
The story must have appealed to Stan greatly, as he used it three times during his film career. First as Duck Soup, then, three years later it was recycled for the sound short Another Fine Mess (1930) and finally, Stan re-used the opening sequence on the park bench 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.
The film cuts to a quiet bench, filmed at Westlake Park, now re-named MacArthur Park, and we are introduced to Stan and Babe’s characters, Marmaduke Maltravers (Hardy) and James Hives (Laurel), who are two vagrants, 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 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 make a swift and comical exit, first on foot and then by stealing a bicycle, (there were two bikes propped on the kerb, but they thought it best to share one!), chased closely by the rangers.
There follows a frantic chase sequence with Babe pedaling the getaway bicycle, whilst Stan sits on the handlebars. The scenes of the boys cycling were shot at various locations around Culver City and whilst stunt doubles were used for some of the shots, there are a good number of these scenes in which the boys do appear themselves, including, as John Bengtson highlights in his wonderful online article, How Laurel and Hardy Filmed Duck Soup, the scene showing Babe actually pedaling them both “west uphill along 3rd from the corner of Grand”.
They eventually give their pursuers 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 so, once the coast is clear, they come out of hiding and begin to settle in to their new, short-term lodgings, beginning with a huge slap-up meal. All the while, the rangers are still sniffing around outside, trying to discover where the 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 is a bit of an old school farce, with Stan dressing up as Agnes the maid and Babe attempting to pass himself off as the master of the house, Colonel Blood. The prospective tenants have never seen Blood or his maid before and so the charade goes swimmingly; 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 being 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).
Reviewer, Paul Thompson, writing in Motion Picture News, March 18th 1927, was somewhat bamboozled by the storyline, but ended with overall positivity for the picture, writing: “I have seen few pictures in the past several months that have as complicated a plot as this one possesses…From this premise you can deduce the rapid-fire fun which Fred Guiol, the director, has created…”.
The film’s overall reception appears to have been very positive if this handful of contemporary reviews are anything to go by:
Moving Picture World’, April 2nd 1927
“‘Two tramps certainly manage to fall in soft in this Hal Roach comedy…It is an amusing comedy with quite a lot of laughable situations, several of which are of a familiar type but cleverly handled…As the result of all this, there is a lot of complications that will evoke laughter from the majority of patrons”.
Blackwell Morning Tribune, June 21st 1927
“Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy, two of the best known players in comedies team up for laugh purposes in “Duck Soup”, the new Hal Roach comedy…These two veteran funsters, in company with beautiful and charming Madeline Hurlock, head the talented cast of what is said to be a riotous and immensely amusing comedy.
Le Grande Observer, July 16th 1927
“A comedy cast with players of proven ability are to be seen in “Duck Soup”, the new Hal Roach film of fun which will be the laugh feature of the program. There is Stan Laurel, who in the past has given some excellent performances in the lighter sort of screen entertainment. The others include Oliver Hardy, beautiful Madeline Hurlock, William Austin and James Marcus. The latter two are better known for their work in dramatic features, but it has been Hal Roach’s policy to recruit capable actors from the feature ranks for the embellishment of his two-reel comedies.”
Yonkers Statesman, August 25th 1927
“”Duck Soup” is a rollicking fun riot…”
The Yonkers Herald, August 26th 1927
“Hal Roach’s latest comedy “Duck Soup” is really one of his best presentations…”
Casper Star Tribune, October 5th 1927
“Hal Roach has turned out another rib-busting comedy called “Duck Soup”…”
The News, May 11th 1928
“Two reels of fun with one big laugh right after the other from start to finish. You’ll enjoy this one. It’s a scream.”
In only their third appearance together, by one miracle or another, Duck Soup presents Stan and Babe as the fully-fledged Laurel and Hardy characters – almost! It’s certainly the first time the world saw the boys working together as a team and from all appearances, their on-screen characters and relationship are pretty much fully formed in this film. Okay, so there’s still quite a bit missing, for instance, Ollie’s derby, his toothbrush-moustache, and the tie-twiddling and Stan’s trademark head-scratching and crying, to highlight just a few obvious elements. You could be forgiven for thinking that every one of the boys’ films, from here on in, would have built on the solid foundation blocks of Duck Soup and the fine-tuning of the team would have begun in earnest, resulting in the Laurel and Hardy that we recognise today.
So obvious was the magic of the embryonic team in this picture, that it was even noticed and noted by critics, with an article in Brooklyn Weekly News, March 9th 1927, recording:
“’New Comedy Team at Hal Roach Studio’ Born – one new comedy team. Names, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Laurel may be identified easily by his past record of many starring comedy roles. Hardy has not been featured but is regarded as a coming “bet” in comedy ranks. He weighs 284 pounds and has one of those fat-man personalities which are not easily forgotten. He and Laurel both have been seen in many recent Hal Roach Pathe comedies.
“Duck Soup”, a new Hal Roach comedy for Pathé release, presents these two, with Madeline Hurlock, James Marcus and William Austin – an unusually good comedy cast – as gentlemen of bad luck and worse appearance…As the two tramp characters, Laurel and Hardy are credited by porfessionals [sic] as having given very notable performances and created an interesting pair of characters who might well be preserved and brought to the screen in more comedies”
However, despite the acknowledgment of the boys’ wonderful performance and chemistry in Duck Soup, there was, frustratingly, still a further six or seven films with the boys playing random separate parts before Stan and Babe got the chance to be a team once more.
Identifying the film that should be historically considered the very first ‘Laurel & Hardy’ picture, is a discussion, or perhaps an argument that has bantered back and forth for quite some time. The leading candidates in this debate appear to be ‘Do Detectives Think?, The Second-Hundred Years and Putting Pants on Philip, and there is also a considerable contingent who argue that Duck Soup has the primary claim to this title and with some pretty solid reasoning and evidence to back them up. Nobody can dispute the fact that this is the film in which the boys first appear together as a team. Craig Calman, in an interview with the author on Episode Five of The Laurel and Hardy Blogcast, was adamant that Duck Soup should be celebrated as the start of Laurel and Hardy as a team. Craig referenced an official Hal Roach Studios publicity release, dated 1932, that referenced the first day of filming Duck Soup, September 20th, 1926, as being “the day that Laurel and Hardy became a team”.
Whilst these are solid reasons, the very fact that the boys were not paired, anywhere near close to resembling a team or duo, or be promoted by the studio as one, for another six films, gives reason enough to negate Duck Soup’s claim to that title.
For many years, Duck Soup was in the notorious company of Hats Off, as being considered a ‘lost film’ only being discovered in the 1970s. For this reason, the quality of existing prints have the film have sadly been pretty poor, therefore ones’ enjoyment of it has, arguably, been hindered. However, in September 2019 some very positive news was published on social media by 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.”
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…
Top 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’