Despite not resembling a typical Laurel and Hardy comedy in almost every respect, Slipping Wives is actually quite enjoyable. Okay, so Stan and Babe are not a ‘team’ in this film, but at least they do appear in scenes together, and when they do, their on-screen chemistry is certainly evident.
As part of the ‘Roach All-Stars’ series, the boys are cast as the film’s supporting comedy providers, with the leading stars of the picture being Priscilla Dean and Herbert Rawlinson, both formerly big, box office names. Hal Roach was developing a considerable reputation for signing to his studio numerous ‘falling stars’, in other words, successful actors that had begun to fall from favour, but that still had some box office pulling power. Roach saw the potential in these celebrities to provide an extra attractive element and gravitas to his two-reel shorts, an element that could give him the edge over his closest competitor, Mack Sennett. An article in The Yonkers Herald, September 7th, 1927, illustrates that Roach’s strategy had indeed been noticed:
“An unusual attraction is the appearance of Priscilla Dean in a screen comedy. It is of course a Hal Roach offering – one would expect that for who but Roach could get a star of Miss Dean’s prominence to appear in short comedy. It seems almost too far-fetched to be true though. We can Picture Priscilla, that dynamic fascinating personality in an exciting crook melodrama and exotic feature, but not in comedy. But here she be, and according to advance notices she does real well.
As if the appearance of Miss Dean were not enough, the gentleman who plays opposite her is almost as well known in fields not akin to comedy. He is Herbert Rawlinson. The picture is “Slipping Wives” a veritable riot of fun. It has often been said that the clown aspires to drama and the tragedienne to comedy, and if this is true the picture should prove an interesting experiment. It is safe to expect that there are plenty of laughs for that is what Roach always puts in his comedies – those and stars.”
As Roach intended, the appearance of big-name dramatic actors in two-reel comedies certainly caused a stir and made headlines, as this extract from an article in The Yonkers Statesman, September 9th, 1927 illustrates:
“It is well directed slapstick, has a preposterous plot, with the best laughs to be found in the titles. It certainly smacks of topsyturveydom to the movie fan to see Priscilla Dean in a film of this type, remembering her former appearances in feature productions exploiting crook melodrama and exotic environment. A parallel comparison would be to find a former clergyman working as a bartender.”
To say the boys are not a team is actually downplaying it somewhat, as Babe’s character spends most of the film trying to find ways to kill Stan. Hardy’s character, named Jarvis, is a butler to an artist (Herbert Rawlinson) who is so focused on his work he is neglecting his wife (Priscilla Dean), as the title card confirms, he only kisses her “on Sundays and holidays”.
Dean recruits the help of a close family friend, The Hon. Winchester Squirtz, played by Albert Conti, and the two form a plan to bring the neglectful husband to his senses and rekindle his romantic flame. Stan, in the role of accidental hero, Ferdinand Flamingo, “Out of nowhere, going nowhere, delivering paint…“, is hired, somewhat against his will, to make romantic advances towards Priscilla Dean in an attempt to make husband Rawlinson jealous.
Don’t be surprised if this sounds familiar, it arguably should. The plot was revisited and re-worked for the boys’ 1935 short The Fixer Uppers. Interestingly, in this later film, Stan tells Ollie and Mae Busch, taking on the role of the neglected wife…
Stan: “You know what? I knew a woman once that had a case just like yours, but you know what she did? She got a fella to make love to her, in front of her husband, and it made the husband jealous!”
Ollie: “Then what happened?”
Ollie: “So what?!”
Stan: “Well, when the husband got jealous, his wife knew that he was in love with her, just because he was jealous. You see, if he hadn’t have been jealous, he wouldn’t have paid any attention to the fella that made him jealous…see?”
Ollie: “Well, what’d the husband do? Go out and shoot the other fella?”
Stan: “No! When the husband found out, he was so pleased that he was jealous, he took his wife and kissed her and they went out again and got married all over and then he kissed her again…”
Ollie: “Just a minute! What happened to the other fellow?”
Stan: “When the husband found out he was jealous, he was so pleased that the fella had made him jealous, he gave the fella a lot of money because he’d made him jealous and they all lived happily ever after”.
Here, in The Fixer-Uppers, Stan is clearly describing himself in his role as Ferdinand Flamingo in Slipping Wives, which had been produced some eight years earlier. There’s something quite fun and satisfying about this nod to their previous work. Direct references to previous films don’t happen very often in Laurel and Hardy movies. The boys made only one proper sequel, Tit For Tat (1935), which continued the story from Them Thar Hills (1934). One further example would be in Babes in Toyland (1934), when observing Stannie Dum’s skills with a pee-wee, Ollie Dee states that whatever Stannie can do, so can he. Stannie Dum disagrees and to prove his point he demonstrates the ‘Kneesy-Earsy-Nosey’ and ‘Finger Wiggle’ games, being a direct reference to a scene from Fra Diavolo (1933) in which Ollie pathetically fails in his attempts at the games.
Once again, the boys are cast as adversaries and though they are certainly anything but a team, in the conventional sense of the word, there are several moments in Slipping Wives, where they do get to interact and their magic has the chance to shine through.
Within seconds of butler Ollie answering the front door to deliveryman Stan they are engaged in a comic tussle on the doorstep – a classic bit of business. Hardy wants Laurel to use the tradesman’s entrance and Stan is having none of it. They wrestle in and out of the doorway, Stan’s paint can is knocked out of his hands and spills all over the doorstep and ultimately, Babe lands face down in the paint – a gag that will become a staple of their future team comedies as is his next move, as he lifts his paint-covered face and looks slowly and squarely into the camera.
Another forerunner of a Laurel and Hardy trademark occurs in the very next scene, where a very reluctant Babe is instructed to take Stan to his room to dress him for dinner in the master’s own clothes, so as to be convincing in the upcoming ruse. Hardy is determined that Laurel should take a bath before dressing, but Stan does not share this opinion. There is another hilarious tussle between the two, including a short chase sequence around the bedroom, ending in Babe himself falling into the bathful of water.
Eventually, the dinner party begins, with Priscilla Dean, presenting Stan to her husband and also to her fellow conspirator Winchester Squirtz, as “Mr. Lionel Ironsides, the famous writer of fairy stories“. Typically, Stan gets in a muddle and assumes that Squirtz is in fact the husband and spends the evening trying to make the wrong man jealous.
The rest of the picture plays out as a standard bedroom farce of mistaken identities and is reasonably enjoyable stuff.
Of particular interest to Laurel and Hardy fans, the film does contains an interesting bit of trivia, being that this is the very first film in which the boys share a bed. Hardy has been instructed by his employer to keep a very close eye on Laurel throughout the night, so, rather than lose any sleep, he presses his arm over the top of Stan, pinning him down, and drops asleep. Stan, desperate to escape his predicament, now has the problem of finding a way to slide out from underneath the heavy arm and escape.
Although very funny, Jarvis the butler’s character bears little resemblance, either appearance or personality-wise, to the Ollie that we know and love, Stan is actually getting visibly closer to perfecting his recognisable mannerisms. Here we see that glorious wide smile and his naive embarrassment at being told to ‘make love’ to Priscilla Dean. He still displays that frenetic, volatile energy, carried through from his solo career, but little by little, the ‘Stanley’ character is emerging.
Priscilla Dean was clearly and firmly promoted as the star of this picture, with her name and likeness adorning all the Roach studio marketing materials. Yet, even so, the film feels, for all intents and purposes, very much a ‘Stan Laurel Comedy’, with everyone else playing supporting roles. Possibly the best scene in the entire film is Stan’s wonderful performance of the tale of Samson & Delilah in front of his hosts, in true pantomime fashion, showcasing his music hall/vaudeville training and roots.
Overall the picture was received very positively, with particular praise for the straight actors’ contributions, as reported in the following contemporary reviews:
“Well-known names for the marquee, Priscilla Dean and Herbert Rawlinson, and the comedy antics of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy under the skillful direction of Fred Guiol – a combination of this type deserves booking…” Motion Picture News, April 8th, 1927
“Not one, but two well-known stars of feature productions are offered by Hal Roach in the cast of this two-reeler, Priscilla Dean and Herbert Rawlinson, with several of the familiar Roach comedians in support, making this an exceptional aggregation even for a Hal Roach comedy.
The presence of the stars together with the good word of the supporting players, plus amusing situations and gags should make this a good attraction for any type of audience. Miss Dean is cast as a wife who is losing her husband’s love. She hires another man to make love to her and between this and the fact that he mistakes another friend for the real husband, he manages to ball everything up for the merriment of the spectator. In the main, it is farce comedy although Stan Laurel in the role of the paid lover introduces considerable slapstick“. Moving Picture World, April 23rd, 1927
Mr. Roach must have been very satisfied indeed.
All in all Slipping Wives is perhaps a step closer to the finished article for Mr. Laurel, but sadly Mr. Hardy’s character still had some way to go before he became our recognisable friend.
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