“Oliver Hardy, Hal Roach contract player and motion picture golf champion, has been added to the cast of the latest Roach Star Comedy, an untitled sea story directed by Fred Guiol. The balance of the cast includes Stan Laurel, Viola Richard, Charles Althoff, Polly Moran, Malcolm Waite and others”. ‘Moving Picture World’ February 26th, 1927.
The first thing to say about Why Girls Love Sailors, is that we should be very grateful to have it. For decades it was another title on the list of ‘lost’ films, but early in the 1970s it was discovered in the collection at the Cinémathèque Française and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that it eventually became available for wider viewing.
Why Girls Love Sailors is a Stan Laurel comedy, as evidenced by the film’s poster. Stan is clearly the star of the show, with Babe Hardy playing a small, yet effective supporting role as a heavy. He plays a rather unpleasant bully who is First-Mate on board a cargo ship, ‘The Merry Maiden’. Interestingly and somewhat frustratingly, as Randy Skretvedt informs us in Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, the intended vision for the film, was to have Stan and Babe play much more closely together. The original 21-page film script, discovered amongst the papers of director Fred Guiol, had Stan and Babe in a number of Laurel and Hardy-type situations and had the picture been shot in this way, the boys’ chemistry may arguably have been spotted sooner.
Due to the cost implications of filming the proposed storyline, the script was eventually re-written, so we can only surmise what impact this film could have made on the teaming of the boys.
In the final version of the plot, the bad guy of the piece is the ship’s surly Captain, played by Malcolm Waite. Waite, a big strong-set, good-looking actor, was able to impose his presence as a decent screen villain and is notable for other roles in films such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and also a bit part in Babe Hardy’s solo Roach film, Zenobia (1939).
At the start of the film, we meet sweethearts, Willie Brisling (Stan), and his fiance Nellie, played by Viola Richard. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on 26th January 1904 as Evelyn Viola Richard, this picture was her movie debut. She would go on to be a familiar face in the early Laurel-Hardy comedies, appearing in five silent shorts and also later with a small walk-on part in their 1935 classic Tit For Tat. Although Ms. Richard didn’t have an extensive film career, she did appear in fourteen Roach comedies, one particular appearance worthy of note, according to an excellent biographical article written by Brad Farrell, reproduced in The Laurel & Hardy Magazine, Vol.8. No.4, is Charley Chase’s 1928 silent short, ‘Limousine Love’.
Another debuting actor who also shares these first scenes, albeit briefly, is one of Stan’s old vaudeville colleagues, Charles Althoff. Moving Picture World, 12th February, 1927 announced his inclusion in the cast:
“Charles Althoff, known on most of all the leading vaudeville stages in the country as a Yankee fiddler, will make his debut in pictures under the Hal Roach banner. He is contracted for one picture to play opposite to Stan Laurel”.
Sadly for Althoff, according to his entry on IMDB, he appears to have had the majority of his scenes cut from the film. The role he was contracted for was that of fiddle playing Grandpa Grisling and his participation in the finished film is nothing short of fleeting. I suppose that one could argue that a professional fiddler’s value to a silent film is pretty limited. Happily for him, whilst this may have been his first, it would not be his last appearance in moving pictures.
The story begins with Stan, flirting with Viola and there’s a delightful part where his childish embarrassment at kissing his fiancee’s cheek sends him whirling around the room, falling over everything in sight and rolling all over the bed in glee. As mentioned earlier, this is still the Stan Laurel of his solo series, still unsure of his character, still moving around the screen at a fast tempo. Having said that, there is a sense that his character development is continuing to progress and we there are a few of what would become the ‘Stanley’ mannerisms on display, including the big trademark smiles and also quite a bit of his animated crying routine.
Unbeknownst to them both, they are being watched by the villainous captain, who has improper and unlawful plans for Viola. He makes his entrance and we quickly learn that he and Viola are old flames. The captain enters the house, uninvited, and Viola tells Stan to prove how tough Stan is, by showing Waite his tattoo of a boat. Stan stretches the neck of his sweater and allows the captain to look down at the tattoo, to which Waite feigns interest. The captain disrespectfully pours a full jug of water down Stan’s sweater causing it to bulge and slosh around when he moves. This comical ‘special effect’ puts one in mind of the ‘freak’ endings in later films such as the bloated stomach in Below Zero (1930). This inevitably results in more crying from Stan.
The captain grabs Viola and decides to take her with him back to his boat and he drags her away to the dock, where his ship awaits. Stan bravely gives chase and there follows another laugh-out-loud moment, when, in his attempts to stop the kidnap of his fiancee, the captain grabs hold of Stan and throws him around like a rag doll. Stan’s body is substituted for something very much like a rag doll in mid-scene and the effect is obvious, but still very funny.
The kidnapper gets away with his victim and drags Nellie on board and into his cabin. The main thrust of the plot of Why Girls Love Sailors, which was written by Hal Roach himself, is that Stan must sneak onboard the boat, and rescue his beloved. To do this, however, he must get past Babe Hardy’s nasty First Mate character and also overcome the majority of the ship’s crew.
By chance, he finds a box full of dressing-up clothes (clearly an essential item for rough and tough sailors back in the day!!) and he quickly hatches a plan. He dresses up as a woman and using his ‘allure’ (these sailors MUST have been away at sea for a LONG time), he tricks them into following him to a quiet corner of the boat where he smacks them over the head and they wind up being thrown overboard.
It’s during this sequence that Stan and Babe do get to share their one and only scene together. Hardy, who has also been seduced by Stan’s drag act, does his best to woo him. There’s a nice bit of ‘business’ between the boys during this exchange and this scene really stands out and is a joy to watch, with both actors playing the parts brilliantly. Although Babe’s bully is nowhere near the Ollie character, his performance is superb and it’s great to get a chance to see him use different aspects of his acting skills opposite Stan.
Stan succeeds in fooling Hardy and quickly skips away. He then, once again, uses his womanly ways to attract the attention of the roguish Captain, coyly waving to him through a porthole and he gains access to the captain’s cabin, where his intended is being held against her will.
The culmination of the film ends with the surprise appearance of another familiar and much-loved face in the Laurel and Hardy world, Anita Garvin, also making her very first appearance of many with the boys, playing the role of the captain’s jealous wife. As usual, Garvin takes a great part and comes across as very fearsome indeed.
With eleven appearances alongside Laurel and Hardy, Anita Garvin is, without question, a firm favourite amongst the team’s fans and with good reason. Born on 11th February, 1906 in New York, she began her career on stage as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. Her film debut came in 1924 at the Christie studio and she first worked with Stan in 1925, during his time with producer Joe Rock where they appeared in two films together, ‘The Snow Hawk’ and ‘The Sleuth’. Sadly, according to author Rob Stone, although stills do exist of her in character and on set, illness prevented Anita from completing her scenes in ‘The Snow Hawk’, and she was replaced by another actress, Julie Leonard.
Stan was obviously impressed by Anita’s abilities in front of the camera as later he would promote her to Hal Roach in an attempt to get her signed to Roach’s ‘Lot of Fun’, which eventually happened in 1926.
Here, in her first film with Laurel and Hardy, she is first accosted by an unwitting Babe Hardy, as she climbs aboard the boat. Roughhouse Hardy is no match for Garvin however, who quickly puts him in his place, by kicking him up his backside and then knocks him out cold with a mean right hook. She quickly locates her husband, the captain, who she finds bouncing a very dodgy-looking lady (Stan in drag) up and down on his knee. When she pulls a gun and threatens to shoot them both, Stan quickly whips off his wig and tells her it was all a ruse, to make her jealous, so that her husband could discover her true feelings for him. All seems forgiven until the Captain mimes to Stan that he’s going to ‘deal with him later’ and not in a caring way, despite the fact that Stan has just saved his bacon.
Stan’s quick thinking, then turns the tables again, by using Anita Garvin to his advantage. He opens a locked door to reveal Viola, locked inside, and tells Garvin that there were four other women, but they’d already left. He happily skips off with his fiancee, leaving the captain to his wife’s fury and her loaded blunderbuss! On their way off the boat, the happy couple peep through the porthole and, in a moment of rather dark humour, are happy to see the captain is no more. They skip away merrily, until we see the venomous face of a seething Anita Garvin at the porthole, looking out, followed by the barrel of her gun. Her shot blows the clothes off Stan and Viola, and they both run off in terror as the film fades to black.
On 19th March 1927, Moving Picture World was very complimentary about the casting for the picture, reporting:
“Guyol (sic) Finishes M-G-M Film; Excellent Cast – Fred Guiol has completed the latest Hal Roach Star comedy, and one of the most interesting from a player viewpoint. Viola Richard, newcomer to fame, just signed on a long term contract by Roach, Stan Laurel, Malcolm Waite, Charles Althoff and Oliver Hardy played the principal roles. Malcolm Waite arranged the comedy engagement between two feature roles, and Althoff was taken from vaudeville after thirteen years’ constant appearance as “The Yankee Fiddler.” The location of the story is on and around a small harbor craft and the docks. The “true love of a sailor lad” is pictured with Stan Laurel as the sailor and Viola Richard as the girl. Hal Roach now is affiliated with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who hereafter will release his comedies.”
Roach did indeed strike up a new deal with movie giants, MGM to release his comedies, but the first Laurel and Hardy picture to be released under the new contract would be another six films down the line, namely Sugar Daddies.
Despite being a tad disappointing to many fans today, when it was released to theatres back in 1927, Why Girls Love Sailors was received pretty positively, as these contemporary reviews attest:
“A Hal Roach comedy titled “Why Girls Love Sailors” is a laugh provoker with its new gags and fast stepping comedy dash.” Deseret News, Utah, July 11th, 1927
“Comedy of the slapstick type made to order for laughs. The cast comprises well and favorably known comedians and it performs the business called for in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. As the title indicates the story is of the briny deep with Stan Laurel in the role of a natural born he-man of the great wet open spaces whose eyes even are watery…We like better the type of comedy Mr. Roach has presented in his star series which gives the intelligence a better break; this is out-and-out hokum but, as stated in the beginning, it will draw mirthful chuckles.” Motion Picture News, July 15th, 1927
“Stan Laurel has the lion’s share of the opportunities in this Hal Roach comedy which is a burlesque of the heavy sailing ship melodramas. There are quite a number of amusing moments growing out of the story which centers in the fact that a rough sea captain kidnaps Stan’s girl and takes her aboard ship. Unable to lick him, Stan uses strategy, masquerades as a vamp, captivates the captain and when said captain’s jealous wife appears on the scene she does the rest and Stan escapes with the girl. Viola Richards is the girl in the case, Anita Garvin the wife and Oliver Hardy the rough sea captain (sic). Stan demonstrates that he can get a lot of laughs out of impersonating a member of the fair sex.” Moving Picture World, July 23rd, 1927
“Darn good comedy. Male lead very good“. Majestic Theatre, Eureka, Montana in Exhibitor’s Herald & Moving Picture World, November 3rd, 1928
So, on the whole, and certainly when regarded in context, Why Girls Love Sailors is fair to middling. It has some nice moments that true Laurel and Hardy fans will enjoy, but, admittedly, after watching the film, are we really any closer to understanding why girls love sailors?
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You can listen to an audio discussion of this film, which is contained within Episode Four of The Laurel and Hardy Blogcast. Click here to listen now: