“A comedy with the “world’s worst army” or Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Jimmy Finlayson, is now being produced by Hal Roach”. Motion Picture News, April 29th, 1927
On March 16th, 1927, just two days after filming began on With Love and Hisses, a new deal was signed between the Hal Roach Studios and MGM Distributing Corporation, basically contracting MGM to be the sole distributor of all of Roach’s short subjects.
The established relationship between Roach and his current distributor, Pathé Exchange, had been souring for some time and, as a good businessman would, Hal Roach had been forward planning and forming a strategy for his next move. Whilst still under contract with Pathé, Roach cleverly formed a strong professional association with MGM, helped enormously by Fred Quimby.
Quimby, whose name is famously associated with the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons of the 1940s, was an executive at Pathé Exchange in the 1920s. He worked closely with Roach during this time and continued to do so after he took on a new role in the New York Office of MGM. The Roach/Quimby relationship was a key factor in the change in distributor from Pathé to MGM and as a result, one could argue, the resulting success and longevity of the Roach Studio.
This important period of transition is well documented in the correspondence between Roach and Quimby and published in Craig Calman’s book, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach. The following excerpts illustrate the changing mood:
“March 10th, 1927 Letter Hal Roach to Fred Quimby: “…we are most proud of our association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer…we are to produce not fillers to take up time in theatres, but short features to have box office value, plus entertainment value equal to the same amount of minutes that the best features on the market can give for the amount of time they are on screen. That will be the future policy of our company. That the Heads of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer are allowing us to engage the cast, build sets, engage directors and writers that will equal the best in the feature field, and with these facilities available for ourselves we pledge to the Metro Sales Force our best efforts to rank second to none as comedy producers regardless of length.”
“April 14th, 1927: [Warren] Doane telegram to [H.M.] Walker: “…we consider they [Pathé] have breached the contract on many instances as regards selling our pictures by themselves and that if their present attitude continues we have in mind using the fact they have breached the contract to justify terminating production for them immediately…”
“April 25th, 1927: Walker to Doane: “Disappointed and disgusted with today’s conference STOP Pathé brought up all petty arguments of the past and tried to make them stick…Had lunch today with Feist and MGM sales heads everything lovely on this side of fence.”
Clearly, there was much excitement, anticipation, and expectation for the forthcoming new relationship with MGM. Nonetheless, the studio still had to see out their existing production commitments with Pathé. It would be another five months down the line before the first products were handed to MGM for distribution, the first involving Stan and Babe being, the All-Star comedy, Sugar Daddies, and which also happened to be the first picture released under the new distribution agreement on September 12th, 1927.
Whilst the ink was still drying on the new distribution contract, filming of With Love and Hisses was well underway. Once again, the story was penned by Hal Roach and is a Stan Laurel comedy, with Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy playing a supporting role, as the bruising bully, Top Sergeant Banner. Typical of these early pre-team pictures, the boys are not paired together but rather set against one another. It wouldn’t be long before the studio realised that the two actors were far funnier working together against the world than against each other, but for now, Hardy’s irritant for the duration of the film is, of course, Stan as Private Cuthbert Hope.
Another welcome and familiar face in the line-up is Jimmy Finlayson. The Scot, who had already been a regular player and quality foil in the Stan Laurel solo series, works his particular brand of magic once again, in the role of Captain Bustle. The chemistry between all three actors is well evident here as they all bounce off each other marvelously and it’s easy to see why a Laurel-Hardy-Finlayson trio seemed to be in the offing.
Stan and Babe’s scenes together are more frequent in this picture, certainly compared to their previous outing, Why Girls Love Sailors, and although the characters are a far cry from Stan and Ollie, there are sufficient opportunities for little bits of business and their magic sparkles through, anticipating the greatness that would soon follow.
Cuthbert Hope is arguably closer to the ‘Stanley’ character than had been seen in any of the pre-team films, certainly since Duck Soup. Hope is an innocent, simple fellow, not out to cause trouble, but certainly causing plenty as he stumbles through life. In fact, very similar to our Stanley, Cuthbert is the unwitting cause of much of Hardy’s misfortune throughout the film, with the remainder being self-inflicted.
The picture’s opening few minutes are perhaps its best. It gets off to a reasonably solid start at the Santa Fe train station, familiar to Laurel and Hardy fans for its appearance in Berth Marks (1929), and even earlier in the Stan Laurel solo short, Hustling For Health (1918). Berth Marks was only Laurel and Hardy’s second talking picture and as such the unfamiliar sound recording technology, mixed with the location sequences at the Santa Fe station proved problematic, as the microphones picked up
the voices of real passengers who had assembled to watch the boys filming. On the production of With Love and Hisses, two years before the introduction of sound recording, this was not an issue. However, that’s not to say that the production didn’t have its share of on-location challenges, if this article in Motion Picture News, April 15th, 1927 is t be believed:
“Using a railroad station for a scene in the latest Hal Roach star comedy, Fred Guiol, directing the number, had to use the services of twenty-five extra staff assistants to hold back the crowds that collected and keep the stragglers out of the camera’s range. Jimmy Finlayson, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are in the cast of this latest of the Roach star comedies.”
The Home Guard are gathering at the station, preparing to depart for camp and there are some nice gags and bits of business here as the characters are introduced to us. Stan immediately gets on the wrong side of Babe by knocking the cigarette out of his hands. Babe begins to berate the witless Laurel but is stopped in his tracks as Captain Finlayson arrives, with two lady escorts, one on each arm, trips over Stan’s luggage, right in front of Hardy. Finlayson leaps to the assumption that the suitcase belongs to Babe and his cards are well and truly marked. As Finlayson marches off to board the train, Babe discovers that the suitcase belongs to Stan, which, of course, enrages him further.
As they begin to board the train, Stan mistakenly thinks that a couple of ladies are waving to him. He starts to wave back but then realises they are actually trying to get Babe’s attention. He graciously directs Hardy’s attention towards the girls and Babe, in a very cocksure manner, struts over to begin his wooing. Unfortunately for Ollie, the ladies were waving to Captain Finlayson, so he finds himself in hot water again, thanks to Stan.
One of Finlayson’s ladies is played by the returning Anita Garvin, fresh from her role with the boys in Why Girls Love Sailors. Following Ollie’s wooing attempts, we have a marker of just how far away from the familiar ‘Ollie’ character we are in this film. Anita rejects Babe by pushing him away by his head and in a tit-for-tat moment, Babe begins a rather heavy-handed pushing match with Ms. Garvin, pushing her, also by the head. Not at all what we’re used to from the soft, southern gentleman of the team’s iconic pictures.
With Love and Hisses has some good laugh-out-loud moments throughout, but opinions are divided by the gags on the train that are based around stinky smells. The most prominent of these are Stan’s reactions to the garlic sandwiches and spring onions that are being messily consumed by the guy sitting opposite him in the train’s cramped compartments. Ultimately, Stan resorts to donning his gas mask, the face part of which comically inflates and deflates as he breathes deeply. There’s also a great follow-up gag as Stan ditches a garlic-infused fruit pie out of the train carriage window and the pie flies straight into the window of the neighbouring compartment and into the sleeping face of Captain Finlayson.
I always enjoy these scenes and they never fail to make me laugh, whereas others, such as expert Randy Skretvedt in his book, Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies and aficionado, Chris Seguin, talking on Episode Four of The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, find them somewhat puerile.
Also worthy of note is the inspection line-up sequence at Camp Klaxon. With Babe Hardy looking on in the background, Finlayson inspects the troops and is not impressed, particularly with Stan. The way that Stan misunderstands Finlayson’s orders is very funny and he drives the Captain to frenzied, double-taking distraction. This theme would be revisited and re-worked in future pictures, such as Beau Hunks, Pack Up Your Troubles, Bonnie Scotland, and The Flying Deuces, but on those occasions, both Stan and Babe would be in the line-up.
An interesting article about the extras in the cast was printed in The Yonkers Herald, September 28th, 1927, where it stated:
“For the “world’s worst army” the Roach studios secured a cast composed of National Guardsmen and ex-service men. When they started work a premium was placed on careless technique, slouchy dress and ability to keep out of step. This was hard for the men to understand at first, but the director finally succeeded in getting results and this comedy is said to be a screaming riot of hilarious situations from beginning to end”.
This reads as though it could have been lifted directly from the film’s promotional Press Sheet, but it does provide an insight into the level of detail afforded to these All-Star short comedies.
The picture’s final third is arguably its weakest. The troops are ordered to march in the hot sun and just two miles from camp they begin to drop, exhausted. The soldiers spot a beautiful pool and they all immediately strip off for a refreshing skinny dip. Stan is about to join them, but Babe orders him to stay and watch over the soldiers’ uniforms. This more belligerent version of Stan will not follow orders that he doesn’t like, however, and so he quickly strips off himself and dives in. In the meantime, a discarded cigarette, flicked carelessly aside, lands in the pile of clothes left behind by the swimming party. The uniforms quickly catch fire and they burn down to ashes.
Back at camp, Major General Rohrer, played by Frank Brownlee, arrives for an unannounced inspection. Interestingly, Brownlee would also appear as the memorably bad-tempered Drill Sergeant in Pack Up Your Troubles, barking orders at the incompetent troops. A shocked Captain Finlayson demands the bugler to sound the order for all troops to line up for inspection.
The action cuts back the pool and the happy swimmers hear the bugle call (from two miles away!?) and in a panic, they all exit the water, only to find their clothes have been consumed by the fire.
In order to get back to camp and to cover their nakedness, they make use of a ridiculously and somewhat unbelievably convenient billboard, advertising Cecile B. De Mille’s, The Volga Boatman. They cut out holes to poke their faces through and then between them they carry the billboard back to camp.
Sadly, the grand finale is a bit of a letdown. First, returning to the stinky smell gags, a skunk starts to attack the troops, which makes them run in terror, away towards camp. As they run they kick over an active bees’ nest and the angry bees swarm around the fleeing soldiers, stinging them from behind.
The soldiers, complete with the modesty-saving billboard and a large cloud of attacking bees crash into camp and cause absolute mayhem. The final scene shows the soldiers in one final line up, marching away with massively swollen bottoms, caused by multiple bee stings.
An interesting point to note from behind the camera, as informed by Randy Skretvedt, is that the supervising director at the Roach studios, F. Richard Jones, resigned his post quite suddenly at this time. Jones had taken Stan Laurel under his wing and taught him how to direct movies and Stan had become incredibly fond of him. Not only that but Jones was also given the credit for turning the studio’s fortunes around.
Replacing him in the role was Leo McCarey, who was previously only involved with the Charley Chase comedies, but now became supervising director for everything produced by the Roach Studios. It was McCarey, who would be given the ultimate kudos for noticing the potential of and eventually teaming Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together in their own series of comedies.
In a 1972 interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, cited in Wes D. Gehring’s, Laurel & Hardy: A Bio-Bibliography, McCarey himself explained what the role of supervising director actually entailed:
“Supervisor meant being responsible for practically everything on the film: story, gags, screening the rushes, working on the editing, sending out the prints, cutting again when the previews weren’t good enough. But in those days, your name wasn’t mentioned in the credits; the industry knew who’d do what.”
Losing Jones from the team was a significant loss for the studio, but Leo McCarey was a more than capable replacement, and his guiding hand over the coming years ensured that the name and comedy of Laurel and Hardy would never be forgotten.
Despite the lack of a strong plot, and some reliance on puerile humour, the performances of Messrs. Laurel, Hardy and Finlayson are enough to carry the film and make With Love and Hisses a relatively enjoyable watch. Raymond Ganly’s review, in Motion Picture News, September 16th, 1927, gets it spot on:
“The Hal Roach Star comedy certainly has quality in its cast. When three extra good comedians like Stan Laurel, Jimmy Finlayson and Oliver Hardy are in a cast you naturally look for a higher grade of comedy than is to be found in this opus of the training camp. This trio is competent enough to put any gag over with plenty of gust, but the humor here fails to click because gag material is too weak.
Finlayson is a Don Juanish captain, Hardy a hard-boiled sergeant and Laurel an atrociously dumb rookie. The latter “doesn’t know he’s supposed to know anything”, but he certainly gets the sergeant in dutch with the captain by reason of his stupidity. It’s the foolishness, silliness of any particular comic that brings an uproarious response from the general run of audiences and Laurel possesses this ‘dumb’ quality in large quantities…”
More generally, however, the bulk of the film’s contemporary reviews were fairly mixed, as illustrated by the following selection:
“Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Finlayson and Stan Laurel are about evenly supplied with comedy opportunities in this Hal Roach offering which is a travesty on a military training camp…It is a two-reeler of average amusement value with considerable slapstick and much of the humor familiar with pictures of this type.” Moving Picture World, August 27th, 1927
“A Grab-Bag of Comics – Here is something that is a little broader than an evident satire on citizen’s training camps. Facial expressions rather than situations and gags contribute to the humor, and in this line of delivery Stan Laurel and Jimmy Finlayson can take a lot of punishment. The point that is most apparently made is that wars can get along without these particular heroes, whose topmost distinction in this free-for-all conflict, is to capture a pullman car on the way to the camp. Oliver Hardy makes things easier on the eye.” Film Daily, August 28th, 1927
“The Hal Roach comedy on the bill will go a long way toward convincing the doubtful that what Sherman said was true. Just picture for yourself the screaming racket of war. The nasty tones of the awakening bugle. Captains and second Looeys taking all the pretty girls. Cooties, cactus, corns and beanpots. The wail of a sweet Summer breeze laden with six inches of rain, and the soft siren song of a top sergeant with a new batch of rookies come to make the world safe for democracy and feather beds. It’s just tough, that’s all, but it doesn’t stop Hal Roach’s comedy of army life, “Love and Hisses,” from being one of the laugh hits of the year…and with these well-known funsters topping the list of players, it’s a cinch that here’s a comedy well worth seeing.” The Yonkers Herald, September 29th, 1927
With Love and Hisses is a far cry from the classic Laurel and Hardy films, but the magic is most definitely if you look for it, making it certainly worthy of inspection. What it does do is re-enforce to the modern viewer, how much we’d rather see the boys united against the world instead of fighting against each other.
What did you think of ‘With Love and Hisses’? Do you have a favourite scene? Join the discussion and share your thoughts below.