I really like ‘Sailors Beware!’ Yes, it has all the frustrations of the majority of the pre-team films, primarily to do with the boys being cast as opponents of sorts and not portraying the fully developed Stan and Ollie characters that we want them to. But, there are some very funny gags, a great cast with super performances and the sets are quite lavish, compared to the majority of the boys’ early Hal Roach pictures.
So, once again Stan and Babe, as part of the ‘Roach All-Stars‘, are set against each other, rather than facing the world together. Stan plays the part of Chester Chaste, a cab driver who is unwittingly loaded with his (burning) cab on board a cruise liner. Ollie plays the part of Cryder, the Purser on board the cruise shop, S.S. Mirimar. There are some clearly recognisable ‘Ollie’ traits on display here. His genteel smoothness with the ladies is quite lovely and very ‘Ollie-like’ (despite the fact that the Purser is in fact a bit of a lecherous creep), but then very un-Ollie-like, he is very aggressive and abusive to the male passengers.
There’s a great scene at the start of the picture that introduces us to his character, where he is welcoming passengers onto the cruise ship. To the ladies he is very charming and all smiles, but then when a male passenger steps up, he very rudely barks at them to move along and get on board. Babe’s transitions, alternating from charm to rudeness and then back again, is sublime.
Joining the boys for her second film in a row is the excellent Anita Garvin, who plays international crook, Madame Ritz. Garvin’s husband and partner in crime, played by Gustav Schaffrath, is a dwarf who tricks fellow passengers into believing he’s Garvin’s baby, whilst actually scamming them out of their money and valuables. Born around 1904 in Germany, Schaffrath migrated to the States in March 1923, to join the A.S. Barnes circus in Dallas, Texas. Twenty three years old during the making of ‘Sailors Beware!‘, he plays his part extremely well – any scene with a baby smoking a big fat cigar is always worthy of a laugh.
Reviewing the film, ‘Moving Picture World‘ (September 24th 1927) wrote:
“‘Sailors Beware’ Pathe – Two Reels: With Anita Garvin in the leading feminine role, Stan Laurel is the star of this Hal Roach comedy which rates as a good slapstick offering. Stan is cast as a boob taxi driver whose car with him in it is accidentally hoisted on a trans-oceanic steamship. He is forced to work his passage as a steward and succeeds in unmasking a pair of jewel thieves. A novel touch shows the woman, played by Miss Garvin, aided by her husband, portrayed by a midget. The midget dresses as a baby in order to aid her and disarm suspicion but the scheme goes blooey. There is a lot of chase stuff and farce comedy mixups. Oliver Hardy, Frank Brownlee, Lupe Velez and Viola Richard are included in the cast and Hal Yates directed.“
As mentioned in the review, Viola Richard appears again, if only for one scene, where she is playing cards with scheming Anita Garvin. Garvin is being helped to cheat by her ‘baby’ whose pram is positioned behind the other players and proceeds to signal to his wife what cards the other players are holding. Stan spots this foul play and quickly spoils their scam, by ensuring Viola Richard plays the right cards to win. Also of note in the cast-list and taking up even smaller roles are L&H regular Tiny Sandford and Dorothy Coburn.
As mentioned above and featured in an uncredited role, playing the part of Baroness Behr, is Mexican born, Lupe Velez. This was only Velez’s second film role, but her two films with Hal Roach were enough to kick start her movie career, as an article in ‘Screenland’ magazine (March, 1928), states:
“Pep incarnate is what Hollywood call Lupe Velez. She is a little devil on the screen, and a lot of it isn’t acting…When Lupe danced , she packed the house. They cheered, they threw her flowers, money, jewels… After a time her fame reached California and she was signed for a featured dance in the Hollywood Music Box Revue. Hal Roach, comedy producer, thought he would take in the Music Box show one evening. Contrary to his custom, he had the very dickens of a time to obtain seats. After he had seen Lupe dance, he knew why. It came to him that she was the very star he needed for his comedies, and she signed a contract that evening in her dressing room. It was only necessary for her to make two comedies for Roach, What Women Did For Me and Sailors Beware! and straight away Douglas Fairbanks found out she was the only leading woman possible for The Gaucho…So, Lupe Velez is made.“
After appearing with the boys before they were even an official comedy team, Velez would go on to make one more film with them, sharing a tit for tat, egg-breaking scene in 1934’s MGM spectacular ‘Hollywood Party‘.
Perhaps most noteworthy from a historical perspective is that this film is the first short, starring both Stan and Babe together, in which Babe performs what would become a trademark look directly into the camera to connect with the viewing audience, in order to get across his, usually despairing feelings. Whilst it’s true to say that this is not the first time Ollie has performed this on screen (he used it earlier in his career at the likes of the Vim and also Lubin Studios), but he was certainly now perfecting his craft here.
In addition to this, in a 1954 interview with John McCabe, for McCabe’s ground-breaking biography ‘Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy,‘ Babe himself remembered this same scene (although, at the time, he mistakenly attributed it to the wrong film), as the first time he performed his iconic tie-twiddle.
“In one sequence…He opens the door…but is met with a pail of water in the face. “I was expecting it,” Babe admitted later, “and yet in a way, I wasn’t. I had a vague memory of it being part of the action coming up but as I recall I didn’t expect it at that particular moment. It threw me mentally, just for a second or so, and I just couldn’t think of what to do next. The camera was grinding away, and I knew I had to do something, so I thought of blowing my nose with my wet and sopping tie. I was raising my tie to my nose when all of a sudden I realized that this would be a bit vulgar. There were some ladies watching us. So I waved the tie in a kind of tiddly-widdly fashion, in a kind of comic way, to show that I was embarrassed. I improved on that little bit of business later on, and I used it for any number of situations. But usually I did it when I had to show extreme embarrassment while trying to look friendly at the same time. And that’s how the tie-twiddle was born.“
The actual film footage, doesn’t exactly mirror Babe’s recollections, he was, after all, remembering a scene shot around 27 years previously, but watching it back, you can almost visibly see him going through that creative thought process, that he’s describing, and it is certainly very possible that the spark of the idea for the tie-twiddle was generated here.
Because of this scene, I really believe that ‘Sailors Beware!’ is a pivotal moment, something of a turning point, not only in the development of Ollie’s character, but also in the formation of the Laurel & Hardy team more generally.
As for Stan, he once again turns in a great and very enjoyable performance, with a scattering of trademarks (I think there are a record number of screen cries so far in his career, in this film). Some of Stan’s gags, whilst making me laugh-out-loud were also unexpected. For instance, in the scene leading up to Ollie’s soaking, he pushes a couple of annoying, snooty bathers, one of them being Lupe Velez, into the pool, seemingly just because he feels like it. Also, later in the film, when he’s asked to take the ‘baby’, in its pram, down the grand staircase and, because he suspects the ‘baby’ is not what he appears, he just pushes the pram, baby and all down the stairs. Very funny scenes, but probably so funny because I don’t expect that sort of behaviour from Stan and so the gags took me by surprise.
Stan’s performance in general is still quite fast-paced, not the slowed-down, dim-witted Stanley character yet. He is still quite belligerent towards anybody who crosses him and is quick to get into heated debates with people in authority, which is at odds with the Stanley that we know and love., but, even so, his performance is very enjoyable.
There are once again a few nice exchanges between the boys and its just a real shame there weren’t more of them. One of my absolute favourite scenes in this film is the skipping scene, where Stan joins in with a lady skipping rope, then Ollie, who is pursuing Stan, has to literally ‘count himself in’, in order to get close to him, so in the end all three are jumping the rope together. This really tickles me. The acting is great as is the comic timing – just brilliant!
So, one step closer to being a team? Very possibly…
Thanks to Craig Calman and especially http://www.lordheath.com for the information regarding Gustav Schaffrath.
What was your favourite scene in ‘Sailors Beware!’, or did you hate the film from start to finish? Please do share your thoughts in the comments section below, or on my Facebook page.