What on earth is going on here??! I’d obviously been lulled into a false sense of security! After watching ‘Do Detectives Think?‘ it seemed to all intents and purposes that Hal Roach and his studio team had hit the jackpot. The magic of the Laurel and Hardy characters had been identified, albeit there were still some small adjustments to be made, but we were there…weren’t we? So, given that ‘Detectives’ and ‘Elephants’ were filmed pretty much back-to-back in May 1927, how did they go from the accomplished ‘Do Detectives Think?‘ to the bizarre spectacle of ‘Flying Elephants‘? Answers on a postcard please…or in the comments section below is probably quicker!
For this point in the boys career/development, this film, to me, is just plain bizarre. If it was 1924 and the film was a Stan Laurel comedy made during Stan’s time with Joe Rock or some other studio, then I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid, but the boys had started to create well-formed characters and the studio were releasing well thought out films with well developed gags. ‘Flying Elephants’ is like something out of the Ark compared with films like its predecessor. I’m not saying that it’s a bad film, it just feels totally out of place in the L&H chronology.
Although watching Stan frantically skipping, scissor kicking and generally flouncing around is always fun, this really is character regression rather than progression. Stan’s character, ‘Little Twinkle Star’ is a complete throwback to his solo films. In fact, the whole film itself is a regression back to very early silent comedy, almost as if someone had found an old film in a vault, that had never been released and thought…”Hang on! These are those Laurel and Hardy fellas, who are making it big at the cinema, lets release this old film of theirs from before they were famous”.
The plot to this bizarre spectacle has the stone-age King Ferdinand ordering all men to marry on pain of death! (Clearly, bizarre laws existed in Nevada even back then!).
Ollie, the Mighty Giant, starts out full of bravado and claims that he can “get five women in five minutes”, yet in reality his attempts only result in being bashed on the head by his intendeds real partners. During one of these wooing attempts, Ollie mentions the weather and points out that “…the elephants are flying south”. The action then cuts to some nicely animated elephants flying across the sky. Author Randy Skretvedt informs us that the animator for this clip was Roy Seawright who had just taken sole charge of the Hal Roach cartoon department and would go on to make quite a name for himself in the field of visual special effects.
Eventually, Big, brutish Ollie and skip-happy Stan… sorry ‘Little Twinkle Star’, both choose to woo Viola Richard, the daughter of Saxophonus the wizard, played by James Finlayson. Finlayson’s role is pretty static and he isn’t given much to do, which is a shame and a waste of his talent.
Stan is Viola’s favourite, yet Ollie wins the challenge and intends to claim his prize, until Finlayson gives Stan an idea of how to cheat and ultimately come away victorious. The big idea is basically murder. Stan tells Ollie to claim his lover by spotting her from off the edge of a cliff, whilst Ollie is looking for his new mate, Stan closes his eyes and gives Ollie a kick up the backside, in an attempt to push him over the edge to his doom. However, Little Twinkle Star’s kick is pathetic and Ollie spins around, now wise to the deadly ruse. He approaches menacingly, ready to wreak his revenge, until a mountain goat sprints up and butts Ollie off the cliff edge, to Stan’s delight.
According to Randy Skretvedt, the film was shot in Moapa, Nevada, which is 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Vegas in 1927 was nothing much more than a water stop for the railroads running between Los Angeles and New Mexico, the first casinos not arriving until the early 1930s, as a form of entertainment for the male labourers, who were employed building the Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam). The whole area was wild and rugged and Moapa was chosen for this reason. Babe Hardy would have been familiar with this area, as he had co-starred in a Roach western called ‘No Man’s Law‘ just a few months earlier and which was shot about 20 miles from Moapa on land actually owned by Roach. To get there, the studio team, including the boys, James Finlayson, Viola Richard and Hal Roach himself had to travel by train from Los Angeles.
Interestingly, away from the studios the two actors were having very different experiences domestically. The previous year (1926) Stan had finally managed to untangle himself from a very prolonged and unhappy relationship with his ex. stage partner Mae Dahlberg and by this time in 1927 he was happily married to Lois Neilson and they were expecting their first child together. The baby arrived in December 1927 and was named Lois after her mother.
Conversely, Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy was not faring so well. He’d been married to Myrtle Lee Reeves since 1921, but things were not easy in the Hardy household. His relationship with his wife was deteriorating due to her problems with alcohol. Despite his love for Myrtle and his attempts to care for her amidst her addiction, at great emotional and financial cost, they eventually divorced around 1933.
Overall, ‘Flying Elephants’ is a real oddment. There are a few amusing gags and the boys display some recognisable mannerisms. Hardy, despite playing the role of a brutish giant, shows glimpses of the ‘Ollie’ character throughout, such as his genteel daintiness and subtle expressions, and in my opinion steals the show. Stan, on the other hand, skipping and dancing his way through most of the film, is indeed funny, but yet he’s so far removed from the ‘Stan’ character that he’d been very successfully developing, it’s a wonder to me that he didn’t flatly refuse to play the role.
Did you enjoy Flying Elephants? Do you think I’m being too critical or am I on the money? Share your thoughts below and join in the Laurel & Hardy discussion.