Filmed May 9th to May 14th and June 19th 1927
Released February 12th 1928, Produced by Hal Roach
Directed by Hal Roach and Frank Butler , Two Reels
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Viola Richard
After 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? Given that Detectives and Elephants were filmed almost back-to-back in May 1927, how did they go from the accomplished Do Detectives Think? to the bizarre spectacle of Flying Elephants?
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 was 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.
As the unthinking ‘Detectives’ we were presented with Laurel and Hardy not only working together as a team, but also dressed in very familiar attire; shabby suits and trademark derbies. But Flying Elephants rips the boys away from this environment and drops them into a land before time. A pre-historic, Stone Age world, full of low-browed, knuckle-dragging cavemen and an extremely dodgy-looking dinosaur. The boys are almost unrecognisable, with Stan’s character, the very effeminate Little Twinkle Star, clothed in animal furs and looking like was wearing one of Harpo Marx’s rejected wigs, prances around throughout as if he’d had one too many down at the local watering hole. Although watching Stan frantically skipping, scissor-kicking and generally flouncing around is always fun, this really and quite frustratingly is character regression rather than progression. Little Twinkle Star is a complete throwback to the type of performances familiar in Stan’s solo films. In fact, the whole film itself is a regression back to some very early types of silent comedies.
As with all of the boys’ pre-team films however, it must be kept in mind that we view these movies from our informed and contemporary viewpoints. Yet, in this case, the audiences in 1927 must likewise have been fairly bemused.
This was to be the last film that Roach produced for distribution by the now struggling Pathe Exchange, having signed a new deal with giants Metro-Goldwyn Mayor. Pathe, so prominent throughout the greater part of the 1920s, would lose, not only the distribution rights to all Hal Roach productions but also the comedies of Mack Sennett and Harold Lloyd too. It would be another eight months after ‘Elephants’ was completed before Pathe released it to theatres, during which time the Laurel & Hardy team had become an incredibly popular act and their names on movie billboards were attracting huge audiences for films such as The Second Hundred Years, Hats Off, Putting Pants on Philip and Battle of the Century. Even then, Pathe, either through ignorance or sheer incompetence failed to capitalise on the boys’ popularity and did not promote ‘Detectives’ or ‘Elephants’ as ‘Laurel & Hardy comedies. As an example, Glenn Mitchell describes in Episode Six of The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, the poster for ‘Detectives’ only billed Stan Laurel and Jimmy Finlayson as stars of the picture, despite Hardy’s very prominent role.
The plot to this bizarre spectacle has the stone-age King Ferdinand ordering all men must marry on pain of death! (Clearly, strange laws existed in Nevada even back then!).
Ollie, dressed in furs and sporting an equally horrendous hairpiece and identified by the title cards merely as ‘The Mighty Giant’, starts out full of bravado and claims that he can “get five women in five minutes”. In reality, his attempts only result in being bashed on the head by his intended’s real partners. It is during one of these wooing attempts that Ollie, partaking in small talk, mentions the weather and points out that “…the elephants are flying south” as the shot cuts to some nicely animated elephants flying across the sky. As author Randy Skretvedt informs us, the animator for this clip was Roy Seawright who, having started at the Roach studios as an office boy and then worked his way into the props department, had just taken sole charge of the Hal Roach cartoon department and would go on to make 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.
The boys must go head to head in a contest to see who will claim the hand of the sought after Viola. Stan is the lady’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 cunning plan is basically murder. Stan tells Ollie that to claim his lover he must spot 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 cliff 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, much to Stan’s delight.
In addition to the main cast, the film also has small yet arguably unrecognisable roles for extras such as Tiny Sandford, Leo Willis, and Dorothy Coburn as well as Fay Lanphier and Budd Fine.
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.
Recourse to the available trade papers of the day suggests that the film was received positively, with this enthusiastic review written by Chester J. Smith for Motion Picture News, February 11th 1928:
“A rather unusual comedy away from the usual stereotyped stuff, is this latest Hal Roach effort. It goes back to the stone age with cave women and giants dominating the action, and as a result it develops some very passable humor.
James Finlayson, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, Viola Richard, Fay Lamphier and Dorothy Coburn head a splendid cast under the direction of Frank Butler and they get all the fun possible out of the two reels. The action is fast and furious and there are some unusually funny situations developed.
The theme deals with the edicts of the stone age with cave women, giants and aesthetes, and the power of brain over brawn, which triumphs largely by the aid of a goat of tremendous butting proclivities. It is all very unique as these comedies go and should prove a good attraction because it is far removed from the usual run of comedies.
Stan Laurel who has always been among the leaders in the short comedy field does some exceptionally good work in this one and is ably assisted in the many humorous complications and situations which arise by the other members of the cast. Fay Lamphier also contributes a full measure of the comedy element.”
It’s interesting to note the order with which Mr. Smith lists the actors, with James Finlayson mentioned first, followed by Babe and then Stan. It certainly seems to illustrate that there was no sense of a Laurel and Hardy team emerging at this point, even in the wake of Do Detectives Think? and it also illustrates how much of a leading player Finlayson was, to be listed first even though his part in the film was fairly minor.
Away from the studios, the two actors were having very different experiences domestically. The previous year (1926) and with the help of producer Joe Rock, Stan had finally managed to untangle himself from a very prolonged and unhappy relationship with his ex. stage partner Mae Dahlberg and now, in 1927, he was happily married to Lois Neilson and they were expecting their first child together. The baby arrived in December of that same year and was named Lois after her mother.
Conversely, 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 starting to deteriorate due to her problems with alcohol. Despite his love for Myrtle and his attempts to care for her amidst her addiction and at great financial and emotional cost to himself, they would eventually divorce in 1933.
Overall, ‘Flying Elephants‘ is a real oddment. There are a number of amusing gags and the boys display some recognisable mannerisms. Hardy, despite playing the role of a brutish giant, shows glimpses of the ‘Ollie’ character that would soon become recognised around the world, such as his genteel daintiness and subtle expressions and in my opinion, he puts in a show-stealing performance here. Stan, on the other hand, skips and dances his way through most of the film and he does actually appear to be enjoying himself. His performance is indeed amusing, but frustratingly he’s so away from the ‘Stanley‘ character that he’d been successfully developing up to this point.
I think it’s fair to say that the sight of a group of Elephants flying through the sky would be fantastically memorable, sadly the same cannot be said of this movie.
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.