“New starring team uncorks riotous performance in first picture as comedy duo“, was the headline of the Roach Studios’ Press Sheet for Stan and Babe’s thirteenth film in which they appeared together. Yes, finally somebody at the studio had realised just how good the boys were together (when they were actually ‘together’ and not trying to kill each other), and the credit for this historic pairing goes to an Irishman named Leo McCarey.
McCarey had worked his way up in the movie business, working initially for Mack Sennett, then at Universal Studios before becoming a gag writer on the ‘Our Gang’ series for Hal Roach. He was soon promoted to director for a series of comedies by another star at the Roach studios, one Charley Chase (whose real name was Charles Parrott). McCarey’s development at Roach eventually secured him the role of Supervising Director on all comedies at the studio which, of course, included the Laurel & Hardy films.
McCarey’s influence on Laurel & Hardy’s comedy style cannot be underestimated. His influence slowed the comedy pace down and brought a more humane touch, going against the frantic, breakneck slapstick pace of previous early silent comedies, preferring instead a softer more subtle form, as Simon Louvish expertly notes “…McCarey’s comedy is of pity not cruelty”.
The Second Hundred Years was then the first official ‘Laurel & Hardy’ comedy and it was notably the first of the boys’ films to be made with the guiding hand of Leo McCarey. It did appear, however, that the movie-going public had no idea that a pairing of the two was in the offing, as the trade paper ‘Moving Picture World’, July 2nd, 1927, reported:
“Four units are hard at work on forthcoming Pathe comedies at the Hal Roach Studios. Vacation time is in the offing, and production is at high speed. Charley Chase is finishing a carnival comedy under the direction of James Parrott. Robert McGowan is well started on a football story with ‘Our Gang’. Clyde Bruckman is at work directing Max Davidson under the supervision of Leo McCarey. Fred Guiol is launched on a convict story featuring the Hal Roach triple-star combination, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and James Finlayson.”
Further, the same publication, on 9th July 1927 stated:
“Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Jimmy Finlayson, Hal Roach’s trio of star comedians, spent a day in jail the other day, but it was in the interests of fun-making for a new movie.”
It’s interesting to note that even at this stage in their developing careers, they’re still considered a ‘trio of star comedians’, alongside Mr. Finlayson, and to be fair, you’d have to say, why not? Fin always played consistently well in all his films, with very strong and recognisable character traits. He was always very reliably funny and so rightly deserved to be headlining the bill with our own dynamic duo. The triple-header was not to last, however, as this would be the boys’ pivotal breakaway movie, even though Finlayson was once again cast in a prominent role.
In their first film together as a team, Stan & Ollie couldn’t have looked more different, as they play two prison inmates, named ‘Big Goofy’ (Ollie) and, wait for it…’Little Goofy’ (Stan). As prisoners, they both have completely shaved heads and are dressed in typical striped jail uniforms. Their characters are, however, for the most part at least, the Laurel & Hardy that the world would come to know and love.
The opening scene is just lovely and sets the tone not only for the rest of the film but for their on-screen relationship over the next 24 years. Sitting, somewhat downhearted, Ollie helps himself to his last roll-up cigarette (kept under his hat) and seeing that Stan doesn’t have one he tears it in two and graciously shares it with his mate. They then quickly realise that neither of them has a match to light them with. Ollie, beautifully flicks his half away and dejectedly stares into space with head in hands, whilst Stan takes his tobacco and snorts it, causing one almighty sneeze. Ollie’s reaction to this unexpected outburst is just comedy gold and laugh-out-loud funny.
From there, the rest of the film moves along at a decent pace and contains some great sequences.
The boys are determined to break out of the prison and have evidently been busy for some time digging a tunnel, leading from underneath their cell. With some clever photography, we soon join them in the tunnel, as they attempt to dig the last few feet to freedom. It starts badly, however, as Stan burns his own bottom with their candle and Ollie puts his pick through a water pipe, soaking them both. They decide to make a “detour”, which is, as Ollie explains, “The wrong way to the right place“. As Stan keeps his finger on the burst pipe, Ollie begins to tunnel upwards as the shot cuts away to the quietness of the warden’s office. That is, quiet until two escaping inmates appear, chopping their way through the office floor, right under the nose of the warden. With the escape attempt foiled, the boys are chased back to the cells, and to their prison guard, played by a very animated Tiny Sandford. Meanwhile, their tunnel continues to fill up with water from the burst pipe and eventually floods the warden’s office, to the point where we see someone floating around in the room.
After much effort, they finally escape from the prison, by turning their uniforms inside out and pretending to be painters. They steal a couple of paint pots from the real decorators, who had just gone for a lunch break and they magically and miraculously walk right out of the prison gates. They are immediately spotted and viewed with some suspicion by an officer on the beat and he follows them all around the town. The boys, feeling very conspicuous, try to remain nonchalant and proceed to paint everything in sight, i.e. cars, windows, pavements and even Dorothy Coburn’s rear end! These are some very good gags and, according to Randy Skretvedt, were entirely improvised on the set.
They eventually manage to give the officer the slip and jump into a car waiting car. As the chauffeur-driven car pulls away, the boys throw the passengers out after relieving them of their clothes. The only problem is and unbeknown to the boys, the previous occupants of the car were actually visiting French prison officials on their way to inspect the very prison the boys had just escaped from. And so, our heroes are delivered back to the prison, only this time they are in the top hat and tails guise of the expected French dignitaries.
There follow some funny scenes of awkwardness as the two escaped prisoners attempt to fit in with the high society types. There’s a lovely little moment where Stan trips up over the long, flowing train of a lady’s dress and in annoyance, he turns and kicks the dress’ train – just a small detail, but very funny.
For the next trial, they find themselves sitting around a large banqueting table, having a posh meal with the top brass from the prison, in particular the prison Governor (James Finlayson) and a lady who we assume to be his wife.
Stan’s unfamiliarity with silver service and table etiquette quickly show through and he ends up chasing a grape with a fork, from off the top of his fruit cocktail, onto and around his plate, along the table and ends up first dropping it down the back of Fin’s wife’s dress and then, having retrieved it by hand, he then repeats the exercise, this time with a spoon, and then flirts the offending grape into Finlayson’s eye. To me, this scene just never stops being funny, I think down to Stan’s focused determination, but mostly due to the reactions of Fin. James Finlayson was an absolute master at reacting to the boys’ right from the get-go and with one squinting look he can have an audience in stitches. He was superb in his very first film with both Laurel and Hardy, Love ‘Em and Weep, just as he was in every one of the 33 films they made together.
As soon as the boys, in their guise as prison officials, are taken on a tour of the prison facilities, they’re quickly recognised, especially as the two real French officials are inhabiting Stan and Ollie’s cell, the game was up.
So, the Laurel & Hardy train was finally, properly up and running and was about to hit top speed. It’s very interesting to note that according to Randy Skretvedt’s ‘Magic Behind the Movies’ book, Stan was not initially keen on McCarey’s suggestion of becoming part of an official comedy team, for the main reason that he wanted to work primarily behind the scenes, writing and directing. Babe Hardy, on the other hand, having worked for many years on literally hundreds of films, had always been in the shadow of leading players, such as Larry Semon, or Harry Langdon, to name but two, and now, here was his chance to become a leading star himself, even if it was as part of a team.
Hal Roach and Leo McCarey knew they had something wonderful on their hands in Stan and Babe, and a businessman like Roach was not about to let an opportunity like this slip through his grasp.
The boys, together with Roach, McCarey, James Finlayson and a host of other regulars would go on to turn out hit comedy after hit comedy for many years to come. Their two-reelers, usually only as supporting items in theatres, became headline items and major draws for movie-goers. The films of Laurel and Hardy were marketed with the same amount of effort and budgets normally only given over to the major feature films of the day. Laurel and Hardy became two of the biggest stars, not only in the world of comedy but in all of Hollywood.
Over the years, directors and supporting actors would come and go and even the studios responsible for making and distributing the boys’ films changed hands, from this moment on, there would always be a reliable and unmistakable constant that fans could and would return to again and again, even long after their mortal passing – that constant was Mr. Hardy and his good friend Mr. Laurel.
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