“New starring team uncorks riotous performance in first picture as comedy duo“, was the headline of the Roach Studios’ Press Sheet for Stan and Ollie’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 Charlie 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.
Despite that, it appeared 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 is 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, right down to the wood 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. 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 moments. Jimmy Finlayson, once again joins the boys and has a major part in another of my favourite scenes. After much effort they escape from the prison, but find themselves soon back inside. However, after stealing the clothes of a couple of visiting French prison officials, their disguise brings them around a large table to have a posh meal with the top brass from the prison, in particular the prison Governor (Finlayson) and a lady who I assume to be his wife. Stan’s unfamiliarity with silver service and table etiquette quickly shows 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 just an absolute master at reacting to the boys’ right from the get-go. He was superb in their first film together, Love ‘Em and Weep as he was in every one of the 33 films he made with them.
So, the Laurel & Hardy train was finally, properly up and running and was about to hit top speed. The boys, together with Leo McCarey, James Finlayson and a host of other regulars would turn out hit comedy after hit comedy for many years to come. But, whilst directors and supporting actors would come and go and even the studios responsible for making the films would change hands over the coming years, from this point on, there was always a reliable and unmistakable constant that fans could and would return to again and again, even long after their mortal passing – Mr. Hardy and his good friend Mr. Laurel.
Join the discussion and share your thoughts about The Second Hundred Years and/or the wonderful James Finlayson in the comments section below.