Filmed June 11th to June 18th,1927
Released October 8th, 1927
Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by Fred Guiol
Photographed by George Stevens, Titles by H. M. Walker
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Tiny Sandford, Frank Brownlee
“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, 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 direct another one of Roach’s leading series of comedies, that of Charles Parrott, or as he was known on the screen, Charley Chase. McCarey quickly earned himself an excellent reputation, one which eventually secured him the role of supervising director on all comedies at the Roach studio which, of course, included the ‘All-Star’ films, featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
McCarey’s influence on Laurel and 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 speed of early silent comedies, preferring instead a softer more subtle form, as Simon Louvish expertly notes in, Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy, “…McCarey’s comedy is of pity not cruelty”.
As announced by the studio, The Second Hundred Years was then the first official ‘Laurel and Hardy’ team comedy, and notable as the first of the boys’ films to be produced with the influential guiding hand of McCarey. The boys wouldn’t be given their own series until the latter half of the following year, the first being Should Married Men Go Home?, so until then the new duo would assume the position of the dominant part of the Roach ‘All-Stars’ brand. Furthermore, it appeared that the movie-going public had no idea that a pairing was even in the offing, as 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.”
Then, one week later, on 9th July 1927, the same publication 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 worth noting that at this stage in their developing careers, they’re still considered a ‘trio of star comedians’ alongside Mr. Finlayson, and to be fair, you have to say, why not? James Finlayson always played consistently well in all his roles, with very strong and recognisable character traits. He was reliably funny and rightly deserved to be headlining the bill alongside Stan and Babe. In somewhat contradictory fashion, the Roach Press sheet, that on the one hand trumpeted the arrival of their new comedy duo in its main headline, went on to reinforce his established position within the team: “Jimmy Finlayson, the third member of Roach’s effervescent trio, contributes to the merriment as the governor.”
The film, of course, clearly belongs to Stan and Babe, with Finlayson, as good as he is, cast in a supporting role. It’s arguably surprising, therefore, that he was given such prominent billing on the posters and related promotional materials. Confusing the issue a little more, as Randy Skretvedt confirms in ‘The Laurel & Hardy Movie Scripts‘, the original main titles conveniently side-stepped the issue with the first card reading, “Hal Roach presents The Second 100 Years“, followed by all four main players’ names, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, and Stanley J. Sandford.
It’s interesting to consider the billing on this picture, after all, aside from the salary, billing is the most important aspect in an actor’s career, and therefore, one wonders if there may have been some studio politics at play here in an attempt to keep the Scotsman happy, as it became apparent that the days of the famous ‘trio’ were all but over. The Second Hundred Years did prove to be Laurel and Hardy’s pivotal breakaway movie, and it surely must come as no surprise that after only two more appearances with the boys and with the size of his roles and status obviously dwindling, Finlayson left the Roach studios to seek out more prominent parts in pastures new.
In their first film together as a team, Stan and Ollie’s physical appearance couldn’t have been more different from what the world would come to associate them with. In the picture, they play two prison inmates, named ‘Big Goofy’ (Ollie) and, wait for it…’Little Goofy’ (Stan) and, because they are a couple of jailbirds, they are dressed in stereotypical stripey jail uniforms and topping the look off, their heads are completely shaven.
Stan’s haircut even made the headlines, as reported in Motion Picture News, July 8th, 1927:
“Stan’s Haircut: When Stan Laurel, Hal Roach featured comedian in Pathe-comedies, sails for London the latter part of this month, to visit his father for the first time in eighteen years, he will be forced, by the cruel vagaries of fate, to appear in the parental home with his head shaved. Such is the life of a screen player.
Laurel and Oliver Hardy, well known for their comedy team work, are to appear as convicts in their next production at the Hal Roach Studios, starting immediately. Their locks will be shorn within a day or two. Then, immediately after the completion of this comedy, Laurel will sail, hair or no hair.”
Despite this striking look, the boys’ personalities and, just as importantly, their relationship is, for the most part at least, that of the ‘Stan and Ollie’ that the world would come to know and love. This essential dynamic is perfectly captured in the very first scene, setting the tone, not only for the rest of the film but for their on-screen relationship over the next 24 years.
As the film opens, we find the boys sitting in their cell, somewhat downhearted. Ollie helps himself to his last hand-rolled cigarette (kept under his hat), and seeing that Stan doesn’t have one, he tears his in two and graciously shares it with his pal. They then quickly realise that neither of them has a match to light them with. Ollie, rather beautifully flicks his away and dejectedly stares into space with head in hands, whilst Stan takes his tobacco out of the paper and snorts it, causing one almighty sneeze. Ollie’s reaction to this unexpected outburst is hilarious. From here, the rest of the film moves along at a decent pace and contains some really wonderful sequences.
The boys are determined to break out of the prison and have evidently been busy for some time digging a tunnel 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 backside with their candle and then Ollie puts his pick through a water pipe, soaking them both. Their only choice is 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 and the shot cuts away to the quietness of the warden’s office. Quiet that is, until two escaping inmates appear, chopping their way through the office floor, right under the nose of the warden. Inevitably, their escape attempt is short-lived and the boys are returned to their cell and to their less than happy prison guard, played by a very animated Tiny Sandford. The scenes with Sandford in this picture are the most involved with him to date, which may have arisen more accidentally than was planned. As Randy Skretvedt points out in The Laurel & Hardy Movie Scripts, the script is very light on detail involving Sandford’s action, which points to the strong possibility that the sequence involving the convicts’ exercise routine was ad-libbed on-set, thus creating a bigger role for Sandford than he may have anticipated. The scene works well and is very amusing.
Meanwhile, the tunnel continues to fill up with water from the burst pipe and eventually floods the wardens’ office, to the point where we see the warden floating around in his room, along with his office furniture. For a quick two or three seconds of screen time, this is quite an elaborate and potentially expensive special effect. The movie script’s proposal of how the action would unfold differs from what was filmed:
“We cut to the warden’s office which by this time is all flooded. His desk, chairs, etc. are all floating around. The warden enters looking backwards still raving. He makes a big step into his office and falls into the water out of sight. He finally comes up and takes it big.”
Trevor Doman, writing in The Laurel & Hardy Magazine, Volume 9, No.5, provides evidence, taken from the film’s original cutting continuity, and he lists scene-by-scene the footage that the cutting continuity states was included in the original release, but now appears to be missing from all known existing prints. Based on this primary source material, Dorman’s article suggests that the footage of the warden entering his office was indeed filmed, but is among the various segments now lost.
Unfortunately, recourse to all the available literature offers no clues as to how the shot was executed. Randy Skretvedt, talking with the author in Episode 9 of The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, speculated that a special tank may have been built, in order to flood the set. By May 1920 the studio lot did indeed have a pool/water tank on-site, which may well have been the means used to effect this great shot.
After much effort and remaining undeterred, they finally succeed in escaping from the prison, by turning their uniforms inside out and pretending to be painters and decorators. They steal a couple of paint pots and 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 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.
Some highly amusing scenes of awkwardness follow 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 evening gown and in annoyance, he turns and flippantly kicks the gown’s train – it’s a small detail, easily missed, but it’s this kind of attention to the little things that made Stan and Babe’s comedies so excellent. It’s also interesting to observe that this hot-headed, impulsive reaction is a trait that Stan gave to most of his pre-team characters, such as Chester Chaste in Sailors Beware!, or Ferdinand Finkleberry in Slipping Wives, but that he would gradually fade-out, as the slow-witted and mostly-passive ‘Stanley’ character began to emerge and establish itself as his ‘forever character’.
For the next trial, the boys 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 with 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’ shenanigans 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 are quickly recognised, especially as the two real French officials were inhabiting Stan and Ollie’s old cell. The game was up.
Understandably, the film received a warm reception and earned positive reviews:
“This is the first one of these we have had and only hope the rest of them are as good. These two boys are good and these new M-G-M comedies so far have been consistently very good.” Rex Theatre, Colby, Wisconsin in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, March 24th, 1928
“The best two-reel comedy I have received to date from Metro. These two boys are certainly great entertainers. They could make a feature length comedy without much trouble.” Liberty Theatre, Humansville, Missouri in Exhibitor’s Herald World, October 26th, 1929
“A laugh from start to finish”. Crystal Theatre, Watseka, Illinois in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, November 2nd, 1928
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, 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, also, was very nervous about the prospect of partnering with Stan, but, having worked for many years on literally hundreds of films and always in the shadow of leading players such as Larry Semon, Clyde Cook, or even Billy West, to name but three, here was his chance to become a leading star himself, even if it was as part of a double-act.
Despite the studio promoting this picture as featuring their “new starring team”, it appeared to have passed many local theatre owners by, as quite a number of them promoted The Second Hundred Years as a Stan Laurel Comedy, completely ignoring Babe Hardy’s significant role. This sort of omission would very soon be a thing of the past, however, as the names Laurel and Hardy were to soon become inextricably linked, like fish and chips, or even possum and yam for that matter.
Hal Roach and Leo McCarey knew they had something special 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.
From this point, the boys, together with Roach, McCarey, 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, used as supporting items in theatres, soon became headline items and major draws for movie-goers. The films of Laurel and Hardy were marketed with the same amount of effort and budget as typically only afforded to major feature films. Laurel and Hardy were about to become two of the biggest stars, not only in the world of comedy, or in Hollywood, but around the globe.
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, of course, Mr. Hardy and his good friend Mr. Laurel.