Laurel & Hardy

14. Call of the Cuckoo (1927)

Filmed June 13th to June 22nd, 1927

Released October 15th, 1927

Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by Clyde A. Bruckman, Photographed by Floyd Jackman

Titles by H. M. Walker,  Two Reels

Main Cast: Max Davidson, Lillian Elliott, Spec O’ Donnell, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, James Finlayson, Charlie Hall

 

Photo Credit: Dave Lord Heath

The development of Stan and Babe into ‘Laurel and Hardy’ can sometimes seem to have been a stuttering and somewhat long-drawn-out process. Tracking their developmental arc at the Roach studios, from 45 Minutes From Hollywood to their first picture as an official team, The Second Hundred Years, it can feel like it took forever for their magic, their chemistry, to be noticed, harnessed, and released to the world. In actual fact, it only took approximately ten months. From a standing start to an almost perfect comedy double-act in less than a year is pretty impressive. There was, of course, still some fine-tuning that would be done in the months and even years that followed, but by October 1927 audiences were finally able to begin their love affairs with Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. It’s amazing to think that all these years later, those relationships have endured, grown stronger and, further, that new relationships begin and continue to blossom, as younger generations discover the magic and feel the love.

The success and popularity of the Laurel and Hardy team is phenomenal and has, of course, been well documented, but while the boys were struggling to find their own unique characters that would ultimately bring them immortality, and lift them out of the ranks of the Hal Roach All-Star series, there were a number of other comedians in the Roach stable that were enjoying their own time in the limelight, as the leading stars of the studio.

Following the amicable departure of Roach’s original super-star, Harold Lloyd, who left in 1923 to set-up his own independent production company, Roach had to fill the massive, creative void left by Lloyd and find new comedic figure-heads for his studio. He tried-out many artists, signing players for their own series of pictures, such as Toto the Clown, James Finlayson, Glenn Tryon, and even Stan Laurel himself, with varying levels of success. By 1927, there were three main series in production, Our Gang and Charley Chase are very well known, but the third is arguably less so, especially today.  That series was headed by a certain German-born, Jewish comedian named Max Davidson.

Davidson’s brand of comedy played on racial stereotypes, and back in 1927 the series was given the label ‘dialect comedies’. During the 1920s, ‘Jewish humour’ was very common and very popular, and Max Davidson, as Hal Roach Studios historian, Richard W. Bann tells us, in an essay covering Davidson’s career, was “…the skilled exponent” of this particular niche.

Of course, for Davidson’s legacy, this racial stereotyping, that was at the heart of his act, has made any modern-day revival of his work almost impossible.  Author Glenn Mitchell points out that this is a shame as Davidson’s comedies had a “sympathetic approach“, with gags that were not “exclusively ethnic and are of a high standard“.

Further, as cited in Bann’s essay, film curator, Paolo Cherchi Usai said of Davidson’s work:

“That his films parody ethnic particularities without even a tinge of racism is what bestows Davidson with greatness. As is the case with all truly intelligent film comedies, the parody also mocks cultural and ethnic prejudices”. 

Today, silent film historians, such as Steve Massa, (see The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, Episode 8), credit one of Max Davidson’s pictures, Pass the Gravy (1928), as being one of the best examples of silent short comedies in existence, and although there is an apparent reluctance to revive his work, it should be noted that, as Glenn Mitchell points out, “A lengthy Davidson programme drew considerable acclaim as the closing gala of the 1997 London Jewish Film Festival“, proving his comedies can still be appreciated by modern audiences.

In 1927, Davidson’s appeal and box-office draw, was becoming considerable, earning him the kudos of having one of the leading series exported from the Hal Roach Studios at that time.

“As a special comedy attraction, the Victory offers another of those side-splitting Hal Roach comedies, featuring Max Davidson, “The Call of the Cuckoo”. Davidson is rapidly coming to the front as as one of filmdom’s foremost comedians, and his recent comedies which have been shown in Salt Lake have proven more than successful”. The Salt Lake Tribune, February 12th, 1928

The Roach Studio were very keen to push their ‘new’ comedy team, Laurel and Hardy, in front of audiences as much as possible and as such, they crow-barred them into Davidson’s latest picture, Call of the Cuckoo, which was being filmed concurrently with The Second Hundred Years.  Stan and Babe shot their scenes just days after filming wrapped on their prison picture, which is the reason they can still be seen sporting their shaven heads. In an interview with Randy Skretvedt, regular Roach cameraman, George Stevens, commented that “The boys were just too good to be kept inactive, so they were put almost right away into the next picture, brush cut and all“.

In Call of the Cuckoo, along with fellow All-Stars, James Finlayson, Charley Chase, and supporting regular, Charlie Hall, the boys appear as patients from an asylum, located right next door to Max Davidson’s house.

The boys’ scenes, although brief, are enough for their effortless quality to shine and lift what is a fairly mediocre film. We first see them in fancy dress, with Stan dressed as a fireman, complete with running hose pipe, Babe sporting a snazzy top hat and Finlayson in a bowler hat and trench coat, standing in front of a pretend microphone. They’re quickly joined by Chase, togged-up in full sailors uniform, and who begins to belt out an unusual song into the microphone. The title card then reads:

“Training school for radio announcers – The quicker they go daffy, the sooner they get a diploma–“

It’s pretty obvious that these boys are “daffy” to start with.

Davidson is at his wits end living next to these particular gentlemen and so puts his house on the market and is in the process of showing prospective buyers around.

However, the disruptive fun makers are spotted from Davidson’s window by Davidson himself and then, crucially, by his prospective buyers, including Frank Brownlee, who was also fresh from the set of The Second Hundred Years, where he’d been playing the role of the prison warden.

The boys lark and frolic around on the lawn in fancy dress, with complete childish abandon. At one point Stan and Babe recreate the famous William Tell scene, but instead of shooting his arrow into the apple, sitting on top of Babe’s head, Stan hits a much larger target – Babe’s backside! These comic sequences feel so natural, that one could easily imagine them being ad-libbed, on the spot, or even filmed in secret without the actors realising. Unfortunately, these scenes are so enjoyable, that one doesn’t want to return to the leading players and the main action.

Davidson and the boys’ are never seen in the same shot, with Max remaining in his house and the ‘patients’ in their garden. They were very likely filmed separately and then edited together afterward, and as such, they can begin to feel a little disconnected. However, a connection is forged quite cleverly, as Stan unwittingly allows his hose pipe to aim towards Davidson’s open windows and Max gets a couple of soakings.

This is the final straw for the Gimplewarts, and they decide to sell up at the first opportunity. So keen are they to move, that they impulsively agree to exchange their house with a complete stranger – without even going to view his property first!

Photo Credit: Dave Lord Heath

The family including Mama, played by Lillian Elliott, and their gormless son “Love’s Greatest Mistake”, played by Spec O’ Donnell, arrive at their fancy-looking new home, full of optimism.  Nearby, two neighbours, looking on comment, “Look! Some mug has bought that Jerry-built house at last! It took them two days to build that house – An’ two years to get rid of it!”

Unfortunately for Gimplewarts, looks are, indeed, deceiving, as the fancy home is more akin to a fairground house-of-fun. The doors fall off their hinges when pulled on, the electrics are all screwed-up, the bathroom light-switch activates the shower and even the pattern on the kitchen floor washes off when mopped! In short, it’s a disaster zone.

More amusing scenes follow as the family house-warming party, including an appearance by another Laurel and Hardy regular, Leo Willis, turns into one big punch-up. As the picture begins to wrap up, with his extended family fighting, the near destruction of his new home, and the total destruction of his car, Max asks a question that nobody in a silent comedy should ever ask, “Is there anything else can happen?” Well, Max – you bet your life there is!

No sooner have the words left his mouth, or rather, the title card disappears, than Davidson is soaked in water from an open window again. Looking outside, Messrs. Laurel, Hardy, Finlayson, and Chase are all shouting and waving, from the neighbouring garden fence, “Cheerio! – We’ve moved next door -“

Following its release, Call of the Cuckoo received very mixed reviews from the trade papers and also theatre owners/operators:

…the ludicrous things that happen…puts this comedy in a class by itself. It is justly a fit addition to the DavidsonHal Roach series of comedies which have taken so firm a hold on the affections of the public. Davidson is supported by an extraordinary cast, under the direction of Clyde A. Bruckman. Leo McCarey supervised the job and H.M. Walker added to the fun by contributing his usual witty titles”. Idaho Evening Times, March 5th, 1928

…the Victory has been most fortunate in obtaining…”The Call of the Cuckoo”, which during its recent premiere on the coast was acclaimed one of the outstanding comedies of the year”. Salt Lake Telegram, March 18th, 1928

Very Good, though I have seen better from Davidson“, Central Theatre, Selkirk, Manitoba, Canada in ‘Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World’, May 5th, 1928

Hardly as good as I expected from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer‘, Crystal Theatre, Watseka, IL, May 12th, 1928, in ‘Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World‘, May 12th, 1928

“The Call of the Cuckoo” with Max Davidson in the leading role, is one of the best comedies we have seen this season…” Harrisburg Telegraph, June 5th, 1928

Hardly a laugh in the whole two reels. Don’t see where they get this bunk, for a comedy“, Joyland Theatre, Corning, Ark., in Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, May 19th, 1928

Good for kids. Too silly for better houses“. Community Theatre, Ridgeway, IA in ‘Exhibitor’s Herald World‘, January 19th, 1929

For Laurel & Hardy fans, Call of the Cuckoo is a great opportunity to watch Laurel, Hardy, Chase, Finlayson and Hall, all fooling around on screen together, albeit briefly. It appears the motivation behind the boys’ inclusion in the film was only to capitalise on a way to promote their newly launched comedy team.  Although this would not be the boys’ last cameo appearance, the success of Laurel & Hardy, grew so rapidly from this point, that there was never the need to use such appearances as promotional publicity stunts ever again.

What do you make of Call of the Cuckoo and/or Max Davidson? Please share your thoughts in the comments below…

 

 

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