Filmed August 19th to August 29th, 1927, Released November 5th, 1927
Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by Hal Yates, Supervised by Leo McCarey
Photographed by George Stevens, Titles by H.M. Walker
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Anita Garvin, Dorothy Coburn
Last seen during its re-release back in the 1930s, Hats Off! now has the distinction of being the only Laurel and Hardy film still missing in its entirety from their canon. Film scholars and collectors have been searching for decades, but all traces of the film seem to have completely disappeared from the face of the earth. Forget the search for the lost city of Atlantis, the quest for the Holy Grail, or even the attempts to find the missing link in human evolution. The world needs to get its priorities straight. As more and more time passes, the hopes of ever finding a copy of Hats Off! get smaller and smaller.
Not surprisingly then, Hats Off! holds a special interest for fans of the boys, as we pour over snippets of information about its possible whereabouts and attempt to visualise its plot and similarities to later works. This is such a frustrating film to be missing, as it sits at a crucial time in the team’s chronology. The previous film (not including their brief cameo in Max Davidson’s, Call of the Cuckoo), The Second Hundred Years, officially labelled by the Hal Roach Studios as the first film with the boys as a team, is the first picture where the boys’ long-standing relationship with each other starts to take shape, but they are missing, what would become their trademark derbies and shabby suits. We can see, from the available stills from Hats Off!, that these key features are in place for the first time, since Duck Soup and Do Detectives Think? were close, but not quite there. To all intents and purposes, therefore, Hats Off! looks like a ‘proper’ Laurel and Hardy comedy. We can only speculate on whether the boys’ relationship built upon the excellent start in the previous outing, but the likelihood is that it probably did. What’s interesting is that the next film, Putting Pants on Philip, despite being a fantastic comedy, failed to build on the great work of the previous two, casting the boys as an uncle with his Scottish nephew. Unquestionably great fun, but absolutely not Stan and Ollie!
Because we are still unable to screen it, a question mark then must hang over Hats Off!, as to whether it can be considered the first picture to look and feel like ‘Laurel and Hardy’. However, what we can say is that if The Second Hundred Years is the film that officially announced the pairing of Stan and Babe, it was Hats Off! that historically cemented them as a team. The film was so well received and the reviews were so positive, that Hal Roach and Supervising Director, Leo McCarey, knew that these two boys, working together as a team, were capable of creating comedy gold, the likes of which, nobody had seen before.
A statement made and published in the official studio Press Sheet, released to promote the picture, confirms this beyond doubt:
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy will henceforth and forever, according to present plans, at least, be co-starred by the famous young producer…It was because of their splendid work in “Hats Off”, wherein the fact of their fitness for co-stars is well demonstrated, that Roach shook each solemnly by the hand and told them they’d better get along well personally from now on – because they were to work together forever”
Mr. Roach’s crystal ball was clearly working incredibly well as, “work together forever‘, they certainly did.
Despite being lost, we actually know a considerable amount about the film and its content. There is a good deal of stills in existence and from these, we can tell that the story is, in effect, an early version of Stan and Ollie’s 1932 Academy Award-winning short, The Music Box.
Once again, the official Press Sheet provides an illustrative synopsis of the action:
“Stan and Oliver are out of work and calling on prospective bosses. At last they come in contact with a washing machine sales manager who offers them jobs soliciting. They accept and are loaded down with a sparkling, new and extremely heavy machine as a demonstrator. Many hectic adventures overtake them in their efforts to educate the ladies of the town to the uses of their machine, but they are apparently unable, thru no fault of their own, to make sale. Finally a lady on top of a mountain beckons to them, and laboriously, between them, they manage to carry the machine up the nine flights of steps, only to learn that she wishes them to mail a letter for her. Heart-broken, they convey the tottering bulk of the machine again to the bottom. She calls them again. They believe she has changed her mind and will purchase one of the machines. After much travel and grief, they manage to get the machine again to the top only to learn that the lady forgot to stamp the letter. A few more experiences like this and they’re ready to quit. An argument ensues over their hats. Each knocks the other’s hat off. Passersby innocently become embroiled, losing their own hats. The thing becomes a riot with the whole town knocking off hats. Meanwhile a tractor runs over the sample washing machine, and it’s “the end of a perfect day” for our salesman.”
The main supporting characters mentioned in the synopsis were played by two of the boys’ most reliable regulars, giving Hats Off! a very familiar feel. The role of the salesman, who employs Stan and Ollie to transport the machine, was played by the ever-dependable, James Finlayson, and Anita Garvin was cast in the role of the frustrating ‘lady on top of a mountain‘.
For Finlayson, who’d been such an important co-star, both for Stan during his solo years and also with Stan and Babe at Roach, resulting in them being widely known as a comedy trio, this would be his last appearance with the boys until the latter half of 1928. It was becoming apparent that the Laurel and Hardy team were being designed as an exclusive duo, and as such Finlayson’s roles were becoming smaller and less central to the action. Understandably, James left the Roach studios, to seek more prominent roles in feature pictures elsewhere. However, when this move proved to be less successful than he’d hoped, he returned to the Roach fold and contented himself with the supporting roles that he would become so memorable, and so loved for.
As with a number of the boys’ silent films that were later remade as talkies, the goings-on in Hats Off! appears to mirror The Music Box very closely indeed (or vice versa). The plot and accompanying stills show multiple trips up and down the steps carrying their respective heavy loads, and one image even shows Stan at street level, kicking a lady, Dorothy Coburn, “in the middle of her daily duties“.
What we can tell from the official synopsis, is that one of the main differences seems to be Hats Off!‘s finale, and this is evidently the scene that gives the film its name. The boys have some sort of trademark hat mix-up that ends with them kicking each other’s hats down the street. In true early Laurel and Hardy-style, this leads to a scene of mass carnage, in which scores of bypassing strangers get drawn in, one by one, knocking off each other’s hats and stamping on them, etc etc. This then has to be the first example of the finale scenes that would become a Laurel-Hardy trademark in these early days of the team. This would act as the blueprint for the finales of many of the boys’ classic silent shorts, including Battle of the Century, You’re Darn Tootin’, Two Tars, Should Married Men Go Home? to name but a few. More evidence, if any were needed, as to how important this film is to the history of Laurel and Hardy.
Another element that has been debated over the years and that still remains unclear, is the origin of the idea. Who came up with the overall premise of two guys carrying a heavy load up a long flight of steps? The Hal Roach studios claimed that the inspiration for Hats Off! and The Music Box came from Stan Laurel who just ‘spotted’ the steps one day whilst driving around the outskirts of Los Angeles. It is said that Stan’s creative mind immediately formed the nucleus of a comedic situation and the rest was history…or was it? There are other variations on this version of events, one claims that it wasn’t actually Stan who spotted the steps it was a Roach gag-man, and then another that states that it was Stan who spotted the steps, whilst driving around LA with regular supporting actor, Billy Gilbert, as Billy himself related in a charming interview for Pratfall Magazine, Volume 1, No.3:
“Being very creative and inventive Billy enjoyed working with Stan and Babe. They always referred to their characters as “the fellows.” In developing scenes they would ask, “What would the fellows do in a situation like this?” and proceed from there. One day, Stan and Billy were driving along Silver Lake Boulevard when Billy noticed a long, long flight of steps leading to a house high on a hilltop. They were struck with ‘the absurdity of such an arrangement and began discussing the various problems it would entail. Then they thought of “the fellows.” What could they have them deliver to the house? It must be something huge and cumbersome but also delicate. What else but a piano! The Music Box was born and the rest is classic film history”.
This is a nice story, but it’s hard to believe that the location and premise for The Music Box were devised, with no consideration for Hats Off!, an almost identical film, shot five years previous and at the exact same location.
Laurel and Hardy historian and author, A.J. Marriot makes another convincing case, featured in the March 2005 edition of The Laurel & Hardy Magazine. This version of events harks back to the days of Stan’s youth when he lived in North Shields in the UK. Mr. Marriott explains that lying between Stan’s old house in Dockwray Square and Fish Quay, an area where Stan was known to have played as a boy, were three sets of steep steps, and one, in particular, named the ‘Ropery Steps’ was and in fact, still is, identical to the Music Box Steps. There is a local story that holds that a delivery man appeared one day and was trying to find a house that was on top of the hill. A group of children pointed out where the house was and the man proceeded to carry his heavy load of goods up the steps…sounding familiar? If this local myth is true then it’s very feasible that it could have been recalled by Stan, 27 odd years later, to the Hal Roach gag men and the story quickly took shape from there.
One further possible source of inspiration and arguably a more acceptable one was forwarded by Laurel and Hardy collector and long-time fan, Dave Tomlinson, who, writing in the July 2005 edition of The Laurel & Hardy Magazine, highlighted a scene at the end of a 1926 Mack Sennett short, Ice Cold Cocos. This was released twelve months before Hats Off!, and in it, Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde ‘attempt to deliver a large block of ice up the same steps, using the same camera angles’ as Hats Off! and The Music Box. Further, Mr. Tomlinson also built on this theory, by mentioning an essay by Laurel and Hardy expert, Richard W. Bann, in which it states that Stan was good friends with Ice Cold Cocos’ Co-Author, Clarence Hennecke. So, there could be a strong argument that this is where it all started.
Credit for the picture overall appears to have been handed to supervising director, Leo McCarey, as this article in Los Angeles Times, March 11th, 1928, demonstrates:
“Leo McCarey, supervising director and a vice-president of the Hal Roach studios, scores again with “Hats Of”, co-starring the comedy team Laurel and Hardy…McCarey is the author of the story material which goes into the filming of the Laurel and Hardy series, which have become so very popular. The young supervising director is recognized as one of the best comedy constructionists, and to him, in great part, is due the success of this comedy team.
“Hats Off” portrays Laurel and Hardy as an energetic but dumb pair of washing-machine salesmen, who tote their samples by hand. The picture is one of their funniest, and when that statement is made to audiences who saw “The Battle of the Century”…it necessarily takes a lot of territory…”
Wherever the inspiration came from and no matter who was ultimately responsible, Hats Off! received incredibly positive reviews when it was released and further strengthened the boys’ growing reputation and, as already discussed, cemented their partnership for the rest of their lives.
The following round-up of reviews, published in Motion Picture News, March 23rd, 1928, taken from various newspapers in the Los Angeles area, gives a good flavour of the reaction:
Evening Herald: “The funniest as well as most deeply touching motion pictures make us cry – a paradox which finds its way into our everyday language as I laughed so hard I cried. I can describe in no other way my reaction to ‘Hats Off’. This glorious slapstick occupies a subordinate position on the bill, but it saves the day as far as entertainment is concerned. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire audience bordered on hysteria at the climax of this two-reeler. In my opinion, Roach has most promising comedy team on the funny staff. Laurel and Hardy.”
Record: A comedy gem…Laurel and Hardy in their new edition of Roach comedies are stealing the shows quite frequently when matched against feature pictures”.
Times: “It is fairly obvious that the two-reelers in which Roach is so felicitously presenting Laurel and Hardy are carefully mapped out from fade-in to fade-out before ever the camera-crank is turned; and the result is uproariously funny. ‘Hats Off’, as the latest of the series is entitled, takes the lead as the real laugh-hit of the show.”
Times: “A picture of wonderful beauty. Never has the camera been used quite so effectively and artistically as in this subject. It is indeed a picture which, possibly more than any other, reveals the strides made in motion picture camera work. The story is admirably worked out, with splendid suspense.”
Of course, the praise wasn’t received only in from Los Angeles theatre owners:
“They roared themselves sick. Wonderful climax“, Capitol Theatre, Duncan, British Colombia, Canada, Exhibitors Herald World, March 24th, 1928
“Very good comedy. These birds are great. Always figured they would be a great team since seeing them in “Second Hundred Years“, Old Trail Theatre, Hebron, Ohio, Exhibitors Herald World, May 19th, 1928
“Gentlemen here’s a knockout. Probably the funniest comedy we’ve shown for a long, long time“, Opera House, Louisville, Nebraska, Exhibitors Herald World, January 12th, 1929
In addition to the overwhelming reception gifted to this film, the positivity was mirrored within the executive team at the Hal Roach Studios. A History of the Hal Roach Studios by Richard Lewis Ward and 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach by Craig Calman, both excellently document the growing awareness within the studio, of Laurel and Hardy’s magic. Both publications reproduce numerous telegrams sent between Roach staff members, discussing their new assets:
Richard Lewis Ward writes: “After a screening committee showing of…Hats Off, [Fred] Quimby wrote Roach, “I think that this subject is a riot…I think that Hardy and Laurel make a great comedy team, and hope that you keep them working together” “
Craig Calman notes a response from Roach to Fred Quimby, just a few weeks later: “Our product is rapidly improving; Laurel and Hardy will be box office attractions for the coming Season…Any Laurel-Hardy comedy is a first-run piece of merchandising!…I want to see the day come when we are giving the M-G-M features a run for their money so far as popularity of the two types of amusement is concerned, and with the continued improvement of the quality of our pictures I feel this is not far off.”
Yet again, Mr. Roach’s crystal ball was in good form. Laurel and Hardy were on a trajectory that would, very quickly, see their short subjects going toe-to-toe with the main feature attractions in theatres and not only that, they would hold their own. The confident tone of Roach’s response to Fred Quimby is very clear. He knew they had something very special on their hands, his tail was up and it was time to start strutting. Laurel and Hardy were hitting the big time!
Although the vast majority of fans today have never had the pleasure of seeing it, Hats Off! is undoubtedly one of the most important films Laurel & Hardy ever made.
Despite the fact that you’ve never seen this film, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments in the box below.