Hats Off could be the best Laurel & Hardy film EVER made! Having said that, it could also be the worst…you see the trouble is that nobody’s seen it since it’s re-release back in the 1930s!
Hats Off is a ‘Lost Film’ and the only Laurel and Hardy film missing in its entirety from their canon. Film scholars and collectors have been searching for this film for decades and all traces of it 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.
So, what is known about the film – well quite a bit really. There are a good deal of stills in existence, a great display of these can be found in the fabulous book ‘Laurel & Hardy‘ by John McCabe, Al Kilgore and Richard W. Bann. From these, we can tell that the story is an early version of Stan and Ollie’s 1932 talkie The Music Box. But, instead of carrying a crated piano, this film has the boys trying to carry a ‘Kwickway’ washing machine up the exact same flight of steps (immortalised in ‘The Music Box‘). James Finlayson plays the role of the shop owner who employs Stan and Ollie to transport the machine and fellow L&H regular Anita Garvin also makes an appearance as a potential customer.
As with a number of the boys’ silent films that were remade as talkies, the goings-on in Hats Off appears to mirror The Music Box very closely indeed (or vice versa). The stills show multiple trips up and down the stairs carrying their respective heavy loads and even Stan kicking a lady “in the middle of her daily duties” at street level. One of the main differences seems to be the climax of Hats Off 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. This somehow leads to a mass brawl where scores of bypassing strangers get drawn in, knocking off each other’s hats and stamping on them etc etc. This in itself is a kind of forerunner to the end scenes of their 1928 film You’re Darn Tootin’, where passers-by end up kicking seven bells out of each other’s shins and then tear off each other’s trousers. Who said recycling was a modern invention?
The 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 and immediately the idea for a comedy came into his creative mind. There are other variations on this version of events, namely that it wasn’t actually Stan who spotted the steps it was a Roach gagman or another that claims it was indeed Stan who was with L&H regular Billy Gilbert at the time.
However, Laurel & Hardy historian, A.J. Marriot makes a very convincing case in the March 2004 edition of The Laurel & Hardy Magazine for a version that 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 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 are, identical to the ‘Music Box Steps’. A story goes 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 was recalled by Stan 27 years later to the Hal Roach gag men and the story quickly took shape from there.
Wherever the inspiration came from and no matter who was responsible, Hats Off received very positive reviews when it was released and further strengthened the boys’ growing reputation. One such review in Moving Picture World, October 29th 1927 states:
“Laurel-Hardy Teamed: The new comedy starring team of Hal Roach’s All-Star Comedies makes its official debut in “Hats Off”. The comedy team is composed of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and it would be difficult to imagine a more auspicious beginning as a team than in this comedy portrayal of the adventure of two not overly bright washing machine salesmen…”
Although the vast majority of us fans have never had the pleasure of seeing it, it is arguably one of the most important films Laurel & Hardy ever made, simply because it was the genesis of arguably the best-loved of all their films – the Academy Award-winning masterpiece that is The Music Box.
Hats Off...wherever you are – we salute you!
Despite the fact that you’ve never seen this film, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments in the box below.