Filmed: September 13 to September 23, 1927
Released: December 3, 1927
Produced by: Hal Roach
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman
Supervised by: Leo McCarey
Photographed by: George Stevens
Titles by: H.M. Walker
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Dorothy Coburn, Harvey Clark, Sam Lufkin
As the third picture made since their official announcement as a comedy team, the boys’ chemistry sparkles in this two-reeler and, despite their output continuing to be released as part of the Roach ‘All Stars‘ series, in reality, Stan and Babe were now making ‘Laurel and Hardy’ comedies. It wasn’t until the following year that they were actually elevated to headliners of their own series, but nonetheless, their comedy juggernaut was finally up and running and the laughs would keep on coming.
Building on the excellent start made in their two previous pictures, The Second 100 Years and Hats Off!, Stan and Babe had clearly begun to develop two new identifiable and lasting characters; two friends taking on the world together, the duo that would very quickly become recognised around the world under such names as Stan and Ollie, Dick und Doof, Gøg og Gokke, Crik and Crok, and Flip i Flap.
The boys’ pre-team years were littered with false starts and disparate characters, but before they were allowed to settle into what would become their forever screen personas, there was one final detour still to take, Putting Pants on Philip.
Babe, in the role of Piedmont Mumblethunder, resplendent in a sharp suit and straw boater, is a dignified and respected gent around town. We join him waiting at the dock for his nephew, whom he has never seen before, to disembark the S.S. Miramar, (previously featured in Sailors Beware!), newly arrived from his native Scotland, to visit his uncle and be introduced, by him, to America.
Whilst waiting, Mumblethunder and the assembled crowd are highly entertained by the antics of a young Scotsman on the dockside, complete in a kilt, sporran, and tam-o’-shanter, resisting the examination from the ship’s medical doctor, biting the thermometer in half, and refusing out of sheer embarrassment to allow his vaccination mark to be inspected. By way of the title card, Hardy’s character turns to his neighbour and laughs, “Imagine – somebody has to meet that!” Of course, he swiftly, and to his absolute mortification, realises that he is that somebody; the simpleton in front of him is his nephew, Philip!
Stan, in the role of Philip, is overjoyed to identify his uncle from a photograph and we learn, from a letter sent from Philip’s mother to Uncle Piedmont, that Philip’s one weakness is women. “At the sight of a pretty girl, he has spots before his eyes. Guard him well!”
As author Randy Skretvedt tells us, all the action up to this point had been filmed on Roach studio sets, but now the location changes, briefly, to a dockside setting, shot at the Port of Los Angeles. Mumblethunder takes his nephew to a quiet corner and tries to work out what to do with him, when a young lady, (Dorothy Coburn), walks by and Philip immediately performs a double scissor-kick and prepares to chase after her. He’s stopped in his tracks by Uncle Piedmont, who acknowledges that this nephew of his could cause him some major public embarrassment.
The film’s plot is very simple, yet very funny. Mumblethunder’s primary objective is to merely walk through town, without being embarrassed by Philip. This proves to be impossible, as Philip excels at drawing ridiculous amounts of attention from the passing townspeople as it seems that nobody in small-town USA has ever seen a man in a kilt before, especially one that becomes crazed at the first sight of a “pretty girl”.
There are some great tracking shots, by the boys’ regular cameraman, George Stevens, along the pavements of Culver City, where the uncle insists the nephew walk a good few yards behind him, to ensure the two are not identified as being together. For the keen-eyed audience member, there is also a sneaky peek of the camera crew to be had in the reflection of one of the angled shop windows.
Filming then moves to the Roach backlot as the boys pass in front of the establishment ‘The Pink Pup’, which is to be found in a number of the boys’ films, including, ‘Love ‘Em and Weep, Their Purple Moment and That’s My Wife. Huge crowds of over-enthusiastic locals are now following the boys everywhere they go and one of the film’s biggest laughs comes as Philip walks over a ventilation grating and his kilt is blown up, exposing his tartan boxer shorts! The crowd finds this hilarious. This happens a couple of times before the gag’s final pay-off occurs. As Mumblethunder is berating the assembled throng, Philip takes a snort of snuff, which makes him sneeze explosively, causing his underwear to slip down around his ankles and, unbeknownst to everyone, he steps out of the aforementioned under-crackers and steps onto another pavement vent that blows his kilt up again. This time the unexpected crowd see more than his boxers, causing a number of ladies from the gathered mob to faint instantly. A cop, who up to this point, had been laughing and pointing along with the crowd, angrily informs Piedmont, “This dame ain’t got no lingerie on!“, leaving uncle to sort things out again.
All this makes Philip a very animated character indeed and because of that, it’s easy for the viewer’s attention to be drawn to him. But this is where Oliver Hardy’s genius shines through magnificently. In fairness, he isn’t given that much to do – his only real task throughout the film is to react to Stan and all that’s going on around them. But, this is the area where Babe Hardy excels, above all others. The ability to subtly play his role in the background, not appearing to do all that much, but in actual fact, he’s stealing the scenes with his mannerisms, small gestures, double-takes, and discreet looks to camera.
His performance in ‘Philip‘, was a notable moment in Babe’s development. Here, in this picture, Babe Hardy was visibly fine-tuning the traits that would make Ollie such a wonderfully memorable character. As John McCabe notes in his biography, Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy:
“Babe’s appearance in Putting Pants on Philip generated increased respect around the studio. He was already well-liked both personally and professionally, and in the latter category he was much sought after on the lot.”
Today, the film appears to have a mixed reputation, with many people celebrating it as hilarious fun, while some critics consider it ‘vulgar’, and others, including notable authors William K. Everson and Simon Louvish respectively, describing what they perceive to be “homosexual humor”.
These arguably questionable descriptions emanate chiefly from the scene that gives the picture its title, namely, the measuring of Philip for a pair of pants in the tailor’s shop. Mumblethunder decides to take the only action that he feels will stop his endless embarrassment, and that is to replace the kilt with a pair of trousers. Philip is clearly unsure about the ‘fitting’ process and whilst he is trying to be co-operative, he is very wary of the tailor and where he is trying to place his tape measure.
Stan’s pantomime performance is sublime here, as he moves delicately from being reluctantly willing, to shocked and bemused, then to hurt and betrayed by his uncle. Finally, once the measuring has been successfully performed, off-camera by Mumblethunder himself, Philip reappears, his clothes totally disheveled and looking like, as John McCabe puts it, “a newly and unwillingly deflowered maiden“.
One really feels for Stan at this moment. In no time at all, he had transformed from a rampant, sex-crazed demon, to a fragile and damaged soul. It surely would take a viewer with a heart of stone not to sympathise with Philip as he gingerly sits, head bowed, and cries into his kilt. This is excellent storytelling, expertly mixing humour with pathos and as William K. Everson correctly identifies, “Wisely, the situation is not milked; the point is made, and the comedy moves briskly on to something else.”
That “something else” is Philip’s immediate and stealthy escape from the tailor’s shop, in order to resume chasing Dorothy Coburn around town.
After several more gags based around Philip’s amorous pursuits and the subsequent crowds that he draws, the film ends with Dorothy Coburn gaining the upper hand and Uncle Piedmont’s crushing fall from grace, as his pomposity leaves him neck-deep in a huge dirty curb-side puddle, a motif that would be revisited on numerous occasions through Babe’s maturing career.
Although Snub Pollard and Marvin Loback would shamelessly re-make huge chunks of it in their 1929 short for Weiss Brothers, Sock and Run, at the time of its production, the plot of Putting Pants on Philip was quite unique. The originator of the storyline was Stan Laurel, who recounted the source of his inspiration to author and friend, John McCabe, and which McCabe published in his book, Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy:
“Years and years ago when I was with the Karno troupe, a chap called Alan I worked with told me of something that happened to him, and I never forgot it. I always thought it would make a good music hall sketch, and later…I got it made into Putting Pants on Philip. What happened to Alan was this…he had a cousin from Scotland he hadn’t seen for many years…since boyhood, in fact… (He) invited his cousin down to see him, and the cousin accepted. This cousin, whose name was very Scottish, Angus or what the hell have you, arrived at Alan’s, and Alan couldn’t follow a word he said because Angus was from a part of Glasgow where even the average Scotsman could barely understand the dialect. Alan planned to take him out to dinner, and Angus got all dressed up in a pair of kilts, and Alan damned near died of embarrassment. He had made reservations in a fancy restaurant where he was sure kilts wouldn’t be looked on as just the proper thing to wear. But they went anyway…
(Alan) had a hell of a time trying to translate to the waiter what his cousin wanted from the menu…Alan started to talk to his cousin…in his loudest voice, and the waiter started to talk loudly, and Angus thought the waiter was hard of hearing, and he started to talk in his loudest voice, and it all grew to be one hell of a mess. As a matter of fact, I had close friends in Scotland, and it occurred to me after I got into pictures that it would be fun to guess what one of them, wearing kilts, might do if he visited me here in California.”
Generally speaking, the film’s reception was very positive, and The Film Daily led the way with this review on the day following its release:
The Film Daily, 4th December, 1927: “A simple yet effective idea furnishes the comedy…which features Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and which Leo McCarey directed. A young Scotchman, clad in kilts, arrives from the heatherland and his laughable appearance attracts crowd after crowd, causing much embarrassment to his unappreciative uncle. Beautiful women are the stranger’s weakness and this makes matters worse – and highly funny. Much of the film, which is generously loaded with laughs, shows the American relative trying to put a pair of “civilised” pants on the Scotchman”.
Whilst still applauding the comedy, some contemporary critics made sure to acknowledge the divisive sequence in the tailor’s shop, as this review, by T. C. Kennedy, printed in Motion Picture News, December 9th, 1927 illustrates:
“This picture is much better than its title would indicate. Working greatly to the advantages of the film, and to the enjoyment of those who like laughs in their comedies, are Stan Laurel, a capital comedian, and Oliver Hardy, who knows many of the most effective tricks of
screen fun-making. Clyde Bruckman directed the piece. If he built up the story as well, he deserves much credit for inventing some sure-fire gags. Along with that, he if responsible he is – must take some criticism for playing too strongly on the incident of measuring Philip for a pair of pants in the tailor shop. This is topped off with a bit of acting by Laurel which much be rated as excellent work from the acting standpoint. But it is comedy that seems just a bit too sophisticated for the average two reeler. The acting is an immensely clever burlesque, in restrained fashion, of those scenes done by the ingenues who make their mistakes in the interests of screen and stage and story book plot…It is a diverting picture despite a rough spot here and there on its rather slick surface.”
From Moving Picture World 10th December 1927: “Hal Roach has a sweet one in this for comedy, diverting situations and a clowning idea that is put across in sprightly fashion by Stan Laurel. Laurel is a young Scotch immigrant, come to this country to quote the titler, “To recover a half-dollar lost by a relative in 1888”. He has a great foil in Oliver Hardy, as the Scot’s relative, assigned to look after him in the new land. The plot revolves about Hardy’s efforts to supplant Stan’s kilties with pants. In the so-doing, uproarious burlesque results. The action is fresh, the situations full of drollery, and the idea as original as has caught this reviewers eye in months. Don’t miss it.”
“Very good comedy and gets the laughs, that’s what we buy comedies for.” Alert Theatre, Steuben, Wisconsin
“”Well! Well! Well! We actually drew a comedy that tickled a few funny-bones. Not half bad, men, not ‘arf” Screenland Theatre, Nevada
As one might expect, however, the subject matter wasn’t for everyone, as these reviews demonstrate:
“I certainly can’t say much for this one. About two giggles in the entire two reels” Photoplay Theater, Ashland, Kansas in Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, 25th February, 1928
“The comedy film Laurel and Hardy in “Putting Pants on Philip” is a bit raw in spots, but gets a laugh.” Harrisburg Telegraph, June 12th, 1928
“Very funny for three-fourths of the way, but a little draggy in spots” Rex Theatre, Salmon, Idaho in Exhibitors Herald World, 2nd March, 1929
One further noteworthy point about Putting Pants on Philip is its perceived status by some, as being THE first ‘Laurel and Hardy’ comedy. Identifying which of the boys’ pictures has the greatest claim to that title, is arguably impossible as there are a number of films with extremely good reasons and arguments to back them up. Duck Soup, Do Detectives Think, The Second 100 Years and Should Married Men Go Home all have irons in the fire, but it was ‘Philip that Stan Laurel and Hal Roach themselves named in later interviews, as the boys’ first team comedy.
This is puzzling, as the characters are clearly not Stan and Ollie, the relationship is of uncle and nephew and further, the official Roach studios Press Sheet labelled it as the boys’ second team film, even though it followed, The Second 100 Years (previously promoted as the first) and Hats Off! With this level of confusion coming directly from the studio, its small wonder that so many different opinions abound.
Understanding how reluctant Stan was to become part of a team in the first place, does in fact help to give some clarity and understanding regarding his thoughts on the importance of ‘Putting Pants on Philip‘. Once again, Professor John McCabe, who knew Stan well and interviewed him many times during their friendship, wrote on this very subject in his biography of Babe Hardy:
“It was certainly the first film in which Stan felt them to be a team, the first for which he made the total personal commitment to have a partner, the first in which both men experienced at fullest the chemistry between them that was to last their lifetimes”.
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