“What’s worse than an aching tooth at three in the morning? – Two of them!”
Since their first chance meeting in 1921, on the set of G.M. Anderson’s, The Lucky Dog, Stan and Babe had danced a merry and protracted dance around each other, coming so close and yet remaining so far away from discovering their destined path. But, by the end of 1927, they had finally found their place in the world of comedy. Stan Laurel, who had been chasing the solo spotlight for so long, had come to realise that his light, his comic genius, shone brightest when working alongside his new partner and so had abandoned his aspirations to be the next Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd. Babe Hardy, on the other hand, who had contented himself with hundreds of supporting roles, (and an occasional lead too), since his first break in pictures, way back in 1914, was now reaping the rewards of over a decade of selfless toil. He was now having to get used to being a headliner as an equal partner in the hottest comedy team in Hollywood.
With three top-quality pictures behind them, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy were settling nicely into their newfound partnership and things were looking very promising indeed. As the boys set to work on their latest comedy, Leave ‘Em Laughing, Hats Off! was doing great business in theatres and receiving rave reviews. Audiences and critics alike were beginning their love affairs with Stan and Babe and ‘Laurel and Hardy’ were becoming household names.
However, as the boys’ careers were taking off, a development at the end of 1927 heralded a significant threat to them and many others like them. Coinciding with the filming of ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing‘, Warner Brothers released a film into theatres that would forever change the entire movie industry. This game-changing picture was, of course, Al Jolson’s, The Jazz Singer, complete with synchronized, pre-recorded music score including singing and speech. The age of talking pictures was dawning and Hollywood would never be the same again.
This was arguably the most monumental change to the movie-making industry since the advent of the medium itself. Many famous stars of the silent movie screen would fall by the wayside in the coming few years, as they failed to make a successful transition to ‘talking pictures’. Thankfully, Stan and Babe were not destined to be amongst the casualties. With the help of their friends and colleagues at the Roach studio, they were able to adapt, innovate, and raise their game so that once the studio had been converted for sound recording, the boys would take it in their stride.
For the moment though, the excitement surrounding the Laurel and Hardy team was building rapidly, not least amongst the Roach executives. Public and professional responses to The Second 100 Years and Hats Off! had been better than they could have wished. Putting Pants on Philip and Battle of the Century were completed and awaiting release, and we can reasonably assume that the expectation for them to be even more successful than the previous two pictures, would have been high. In addition, early screenings of their latest efforts, indicated Leave ‘Em Laughing, would surely follow suit.
Indeed, there is evidence of such confidence to be found in telegrams sent between the head of MGM’s Short Features Department, Fred Quimby, and Hal Roach and reproduced in Richard Lewis Ward’s, A History of the Hal Roach Studios and Craig Calman’s, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach:
Roach to Quimby – December 17th, 1927: “Laurel and Hardy went over with a bang at the Metropolitan Theatre! Looks like we have a big bet in these two comedians.”
Quimby to Roach – December 31st, 1927 “JUST FINISHED SCREENING ‘LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING’ FOR COMMITTEE. STOP TO A MAN IT WAS A CONTINUOUS ROAR. I HAD A PAIN IN MY SIDE WHEN I LEFT THE PROJECTION ROOM IT IS A RIOT LAUREL AND HARDY DOING MARVELLOUS WORK WE SHOULD GET THOUSAND DOLLARS A DAY FOR THIS ONE…”
As Randy Skretvedt tells us, the story idea for Leave ‘Em Laughing was devised by Hal Roach himself, and whilst it is a very simple premise, it was arguably one that Roach was particularly fond of, as it was not the first time he’d produced a comedy based around intoxication from laughing gas.
In Rob Stone’s essential book on the boys’ pre-team careers, Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy, reference is made to a 1925 two-reeler called Laughing Ladies, starring Katherine Grant, with support from, among others, Gertrude Astor, Martha Sleeper, and a certain Babe Hardy. With a working title of Laughing Gas, the fun centres around the mayhem caused by Grant, who receives an overdose of the aforementioned gas, administered to her by her dentist, and she laughs her way across town, causing all kinds of trouble.
Leave ‘Em Laughing is, on the whole, a jolly affair. Although, having said that it doesn’t start all that joyous for Stan who can’t sleep due to terrible toothache. The film begins with the boys in bed and Stan is clearly struggling, with a large handkerchief tied under his jaw, in an attempt to ease the pain of his swollen tooth. This bandage is used to great effect when Ollie inspects Stan, by prodding him in the face, causing him to wince painfully and, as if it were a physical extension of his own body, the two long ends of the handkerchief, (that are sticking up like Bugs Bunny’s ears), cross over in pained response, brilliantly conveying Stan’s discomfort.
A number of tricks and techniques, that would become Laurel and Hardy trademarks, are on display here, such as the use of telegraphed gags. In this instance we see Ollie walking across the bathroom to fetch a hot water bottle for Stan. The upcoming gag is revealed as we are allowed to know that there is a drawing pin on the floor, directly in Ollie’s path, only he hasn’t seen it. Sure enough his foot stamps right on it, and he hops and howls as a result. He then pulls the pin from his foot and throws it back on the floor in disgust. On his return journey, we are, once again, allowed to know the pin is still there in Ollie’s path, where he himself threw it and the result is just the same as before.
This simple, but effective tool is used time and time again in the boys’ films. Whether it be discarded pins, nails, banana skins or even roller-skates lying on top of stairs, we are given the privileged position of knowing what’s about to happen ahead of time, importantly before the boys know it themselves. This ‘knowing’, not only makes the pay-off even funnier but allows the viewer to feel much more a part of the action and therefore more immersed in this projected world. As a number of authors have noted previously, this technique arguably gives us both a sense of involvement, connecting us more closely to the action and thus to the boys themselves, but in addition, it cleverly allows us to feel somehow superior to these clumsy fellows and this, in turn, engenders deeper emotions such as pity, sympathy, and concern. For me, this is clever and masterful filmmaking and possibly underlies a large part of Stan and Ollie’s enduring appeal with audiences and our emotional connections to them. We’re not just idly watching the films, we’re actively taking part in them, even if it’s on a subconscious level.
As the evening moves on, Ollie attempts to help Stan to pull out his tooth, using doorknobs, drawer handles, and even a roller blind, but to no avail. The only thing they succeed in doing is waking their landlord, Charlie Hall. After a small ‘discussion’, the boys and Charlie end up with one of their first tit-for-tat sequences, kicking each other up the backside and after a couple of punches in the face, it’s back to bed!
The next day, there’s a very nervy visit to the dentist’s surgery, where we have a brief appearance by Viola Richard as the dental nurse and an even briefer one by Dorothy Coburn as a receptionist. The waiting room scene is brilliant, as we watch Stan and Ollie’s reactions to the screams of fellow patients and their escape attempts, and especially the wrestling match between another guy and the dentist.
When it’s Stan’s turn in the chair, he is understandably terrified and also tries to escape, until Ollie settles him down to reassure him that all is well. Ollie then sits in the chair himself to demonstrate that there’s “nothing to it!” Right on cue, a new dentist enters the room and physically grabs Ollie from behind, forcing a rag soaked in chloroform over his face until he’s completely unconscious. He then proceeds to remove Ollie’s tooth! All the while, Stan just stands vacantly by and watches with interest. In the typical recycling habits of the Roach studio, this scene at the dentist is revisited and reworked in the boys’ first feature-length outing, 1930’s, Pardon Us.
When Ollie comes to, he explores the inside of his mouth with his tongue and quickly finds he is missing a molar, he glances at his friend, who is standing by with the dentist’s extraction tool in hand. There follows a tussle between the two and they end up gassing each other to sleep with laughing gas. There is a lovely shot of the two of them unconscious from the gas, propped up against each other, and then starting to come around. Before their eyes open, we see smiles start to play around their faces and then the laughing starts and doesn’t stop for the rest of the picture.
The film’s third and final act sees the boys drunkenly exit the building and stumble into their car in absolute hysterics. They proceed to drive off, crashing into anything and anyone that crosses their path, and all the time they’re laughing harder and harder. It’s not long before the boys have created a huge traffic jam.
A traffic cop, played superbly by Edgar Kennedy, in his very first role with Stan and Babe, quickly gets involved and attempts to bring order to the chaos. Kennedy has his work cut out for him though, as the boys misunderstand every instruction he gives them and they continue to fall about laughing. The cop’s frustration mounts and he struggles to keep his temper. Kennedy’s trademark ‘Slow-Burn’, is called into action, and it was never more earned!
Writing in his brilliant biography, Edgar Kennedy: Master of the Slow Burn, author Bill Cassara expertly describes the Kennedy trademark:
“The fun was watching him at first get irritated, then trying to hold it in, all the while growing in his frustration until he exploded with rage like a human thermometer. Edgar registered his displeasure by various escalating body language expulsions. It culminated by Edgar pantomiming his defeat by raising his paw to his head and deliberately swiping down over his deadpanned face. It was like a squeegee wiping glass.”
Amidst all this laughter, Kennedy doesn’t even break so much as a smile, which provides the ideal contrast and balances the action perfectly.
Leave ‘Em Laughing is then comedy at its most basic – making people laugh by showing them other people laughing. Laughter is, of course, infectious and one only needs to remember the appeal of the strange yet creepy Laughing Policeman found in the funfairs of yesteryear for proof of that. In addition, in 1922, the Okeh Laughing Record became a best seller in the US, featuring nothing but three minutes of continuous laughter. The risk involved in making a film that banked on the audience finding the on-screen laughter contagious was obviously considered to be one worth taking.
We must also keep in mind that the boys’ task of infecting audiences with their laughter bug was even more challenging, as they had to do it all without the use of sound. It is, therefore, a great testament to Stan & Babe’s ability and artistry that they were able to carry these scenes off so successfully. From small smiles playing around their lips to the beginnings of giggles to full-blown hysteria, nobody could do it, or has ever done it better.
“The funny thing about it to me now, is that one time we actually had to stop shooting one day because we were laughing so much. I broke up Babe, and he broke me up. We finally had to call it a day when it got too much for us.”
Although to some Leave ‘Em Laughing is an early Laurel and Hardy masterpiece, this kind of simple comedy is not to everyone’s taste, with even noted author, William K. Everson referring to the second half of the film as being “rather protracted”. This is in much the same way that a proportion of fans and critics complain that the bunk scene in Berth Marks and the boot scenes in Be Big, to name but two examples, go on too long and become tedious.
Even though popular tastes do change over time, it’s interesting to note that this division of opinion is not exclusive to 21st Century audiences, as this generally positive review from The Motion Picture News, March 3rd, 1928, confirms:
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy dole out a bountiful aggregation of laughs in this one… In ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’ Hal Roach’s clever gag men have made use of another simple idea… The comedy is always of a broad type, at which the supercilious may, at times, sniff haughtily but at which the great majority will indulge in uproarious laughter.”
In contrast to Everson’s view, the manager of the Screenland Theatre, Nevada, Ohio, claimed the second reel was in fact the most enjoyable for his patrons:
“…Would perhaps have been better if this expressive pair could have pulled a few laughs from our pessimists in the first reel. They got most of the kick out of the traffic cop’s unruly pants in the second reel.” Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, March 24th, 1928
As with Hats Off! and The Battle of the Century, Leave ‘Em Laughing was afforded the exact same, large scale promotional campaign and for the most part, the film was received very positively indeed, as this selection of contemporary reviews attest:
“Laurel and Hardy secure unusual number of laughs. Along about second reel after a few preliminary smiles and chuckles they cut loose with some antics in wow class.” Los Angeles Express in Motion Picture News, February 11th, 1928
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the two buddies who provide the howls…Here is a brand new gag that is worked up till it pyramids one gurgle on top of another. A real funfest” Film Daily, February 26th, 1928
“We can’t remember a two-reel comedy in years as funny as this one…It gave us the best show we have had in months“. Majestic Theatre, Las Vegas, Nevada in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, March 24th, 1928
“These two birds get laughing gas out at the dentists and the laughs they give are many. Some came back the second night to see the comedy again.” Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, May 5th, 1928
“…one of the funniest giggle getters of the year – one just can’t help dwelling upon. Riot caused by Roach comedy with this new team of Laurel and Hardy” Los Angeles Record, February 11th, 1928 in Motion Picture News, February 11th, 1928
The picture was another huge hit for the studio, for the boys, and for the reputation of the Laurel and Hardy team. If 1927 was the year that saw Stan and Babe become a team, 1928 was the year that saw Laurel and Hardy become household names.
In just a few months this new comedy team had taken the movie world by storm and it wouldn’t be long before everybody with an interest in the movies, would know their names.
I’ll leave the final word to the reviewer from the Los Angeles Examiner:
“Riotous comedy that had audience shrieking with laughter. ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’ is title. It does! And how! I don’t think I ever saw a Laurel and Hardy before, but I know one thing – it won’t be the last time.”
Let me know what your thoughts on ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’ are, and indeed what you thought of this blog – I’d love to read your feedback.