The end of 1927 heralded a significant threat to Laurel & Hardy’s careers, just as they were starting to take off. ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’ was released at the end of January 1928, but was written and filmed in October of the previous year – the very same month that saw the release, by Warner Bros., of Al Jolson’s ‘The Jazz Singer’ – the world’s first feature film that carried a synchronized pre-recorded music score including singing and speech.
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’, including even the BIG three – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Yet, Stan and Ollie would be completely unphased by the change and, once the Hal Roach Studios introduced sound recording equipment and their time came (in 1929) the boys would take it in their stride.
‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’ is, on the whole, a jolly affair. Although, having said that it doesn’t start all that jolly for Stan who can’t sleep due to terrible toothache. The film begins with the boy’s sharing a bed, a scenario that would become very familiar and completely accepted by the team’s audiences. Stan’s face is tied with a large handkerchief under his jaw in an attempt to ease the pain of his toothache. This prop is used to great effect when Ollie prods Stan’s cheek, his face screws up and the two long ends of the handkerchief, (that stick up like Bugs Bunny’s ears), cross over in pained response, brilliantly conveying Stan’s discomfort.
A number of familiar L&H tricks and techniques are on display here, such as the telegraphed gag, in which we see Ollie walking across the bathroom to fetch a hot water bottle for Stan. The upcoming gag is revealed as we are allowed in to a little secret; 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 and contempt. On his return journey we are, once again, allowed to know the pin is still there in Ollie’s path and the result is just the same as before.
This simple, but effective tool is used time and time again in the boy’s films. Whether it be drawing pins, 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 and before the boys know it themselves. Somehow, this ‘knowing’ just makes the pay -off all the more funnier. This is in much the same way that when, for example, the boys step on the skate, we don’t actually see them falling down the stairs, it’s enough for us, in fact it’s funnier for us, to see them fly out of shot and let our imaginations fill in the chaotic and hilarious rest. I suppose the fact that we are being included in the gags, left to complete the scene ourselves, possibly gives us a sense of ownership and leaves us feeling much more connected to the comedy and thus to the boys themselves than we would otherwise. For me, this is clever and masterful filmmaking and possibly underlies a large part of Stan and Ollie’s enduring appeal with audiences. We’re not just idly watching the films, we are actively taking part in them, even if it’s subconsciously.
Anyway, back to the film at hand and my apologies for the tangent…!
As the evening moves on, Ollie attempts to help Stan to pull out his tooth, using door knobs, drawer handles and even a roller blind, but to no avail. The only thing they succeed in doing is waking their landlord – enter Birmingham’s own Charlie Hall. This next scene is typical knockabout stuff and just great. After a small ‘discussion’, the boy’s and Charlie end up kicking each other’s behinds, (with some force), and then land a couple of fists in faces for good measure. (“Boys will be boys!”) I just love Charlie Hall, he always makes me laugh, even when he’s not really doing anything – I can’t really explain why! He just works so well with the boys and that’s that, I guess.
The next day, there’s a very nervy visit to the dentist’s surgery (we have a brief appearance by Viola Richard as the dentist’s nurse) and some more funny comedy moments follow, ultimately resulting in Ollie having his teeth removed in error and both boys become intoxicated with laughing gas. This scene at the dentist is revisited and reworked in a later film, 1930’s ‘Pardon Us’.
There is a lovely shot of the two of them unconscious from the gas, propped up against each other, and 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 boys drunkenly stumble to their car and proceed to drive off, crashing into everything and everyone and all the time laughing harder and harder. As with the laughing scene in the sound short ‘Blotto’ (1930), and the drunk scene in ‘Them Thar Hills’ (1934), I find myself really drawn to Ollie during these sequences. His laughter is so delightful and contagious that he really is a joy to watch. Oftentimes, I find that watching someone pretending to laugh can be quite ‘cringey’, but Ollie is so natural at it that I just find myself really laughing along.
A traffic cop, played superbly by Edgar Kennedy, quickly gets involved, trying to bring order to the melee and my goodness does he have to work hard in these scenes?! As always, Kennedy’s biggest battle is with himself, trying to contain his anger and frustration, but he is a master of this type of comedy and his appearance adds another layer of quality to the film.
This film is comedy at its most basic – making people laugh at other people laughing. As we know laughter can be infectious, we only need to think back to the appeal of the strange and creepy ‘Laughing Policeman’ found in the funfairs of yesteryear to know that the risk involved in making a film with this at its heart is probably worth taking, however, the actors must be convincing otherwise there’s a danger the gag will fail miserably and if the whole film is centered around this premise, doing it badly could mean disaster for the finished product. In addition and in stark contrast to ‘The Laughing Policeman’, we must also keep in mind that the boys’ task of infecting audiences with their laughter bug was made even more challenging, owing to the fact that they had to do it all without the use of sound. It is, therefore, great testament to Stan & Babe’s ability and artistry that they were able to carry these scenes off to perfection. From small smiles playing around their lips, to the beginnings of giggles, to full blown hysteria, nobody could do it better.
That said, Stan Laurel himself, in an interview with John McCabe and recorded in his affectionate biography, ‘Mr. Laurel and Mr Hardy,’ points out that the boys weren’t necessarily always acting:
“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’ (1929) and the boot scenes in ‘Be Big’ (1931), 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 in The Motion Picture News, March 3rd, 1928, intimates:
“In ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’ Hal Roach’s clever gag men have made use of another simple idea – that of having Laurel and Hardy so affected by laughing gas that they get into all sorts of jams with a traffic officer. 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.”
The ‘great majority’ mentioned above appear to have written the bulk of the contemporary trade reviews, as this small sample illustrates:
“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, 26th February, 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” Motion Picture News, February 11th, 1928
This “new team of Laurel and Hardy” were really starting to gain traction and there would be no stopping them.
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.