“The story of two boys who went to school for nine years – and finished in the infants”
“That clever comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are keeping busy with a two-reeler built around house building. They are abetted in their mirthquake by Dorothy Coburn and Ed Kennedy. Clyde Bruckman is the director.” Moving Picture World, December 24th, 1927
Leave ‘Em Laughing was an important juncture in the development of Laurel and Hardy. Each classic film, starting with The Second 100 Years and leading up to ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing‘, all undoubtedly brilliant in their own way, had in effect been the boys’ training ground. Although likely not planned in this way, these films had acted as test opportunities for them to really get to know one another, to work out how the characters would relate to each other, discover traits and mannerisms that they could turn into trademarks and that their partner could learn how to react to and build upon.
It’s remarkable and unique to be able to witness the birth and development of this legendary team, film by film. In The Second 100 Years, the boys discovered their bond, their indestructible unity, two friends, closer than brothers, together against the world. In Hats Off! as well as the immortal derbies and shabby suits, their undaunted tenacity, their intent to succeed against insurmountable odds is introduced. In Putting Pants on Philip, their unmistakable chemistry is evident along with the relationship dynamic of Hardy being in charge, assuming an almost fatherly role, as Stan’s protector in this wide and dangerous world. Then finally, in The Battle of the Century, we are introduced to Laurel and Hardy as the masters of disaster, the chaos makers. We witness the ease and speed with which their personal squabbles and altercations, can be shared with anyone within a pie-throwing radius. How a once peaceful scene can become widespread carnage in moments, at which point our accidental anarchists slip away into the sunset, leaving a trail of, often unintentional destruction behind them.
Leave ‘Em Laughing, was then the first film that brought all of those ingredients together. Admittedly, the team’s growth and development didn’t end at this point, on the contrary, they would continue to evolve as each film went by, but evident here was the true concentrated formula that the world recognises now as Laurel and Hardy. This organic creation set the mould or template for their films and for their partnership that would last the rest of their careers. All the studio had to worry about now was to find stories, plots, and situations in which to place this new team.
Almost as soon as filming wrapped on Leave ‘Em Laughing, Stan and the writers began work on the boys’ next picture, The Finishing Touch. The origin of the story is a little unclear, with a number of reputable authors and experts stating the film is a simple remake of earlier solo films, with titles suggested ranging from Stan’s, The Egg (1922), Smithy (1924), or The Noon Whistle (1923) and even Hardy’s, Stick Around (1925). Whilst it is undoubtedly true that a number of gags were re-used from all of these films, calling The Finishing Touch a re-make of any of them is arguably a stretch too far.
Possibly, the most reliable claim was made by the boys’ official biographer, John McCabe who, writing in his seminal work on the team, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, stated:
“Sometimes the idea for a film would come from an object. One gag man happened to be passing a partially constructed house on his way to work. He brought a few thoughts to the gag session and a general working script was fashioned out of the discussion that followed…”
One can easily see the similarities between The Finishing Touch and the aforementioned solo films, especially as notable gags were indeed lifted from each one and re-used to great effect here. For instance, the gag of someone swallowing mouthfuls of nails was originally used in The Egg (1922) and again in Smithy (1924). In the team’s later re-working, it is Ollie who, not once but three times, thinks it a good idea to carry handfuls of nails in his mouth, only to accidentally but inevitably swallow them every time.
Another prominent gag re-used is when Stan carries the longest plank anyone has ever seen, from both ends, at the same time! He walks in and out of shot, left to right, carrying the first end of the plank past befuddled cop, Edgar Kennedy. We and Edgar see the middle part of the plank keeping on coming past, longer and longer until eventually Stan reappears carrying the other end of the plank.
It was Stan himself who performed this brilliant gag originally in The Noon Whistle (1923) and again for a third and final time in what is perhaps one of the few highlights of their first film for 20th Century Fox, 1941’s Great Guns. This version is perhaps more elaborate as it happens, not once, but three times, and each time its’ slightly different. Evidence, perhaps, that Stan actually did have some creative input into this later project.
The ‘rule of three’ is something that Charles Barr talks expertly about in his simply titled book, Laurel and Hardy. Barr identified the triple-gag structure as an intentional strategy that got more laughs. To clarify his point, Barr lists examples of this structure, all from The Finishing Touch:
1) Ollie tries three times to carry a door frame up a ramp and onto the porch of the house.
2) Ollie swallows a mouthful of nails, three times.
3) Three humiliations for the nurse (Dorothy Coburn)
4) Three humiliations for the cop (Edgar Kennedy)
The Finishing Touch is the first picture that places the boys simply as labourers. There’s no fancy plot, just a job to do. As “Professional Finishers“, they’ve been employed by the hopeful homeowner, Sam Lufkin, to complete the construction of his new house and he promises to pay them $500 if they “finish the job by noon next Monday“. Ever the optimist, Ollie declares that for $500, they would finish by noon that same day.
The Finishing Touch paved the way for many of the best Laurel and Hardy pictures in the boys’ canon, namely, The Music Box, Busy Bodies, and Towed in a Hole. It is in this environment where the team excels; Stan and Ollie at their best, with a job to do! They have no need for complex plots or elaborate dialogue – this kind of pantomime slapstick is what Stan and Babe were great at. It’s the reason that The Music Box won an Academy Award and why Towed in a Hole is so loved by fans across the world. They are such simple ideas – set the boys a task and watch them make a complete hash of it.
What makes Laurel and Hardy films so special, what provides that unique magic, is the way that Stan and Ollie relate and react to one another, whether fighting or in moments of tender togetherness, it is their interaction that provides the alchemy. Practical situations such as building a house, fixing up a boat, or carrying a large, heavy object up a flight of steps, give them the ideal opportunity to play off each other. To see Ollie, nearly always the recipient of the greatest misfortune, growing more and more frustrated and annoyed as Stan’s incompetence winds him up tighter and tighter, which then causes him to be on the wrong end of even more misfortune, is a sheer delight.
Once again, Charles Barr summarises it beautifully:
“The characters are expressed in action with a beautiful directness. Stan is dumb, Ollie impatient: all the subtle variations of their relationship, and they are many, are based on this distinction, which doesn’t change. Every small-scale catastrophe in The Finishing Touch comes from some combination of dumbness and ill-judged violence. At the end, with perfect symmetry, violence (throwing stones) leads on to stupidity (picking up the brake-stone) to destruction, then back to its origin in individual stupidity (Stan) and violence (Ollie)-the cycle might go on indefinitely”.
Stan and the gag men must have put in overtime on this picture as it is littered with gags. They’re often not large and elaborate but they’re all quality. From the first scene, where Stan hops out of the truck, one can’t help but smile and from there, the laughs just keep on coming.
The picture was filmed completely on location in the Cheviot Hills district of Los Angeles, an area the studio would use again on future classics, such as Big Business and Bacon Grabbers. As Randy Skretvedt informs us, the half-finished house that the boys are tasked with completing was purpose-built by the Roach construction team, on a vacant lot, which gives the film a very airy, natural look and feel.
Stan and Ollie’s building site is located directly next door to a sanitarium. A no-nonsense nurse, played brilliantly by Dorothy Coburn, demands absolute quiet and she sends across street cop, Edgar Kennedy, in only his second picture with the boys, to enforce her wishes with the boisterous builders. With a delicious smirk, Kennedy struts across and delivers the line “If you must make a noise, make it quietly!“, a line that would re-appear in later Laurel and Hardy films and be often quoted by fans. As a result, Stan and Ollie solemnly agree and begin to tip-toe around the construction site, attempting to construct a house without making a sound – ridiculously farcical and brilliantly funny!
All the players are at their best in this film and if you’re looking for an introduction to Laurel and Hardy’s silent comedies, you could do a lot worse than starting with this one.
Over the years The Finishing Touch has been a touch overlooked and hasn’t received the praise that I believe it rightfully deserves. Notable commentator, William K. Everson called it “a slight disappointment” and “somewhat mechanical” and even Randy Skretvedt could only describe it as, “a pleasant enough little picture”, and further that it “isn’t as memorable as the films which preceded it.”
In fairness, Stan Laurel possibly set the trend for this as he himself, replying in a letter to a friend in April 1928, wrote of his and Babe’s dissatisfaction with the picture:
“Glad you liked ‘THE FINISHING TOUCH’, we were kind of disappointed with it here, felt that it was’nt up to our standard – maybe it’s good that we feel that way sometimes – makes us try to do better. Of course we can’t expect to do knockouts every time especially as we make a picture in eight to ten days & ideas for material do’nt come easy, so we must consider ourselves pretty lucky up to now”. http://www.lettersfromstan.com/
The fact that they were disappointed in The Finishing Touch, is in itself remarkable, but it certainly confirms that by the sixth film into their official partnership, Stan, Babe, and the team at the Roach studio had already set the bar very high indeed.
As was becoming the norm, however, the movie-going public and critics lapped it up, as the following reviews testify:
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are a couple of dumb contractors in this very funny Roach two-reeler…It is chock full of funny situations and gags, and is good for a laugh a minute. Some of it, of course, is very silly, but so much of it is good that an audience will laugh at even the silliest incidents”. Motion Picture News, April 7th, 1928
“Hooray! Cheers and thanksgiving! An No. 1 comedy by gum. Lots of good clean fun for our lovely patrons. Give us more like this”. Screenland Theatre, Nevada, Ohio in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, November 2nd, 1928
“Same old news. This pair don’t make ’em poor.” Central Theatre, Selkirk, Manitoba in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, November 2nd, 1928
“In Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy M-G-M has a comedy team that is immense. Of course, they have been provided with a laugh number that gives them a chance to get somewhere with their particular brand of clowning…Their dumb antics in handling their tools and each other are a succession of side-splitters. The climax is a knockout. See it for yourself, and see if we’ve misled you…” The Film Daily, April 1st, 1928
“Another scream from these boys. If only we could show a comedy every night as good as this one. Many good comments, and a few folks asked us when we were going to show another of this pair.” Opera House, Louisville, Nebraska in Exhibitor’s Herald World, May 4th, 1929
Laurel and Hardy’s star status was ascending rapidly and the boys’ were enjoying the most prosperous period of their careers to date. Privately, their lives were following different paths, as Babe began to understand the level of his wife, Myrtle’s problems with alcohol, a problem that, despite their love for each other, would eventually be too much for their marriage to endure.
Stan on the other hand became a father during the filming of The Finishing Touch. His wife, Lois gave birth to a little girl, also named Lois, on December 10th.
As 1927 closed, Laurel and Hardy were riding high and gaining in popularity, a trend that would continue throughout the following year. As Craig Calman’s book, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach informs us, this was the most profitable period financially, for the Roach studios to date. Leo McCarey’s considerable influence in this continuing success was duly rewarded and in that same December, he was made a Vice President of the Roach studio and also signed a new contract that awarded him a percentage of the profits from the Laurel and Hardy output.
But, life is anything but simple. At the start of 1928 reports appeared in the press of a separation between Hal Roach and his wife and as the year progressed, Stan and Babe’s private lives would also become ever more turbulent. Professional success, it seems, doesn’t equate to personal happiness.