“Newly Rich — Mrs. Culpepper was an idol to the snobs — And a pain in the neck to everybody else-“
Just two days after Christmas 1927, Stan and Babe were back at work on a studio stage and in front of the cameras. In response to their growing success, delivering Laurel and Hardy products to the movie-going public was now a priority for the Roach studio. Just as soon as one picture wrapped, work immediately began on the next.
The Stan and Ollie characters clearly became more defined with each film and in this latest picture, From Soup to Nuts, it is evident that Babe Hardy was very close to perfecting his. Here we see Ollie’s graceful walk, the panache with which he performs the most mundane of tasks, and his sense of superiority over Stan. It’s clear from the outset that Ollie sees himself as the one in charge, stopping Stan from ringing the doorbell, as he believes that he himself should be the one to attend to the important things. This blinkered pomposity would be a key feature in the boys’ relationship going forward and ensured Ollie is regularly the one on the receiving end of the majority of the team’s mishaps.
Stan, on the other hand, whilst showing many of what we might call definitive ‘Stanley’ traits in this film, still has bouts of volatile behaviour, reminiscent of his earlier solo appearances. In one particular scene, we see Stan actually scolding Ollie for falling into a cake and then sending him out of the room, as an angry parent might berate a naughty child. He then turns to the dinner guests and bellows at them all to sit down and carry on eating. Although this is very enjoyable to watch, it is, from our informed 21st Century viewpoint at least, not what we now expect from our slow-thinking and passive Stanley.
Unquestionably, however, the most important development contained within the two reels of From Soup to Nuts is one that gives the film an important place in Laurel and Hardy’s history. During the filming of this picture, a crucially important facet of the team’s comedy was stumbled upon, almost accidentally, by the man already credited for teaming Stan and Babe in the first place, Leo McCarey. This key piece of the jigsaw would prove vital for the act’s longevity and, as it later transpired, would be a contributing factor in making them uniquely prepared for the approaching transition to talkies.
Some of Babe Hardy’s most memorable contributions to this film are his pratfalls into gigantic, sloppy cakes. There are three in total, the last of which is in the very final scene when Mrs. Culpepper smacks Ollie up the face and sends him careering into the cake trolley. It was during the filming of these particular sequences that the penny dropped for McCarey, as Wes D. Gehring records in his book, Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy:
“Leo the raconteur later related the incident in his amusingly earthy style: “I came in one morning and said, “We’re all working too fast. We’ve got to get away from these jerky movements and work at a normal speed”. I said, “I’ll give you an example of what I mean. There’s a royal dinner. All the royalty is seated around the table and somebody lets out a fart. Now everybody exchanges a glance, that’s all”. Everybody died laughing but I got my point over.”
He then applied the concept to a particular scene in From Soup to Nuts, where Stan and Ollie are hired waiters at a society dinner. Hardy is about to serve a cake but trips and falls headfirst into said cake. McCarey shouted, “Don’t move! Above all, don’t move! Stay like that; the cake should burn your face!””
Thus a new form of comedy, ‘slow slapstick’, was born. This crucial strategy is a vital ingredient in what makes Laurel and Hardy so special. Slowing the pace right down to a crawl, ensured that each gag could be savoured and in addition, the reactions to the gag could be milked for all they were worth. Hal Roach, in an interview with the BBC, described the process thus:
“When Hardy fell in the mud puddle, you would cut to his expression of disgust…then you cut to the bewildered Laurel, looking at Hardy in the puddle, then back to Hardy. So, actually, you got three laughs, when with a normal comedian you’d only get one.”
Another element that contributed to Laurel and Hardy’s success, is enabling the audience to connect with them. They have an effortless ability to win us over, disarm us, gain our sympathy, and importantly make us see a little bit of ourselves within them. It’s their struggles against authority and the general perils and pitfalls of everyday life that we, the viewers, understand and empathise with.
From Soup to Nuts, the boys’ twentieth film together, is a prime example of one of those types of situations. We are informed that Stan and Ollie are ‘experienced waiters‘ and have been sent to work at a swanky society event at the home of the nouveau riches, Mr & Mrs. Culpepper, played by Tiny Sandford and Anita Garvin. We are also informed, however, that whilst the boys are indeed experienced waiters, their experience has been gained working in railroad eating houses. Despite the fact that they are completely out of their depth, they press on undeterred, to do the best job they can. Completely unprepared and unequipped, one has to admire their visible and complete belief in themselves and their abilities.
Not for a moment does the possibility of failure or humiliation cross their minds. They’ve been set a task and they’re going to perform that task with grace and dignity and in the end, they’ll be successful! Now, we all know, of course, that they’re going to fail, and not only that, it’s going to be on an epic scale. It’s this kind of juxtaposition that makes us fall in love with these characters, again and again, film after film. We love them for their naive innocence and their unfaltering confidence and belief in themselves and in each other. They will try, they will fail and they will fall, but they will always get up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.
For the third film in a row, the boys are teamed with Edgar Kennedy. In the previous two films, Leave ‘Em Laughing and The Finishing Touch, Kennedy plays a cop constantly frustrated with the dim-witted stupidity of Stan and Ollie. Then, to add a level of humiliation into the bargain, he ends up being either knocked black and blue, being soaked from head to toe, or covered in something very sticky and basically reduced to tears. So, for his involvement with From Soup to Nuts, it’s perhaps no surprise that he chose to take up a position behind the cameras and well out of harm’s way. This picture was Edgar Kennedy’s first of two back-to-back attempts at directing Laurel and Hardy comedies and it has to be said, he made a pretty good fist of it.
The film takes place solely at the Culpepper’s dinner party and makes the most of the boys’ ability to generate maximum comedy out of a very simple situation. There are numerous quality moments during this picture and as a result, it was selected by filmmaker Robert Youngson for heavy sampling in his 1965 compilation movie, Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20s.
From Soup to Nuts is arguably most well-known for Anita Garvin’s scene, where she is pitted (no pun intended) against a worthy adversary – a fruit cocktail. This gag is a reworking of an identical one performed by Stan, only a few films/months earlier, in The Second-Hundred Years. After awkwardly deciding which piece of cutlery to use, Anita ends up chasing a cherry around and out of her fruit bowl with a spoon, and as soon as she finally succeeds in getting it to her lips, her tiara slips from her forehead, covering her eyes and making her drop the fruit. Garvin’s performance here is excellent, as is her timing with the falling tiara.
This sequence would be dusted off and used for a third and final time in A Chump at Oxford (1938). The entire dinner party sequence, including Stan and Ollie, cast as last-minute stand-in waiters, who succeed in ruining a dinner party was re-made as the first reel of the later feature. The main difference in A Chump at Oxford, however, is that Stan returns to his cross-dressing guise as Agnes the maid, à la Duck Soup, and Another Fine Mess.
From Soup to Nuts is another picture that does not build up to a huge reciprocal destruction finale. Instead, the film works its way to a much quieter climax. Stan is asked by Ollie to “Bring in the salad…undressed!” and, after some considerable effort to process this request, followed by a number of puzzled expressions, Stan, in his innocence, strips down and proceeds to serve the salad in his underwear. When he is eventually spotted, Ollie attempts to hide his friend, but Mrs. Culpepper has also clocked him and she is furious. The film closes with Ollie getting slapped in the face by Mrs. Culpepper and, adhering to the ‘Rule of Three’ (see the previous blog on The Finishing Touch), he is sent hurtling face-first into a massive cake, for the third time in the film.
The Roach studio was now turning out and promoting Laurel and Hardy comedies at a rapid rate and, primarily due to the consistently high quality of their pictures, the boys’ reputation was growing stronger and stronger. Understandably, theatre owners and operators couldn’t get enough as their audiences lapped them up, as these contemporary reviews from various editions of Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, ably illustrate:
“Another good one from this team. Gee, we’re glad we bought Metro for 1929! Film condition just a trifle under Metro par, but when the audience roars we only whisper such things.” Screenland Theatre, Nevada
“MGM sure has the comedies this year. This one is a real comedy. Kept my crowd laughing from start to finish. Boys, if you haven’t got these comedies get them quick and you can’t go wrong.” Lyric Theatre, Loudon, Tennessee
“Kept house in uproar. Slapstick stuff which went over good. Metro has the comedies.” Rex Theatre, Salmon, Idaho
“The greatest comedy I ever ran. It’s a dandy to put with a weak feature, as it will sure carry the whole show…Give us more like it.” Sun Theatre, Plainwell, Michingan
“Laurel-Hardy – The best comedy makers ever. In fact M-G-M has the best comedies, barring none. Harvard Theatre, Nebraska
“Laurel-Hardy – A riot. Just hear the crowd roar when Laurel serves the salad – undressed! You can feature this comedy. Central Theatre, Selkirk, Manitoba
“Here are the best two rough-house comedy artists in pictures today. If they won’t laugh at this one, throw ’em to the lions!” Strand Theatre, Paoli, Indiana
“Best comedy we have played for some time. Laurel-Hardy sure know how to put the laughs across”. Majestic Theatre, Myerstown, Pennsylvania
Overall, the film’s concept is simple, the execution from all the players is outstanding and it all adds up to an enjoyable twenty minutes or so. It’s perhaps fitting, therefore, to leave the last word to Stephen G. Brenner from the New Eagle Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland, reviewing the picture in Exhibitor’s Herald World, October 27th, 1928:
“Laurel-Hardy – Without a doubt this is the best team of laugh producers the screen has ever had. If your patrons don’t laugh at this comedy they better consult their very best doctor…”