The dawn of 1928 was a busy time for everyone at the Hal Roach Studios, and the wind of change was blowing across the ‘Lot of Fun’. In January, following stories circulated in the press about marital problems, Hal Roach took off for an extended vacation and didn’t return to Culver City until June. The Star Gazette, a newspaper from Roach’s native Elmira, reported the matrimonial discord on January 7th:
“Hal Roach…a former Elmiran, has separated from his wife, the former Margaret Nichols, screen artist…Mr. Roach said he had “every hope that the separation would be temporary”. The film producer said that the question of a divorce had not been discussed by them and that he was sure they could live happily together again “when certain matters are settled”. The separation was said to have occurred shortly after Christmas.”
Although the details surrounding the couple’s problems were not stated in the report, a contributing factor may arguably have been the amount of time and energy that Roach had to put into his career. Building his comedy empire from the ground up and being as involved as he was with every aspect of the day to day operation, it is not then hard to assume that this may have been a barrier to a complete and loving relationship.
Happily, however, just four days after this piece was published, the following article appeared in another east coast newspaper, The Yonkers Herald, January 11th 1928:
“Hal Roach and His Wife Are Reunited: Hal Roach, motion picture producer, and his wife, will celebrate their reconciliation with a world tour to be started soon…”.
The global adventure lasted for around six months and appeared to be successful in healing the rift. During his absence, Roach left the studio in his trusted team’s capable hands, including General Manager and Vice President Warren Doane, Vice President H.M. Walker and Supervising Director Leo McCarey, whom Roach had recently promoted to the role of Vice President.
As one might expect, even whilst he was touring different continents, Roach kept in close contact with his studio via telegrams with colleagues such as Doane and Fred Quimby at MGM. The absent producer ensured he remained abreast of and party to many important decisions that needed making. It had only been a few months since the new distribution deal with MGM had begun. Following a disappointing start, both for the studio – unhappy with the “lower-than-anticipated revenues” and for the distributor – underwhelmed at the quality of the first shorts handed over to them, the situation was now dramatically improved. As the New Year began, both sides were now very content with how the relationship was developing.
This unsatisfactory start is arguably understandable. The first films Roach handed over to MGM included Max Davidson’s, What Every Iceman Knows, which the MGM Screening Committee slated, and Stan and Babe’s All-Star comedy, Sugar Daddies. However, just as things were starting to look a trifle shaky between the new bedfellows, fate stepped in and dealt its trump cards. The saviours of the relationship came in the form of two characters, one fat and one thin, and not only did they save the Roach-MGM partnership, but they also changed the comedy landscape forever.
By the time the reviews and revenues for Hats Off!, only the third film to feature Stan and Babe together under the new distribution deal, starting coming in, the tone of the correspondence between MGM and Roach executives was nothing short of ecstatic. Every one of the boys’ films was received in often uproariously side-splitting fashion by the MGM Screening Committee. The praise heaped upon the Laurel and Hardy output was consistently high from both sides.
So began the year 1928, with Mr and Mrs Hal Roach freshly embarking upon their twin journeys of geographical discovery and amorous re-discovery and leaving the studio employees to get used to working without the omnipresence of their boss.
It was all change for Stan Laurel too. He was attempting to adjust to his life as a new father, with baby Lois having entered the world just over a month earlier, on December 10th. This period could have been considerably challenging for Stan, as his controversial biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles, in his book, Stan, described the comedian as someone who was made nervous by small children. Still, it appears that his new role as a parent suited him, as Guiles goes on to say that, “Stan became a doting father. He carried little Lois to the studio, where she was duly admired”.
On January 17th, Stan and Babe took up their positions in front of the cameras once again. They began work on their latest two-reel comedy, initially given the working title, The Music Blasters, and eventually released as You’re Darn Tootin’.
The boys’ official biographer, John McCabe, credits a Roach gag man with coming up with the initial idea for the picture, having stopped to listen to an orchestra playing in a local bandstand. So, Stan and his team of gag men took this kernel and developed it into the classic short that we know today.
The boys are musicians, and we join them playing in an orchestral concert in a very elaborate bandstand, the location of which has been identified by Randy Skretvedt as the bandshell in Exposition Park, Los Angeles. Typically, they make a complete hash of the performance and ruin the show, driving the conductor into a frenzy, and they are duly fired from the orchestra.
From the chaotic and disruptive scenes at the bandstand, the action moves to the domestic tribulations around the boys’ boarding house dinner table. There are some lovely bits of business between the two of them, involving bowls of soup and salt and pepper shakers, the tops of which Stan fails to fasten back on, causing Ollie to empty the entire contents of each into his own bowl. It’s terrific Laurel and Hardy, full of character with a heavy emphasis on reaction. All the elements fast becoming their trademarks are here, and all at the Leo McCarey-inspired slowed down pace – the perfect counterbalance to the frantic, breakneck speed of traditional and long-established slapstick comedy.
Another resident, young Sturgeon, reveals to the landlady that the boys have lost their jobs. Many weeks behind in their rent and now with no wages to pay her, she throws them out – bag and baggage!. Their musical instruments being their sole possessions, they muster what little dignity they can and march out.
Taking to the streets, they attempt to raise some cash by busking, but with typically disastrous results. Ollie can’t take any more, and it’s not long before he begins blaming Stan for all their misfortune. They start a hilarious tit-for-tat fight that quickly escalates, eventually including every spirited male within shin-kicking distance.
The scene that the picture is probably best remembered for is this grand finale. It is arguably one of the finest examples of the mass reciprocal destruction endings found in any of the boys’ films. As always, it starts small. Ollie, blaming Stan for all that has gone wrong, punches him in the stomach, and Stan retaliates by kicking Ollie in the shins. This tit-for-tat altercation is repeated several times until a passer-by involves himself and approaches Stan, who duly kicks him in the shins. And so it continues with more and more people being sucked into the frenzy, kicking shins with wild abandon, whilst Stan stands relatively unaffected on the sidelines, witness to it all. Unaffected, that is until Ollie returns to dish out his punishment!
Stan’s retaliation this time is to tear off Ollie’s trousers. Ollie turns around to return the insult, only he tears off the wrong person’s trousers – and off we go again, in a hilarious riot of trouser-ripping and shin-kicking, with a large mob of half-dressed guys all leaping on the next unsuspecting passer-by.
It ends when Ollie finally removes Stan’s trousers, and Stan turns and unwittingly rips off the trousers of a street cop, played by Christian J. Frank, who had just arrived mid-brawl. The boys quickly exit stage left, and the last we see of them is as they walk out of shot, reunited in friendship, both inhabiting the same pair of trousers stolen from an unfortunate and rather over-sized gentleman. The boys raise their hats in an unusual salute to the audience then disappear from the frame.
The second film in a row to be directed by Edgar Kennedy, You’re Darn Tootin’ perfectly captures the very essence of the Laurel and Hardy relationship. For this same reason, in Episode 10 of The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, author and expert Randy Skretvedt selected You’re Darn Tootin’ as the silent short he would take onto his deserted Atoll. As Randy explained:
“…Above and beyond the main plotline of the films, they’re really about the Laurel and Hardy relationship. If you needed to show people…what’s distinctive about Laurel and Hardy, as opposed to other comedy teams, show them those three films [You’re Darn Tootin’, Helpmates and Block-Heads]…
If you think about it, at the beginning of the film [YDT], Laurel and Hardy have a job, a means of making a living, a place to live, and over the course of the film, they gradually lose all these things… First, they lose their job at the bandstand, then they come home to the boarding house, and little Sturgeon spills the beans that they lost their job, so the landlady kicks them out, so they’ve lost the job and the home…
Now they’re buskers…on the street, with the clarinet and the French horn and through an argument they lose both of those…and they…lose their trousers and…they almost lose their friendship, because of the stomach punching and shin-kicking – but at the very end of the film, what happens? They go off together…in that one big oversized pair of trousers, tipping their hats, so… that’s what survives, it’s the one thing that will not be torn apart, is that friendship…”.
Just as the decision to make Leave ‘Em Laughing was a brave one, being a silent movie heavily reliant on the contagious element of laughter, one can’t help but consider You’re Darn Tootin’ was even bolder. In the former case, at least the audience could visibly see the laughter on screen, which alone was enough to allow the strategy to succeed. However, in You’re Darn Tootin’, the film’s first six minutes centre on an orchestra playing a particular yet unknown piece of music. All the gags are musical, and many show musicians blowing into their instruments at specific points, which provides the comedy. These scenes require to be accompanied by a very considered musical score, timed to the action on screen; otherwise, there is a genuine danger that many, if not most, of the gags contained within this sequence, will be diluted at best and at worst, completely lost.
In his commentary of the film in, The Complete Films of Laurel & Hardy, author William K. Everson highlighted this element as the film’s handicap:
“A variable comedy that gets off to a bad start by relying too much on gags that need sound for punctuation (the precise timing of tapping feet and reactions to single notes of music in the bandstand sequence suggest that originally it may have been planned for music and effects)…”
One can’t help but agree with Mr Everson’s suggestion, and although the action in You’re Darn Tootin’ cries out for a synchronised music and effects track, it doesn’t appear to have ever received one. The Discography of American Historical Recordings confirms that Laurel and Hardy’s pictures didn’t get that level of treatment until the production of Habeas Corpus, with the score recorded in June 1928 and the film eventually released at the start of December the same year.
However, Hal Roach, ever the forward thinker and innovator, was beginning to understand the benefits of pre-prepared musical accompaniment to his films, even as early as mid-1927. In A History of the Hal Roach Studios, author Richard Lewis Ward provides hard proof of this:
“Roach and his staff had been present during too many theatrical screenings of their comedies in which the laughter had been drowned out and the comedy blunted by overly frantic musical accompaniment played too loudly…Roach decided to have a music cue sheet prepared for each film, with instructions for house musicians to render the score softly, so as not to overwhelm the comedy. Ernst Luz, head of MGM’s music department, complained that the first cue sheet submitted to him by Roach, a score for the Davidson short What Every Iceman Knows, was far too complicated…[Luz] said that the better theater organists would simply ignore the cue sheet and do their own material…In response, Warren Doane admitted that music was not an area in which anyone at Hal Roach Studios had any particular expertise…”.
This lack of expertise became a thing of the past after LeRoy Shield and Marvin Hatley arrived at the Roach lot around 1930. The iconic tunes they composed for the Roach comedies became as intrinsically recognisable and loved as the actors themselves. But, their contributions were still a couple of years away, which meant Roach had no option but to leave the responsibility of musically accompanying the films to each theatre’s accompanists.
Reviewing You’re Darn Tootin’ for Motion Picture News, May 12th, 1928, E.G. Johnston acknowledged the creative possibility’s presented to theatre operators by the film’s very nature, stating:
“With the musical theme some good effects might be introduced by your theatre orchestra.”
And then again, they might not if they missed the cues!
Sadly, proving the point of just how vital the correct score is to a silent film, and specifically to You’re Darn Tootin’, is the Universal Studios DVD release, as part of their 21 disc boxed-set Laurel & Hardy: The Collection. The score appears to be performed solely on an organ and, whilst an attempt was made to match music with the action at the bandstand, it was not done sufficiently to prevent distraction for the viewer. The aim of a silent film score should be to integrate so entirely with the activity on-screen that it almost disappears. For example, the rhythm of the screen orchestra must tie in with the scored music. The conductor’s foot stamps and baton taps must be in sync with the added sound effects. The sound of Stan’s clarinet or Ollie’s French horn must be realistic representations of the real thing, or at least be amusing interpretations of them; if not, the score will not compliment the picture; it will only succeed in working against it.
It’s worth noting that the 1967 Robert Youngson compilation, The Further Perils of Laurel & Hardy, showed some care and effort by making a decent attempt at appropriately scoring and synchronising the opening bandstand scene, but this appears to be the exception.
For the most successful example, I would recommend seeking out a BBC Four TV series from back in 2006 entitled Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns. In the particular episode dedicated to Laurel & Hardy, comedian Paul Merton commissioned the world-renowned composer and silent film accompanist Neil Brand to compose a brand new synchronised score for You’re Darn Tootin’. The result is a score so masterfully considered, timed and executed that it brings the film to life. The music and effects match the action so well that one can easily forget it is a silent short.
As a guest on Episode 17 of The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, Neil Brand described the process and the challenges of composing the score for this film. He also talked about how allowing the live audience to participate in the score by tearing pieces of cloth, in-time with the pants-ripping scenes, all made for an immersive and entertaining experience for everyone involved.
Back in 1928, as was becoming the norm, the film was received very positively by theatre owners and exhibitors, as their patrons laughed themselves silly at Stan and Ollie’s antics, as the following reviews attested:
“Don’t miss this Stan Laurel-Oliver Hardy comedy. It’s a cuckoo if there ever was one in this line of entertainment. When an ennuied [bored] bunch of film reviewers fairly laugh their heads off – even hard-boiled old Jack Harrower – then we’ll go the limit toward congratulating this popular Roach comedy team – and their director, Edgar Kennedy. It’s good all the way through, but the choice highlight is the employment of a simple gag which is admirably built up to a point where, if it doesn’t produce some of the best laughs you ever heard, then put this writer down as one who doesn’t know what it’s all about…” Motion Picture News, May 12th, 1928
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, comedy team, are at the Aldine this week. These two frat brothers are engaged in all sorts of real slapstick laughs in a piece called “Your Darn Tootin’”. It has to do with two members of a band – Laurel and Hardy – and the piece is stocked up with laughs.” The News Journal, August 2nd, 1928
“Without a doubt this team cannot be beat. A Laurel-Hardy poster on your front means 20 minutes of real entertainment in your theatre.” New Eagle Theatre, Baltimore in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, November 2nd, 1928
For balance, it should be noted that there were a couple of reviewers who were a little less than impressed,
“Good, except finish, which took off the good flavour”. Lark Theatre, McMinnville, Oregon in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, November 2nd, 1928
“The comedy, “You’re Darn Tootin’,” with Laurel and Hardy, is almost too slapstick to be funny, but the audience appreciated it, nevertheless.” Harrisburg Telegraph, November 6th, 1928
All in all, You’re Darn Tootin’ is a great comedy, and we can say with some certainty that E.G. Johnston’s statement turns out to have been spot on and is worth quoting again here, with perhaps one minor and slightly belligerent alteration:
With the musical theme, some good effects CAN be introduced by your theatre orchestra – providing they can be bothered to make an effort!
Why not share your thoughts on ‘You’re Darn Tootin’, including the musical accompaniment below?