This is such an interesting little film. Laurel & Hardy’s very first talking picture, ‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘ is a truly historic and pivotal moment in the boys’ career and one can only wonder at the anxieties Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy must have felt leading up to the filming and ultimately the release of the film on May 4th 1929.
Although a few of the major studios had dabbled with sound, releasing short subjects with synchronised soundtracks since early in 1927, it was the success of Warner Bros.’ feature length ‘The Jazz Singer‘, starring Al Jolson in October 1927, that rang the death knell for the silent film industry. The clock was well and truly ticking.
Despite a few doubters, who labelled talkies as a fad, the race was on for studios to sign contracts and equip themselves with the latest sound recording technology, or risk being left behind in a rapidly changing industry. The move to talkies was a phenomenally positive one for the movie industry on the whole, but it was not without its casualties. Almost overnight, so many huge names from the silent screen, stars such as Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson and even Hollywood’s favourite couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, faded from view. Exit stage left!
The reason for their quick disappearance from the business was not always as straight forward as simple speech impediments, squeaky voices or the like. In an interview in 1956, Louise Brooks, a popular actress in the 1920s said: “It was such a splendid opportunity [for the studios]…for breaking contracts, cutting salaries, and taming the stars….”
Two of the most popular and successful comedians from the silent screen, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, attempted to keep up with the changing times. Keaton, who even today is still regarded as a genius and legend of screen comedy, struggled to make the transition. As would later happen to Stan and Ollie in the 1940s, following their break from the Hal Roach Studios, Keaton lost control over his film-making process and as a result his movies suffered disastrously.
Following Keaton’s debut in talkies, ‘Free and Easy’, released 22 March 1930, a contemporary review in Film Daily wrote that, “Buster Keaton, trying to imitate a standard musical comedy clown, is no longer Buster Keaton and no longer funny.”
In contrast, Harold Lloyd remained in complete control of his own pictures, embraced the talkies and released his first ‘Welcome Danger‘ on 12th October 1929. Although personally I am a fan of Lloyd’s silent work, I’m not keen on his first outing in talkies. For some reason he cast himself as an obnoxious bully, certainly for the first 15 minutes and put me right off the film! Entertainment magazine Variety was mixed in its review and said of Lloyd’s first vocal performance: “Lloyd’s voice is sometimes prone to weakness and even a consciousness of culture…” Hardly a rave review!
Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin, the international mega-star of cinema since 1914, was extremely reluctant to make talkies. In contrast to Laurel & Hardy, Keaton and Lloyd, it incredibly took Chaplin until 1940 to release his first talkie, ‘The Great Dictator‘. The film was considered a masterpiece, but unfortunately, Chaplin’s popularity with the cinema-going public was fading.
But, for Stan & Ollie, their already growing popularity was only going to increase in the age of the talking picture and their first attempt is not a bad effort at all. The title of the film was originally intended to be ‘Their Last Word‘, but was thankfully, and more appropriately changed to ‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘.
The plot and scope of the film doesn’t break any new ground, in fact it’s quite a typical type of bedroom farce. The action takes place in a matter of about three different rooms, namely, the Hardy’s apartment, the Kennedy’s apartment and the hallway between the two. This was probably intentionally done to keep it simple, whilst the studio technicians got used to their new equipment.
The film opens with Ollie bringing Stan along the hallway towards his apartment and the very first words of dialogue, ever to be heard from Laurel and/or Hardy, belong to Ollie as he describes the wonderful meal his wife (unbeknownst to her) will shortly be making for himself and Stan. It’s worth noticing that as Ollie is speaking his line, the first few words are feint, but as they proceed down the hallway his voice becomes much more audible, as they come to a stop underneath a light fitting, presumably hiding a rather considerably sized microphone (see the image above of the boys with the microphones on the back of the truck).
Ollie: “Now, I’ll tell you what we’re gonna have to eat. We’re gonna have a great big juicy steak with mushroom sauce, strawberries with the whipped cream mixed down in the bottom of it, a cup of coffee and a big black cigar.”
To which Stan answers “Any nuts?”
Considering this is the boys’ very first talkie, there are some clever uses of sound and dialogue throughout. As they enter Ollie’s apartment, Ollie calls to his wife with a typical and melodic, “Yoo Hoo!” To which an unseen Mae Busch answers from another room and in a very abrupt voice “Whadda ya mean, Yoo Hoo!”, thus bursting Ollie’s bubble and bringing the homely picture that he had painted for Stan crashing down in an instant.
Mrs Hardy appears and is non too pleased that Ollie has brought ‘another bum’ home expecting her to feed them both. She begins to scold him and as she’s in full flow, Ollie turns on the gramophone and his wife unwittingly begins to nag in time with the rhythm of the record, whilst Stan dances along. She finally becomes sensible of what is happening and packs her bag and leaves in a temper, threatening to never come back.
Not to be completely embarrassed in front of his friend, Ollie sets about attempting to prepare the promised meal for Stan himself. It’s during this sequence that we hear Ollie’s pained plea for the very first time “Why don’t you do something to help me?!” As usual, Stan tries to help and between them they almost burn the kitchen down – twice!
Having heard the commotion, into the scene rushes Thelma Todd (Mrs. Kennedy) from across the hallway. She offers to assist the boys and make the meal for them, but Stan has left the gas on and the kitchen is almost destroyed for a third time. Mrs. Kennedy’s clothes are set alight and in an attempt to rescue her, the boys tear off her burning dress and wrap her up in the table cloth.
Just then, Mr (Edgar) Kennedy, or should I say, Police Officer Kennedy returns from work and Mrs. Hardy, who’s had a change of heart is also seen coming down the hallway. In panic, the boys stash Mrs Kennedy into an empty trunk.
Another argument breaks out between the boys and Mrs Hardy and Officer Kennedy enters the apartment to intervene. He realises that the boys have hidden a ‘lady’ in the trunk, to keep her from being discovered by Ollie’s wife and Kennedy, not knowing it’s actually his own wife in the trunk’, tries to help the boys (“Us married men have got to stick together!”), and has them take the trunk in to his apartment.
From inside the trunk, Mrs Kennedy then overhears her husband telling Stan & Ollie all about how he cleverly keeps his liaisons with other women, whilst on his police beat, secret from his wife. The boys, knowing full well that Kennedy’s wife can hear all this, become very uncomfortable, but are too scared to own up. Instead they return to Ollie’s apartment and leave Kennedy to wrath of his concealed wife.
Back in Ollie’s apartment, Mrs. Hardy has by this time prepared the meal, to try to make amends with her husband and his guest. The three sit and attempt to eat their meal, all the while the sounds of domestic carnage can be heard from across the hallway. The boys share nervous looks and keep one eye on the door, anticipating Kennedy’s angry reappearance at any moment. During this scene, which again makes good use of off-screen sound and the corresponding on-screen reactions, Stan, with his eyes fixed on the door, serves Ollie with a few helpings of spaghetti right into his lap.
Eventually Kennedy does reappear, looking much the worse for wear and he calls the boys out into the hallway one at a time to get their comeuppance. Ollie is first to receive his just deserts and he returns with a very red (I’m guessing here – black & white and all that!) nose. Then Stan is called out, but just as he’s about to punched in the kisser, Mrs. Kennedy sneaks up behind her husband and smashes a huge vase over is head. Ollie rushes out into the hallway, to help Stan, but finds him standing over an unconscious Kennedy, looking incredibly like the victor – and craftily, Stan does nothing to correct him in his astonishment.
‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘ is certainly not the best example of a Laurel & Hardy talkie. It suffers from sound issues where the hidden, static microphones are too far from the actors to pick up the dialogue consistently, and also the scope of the film is restricted due to its limited use of locations. But even so, it’s still a very enjoyable romp and it’s amazing to see how competently the boys take the talkies into their stride at the first time of asking.
For more detailed behind-the-scenes information, I would absolutely encourage anyone studying the boys’ work to read Randy Skretvedt‘s chapter on this film in his updated ‘Magic Behind the Movies‘ book, and also there’s a good deal of fascinating information, including many wonderful images, connected to the transition from silent pictures to talkies at the Hal Roach Studios. It’s an absolute delight (as is the rest of the book!).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘ and also more generally on the boys’ transition to talkies. You can share your views in the comments section below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.