Laurel and Hardy’s second outing in the world of talking pictures, couldn’t be much more different than their first. Where ‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘ was a film that was self-consciously all about dialogue, ‘Berth Marks’ returns the boys back to basics, back to films packed with visual gags.
In a way, I found this a little surprising as, on the whole, ‘Unaccustomed‘ was a pretty good film, certainly for the first attempt at a talkie. One may possibly expect a small amount of change in the amounts and type of dialogue as an artist’s films progress, as the studio learns as they go and adjusts here and there, but the fact that they paired it back to such an extent, I find…surprising. What makes it all the more interesting is that the two movies were shot within just a couple of weeks of one another. According to Randy Skretvedt, ‘Unaccustomed As We Are’ was shot between March 25th and March 30th, with retakes completed on April 1st. Then, the boys were back in front of the cameras filming ‘Berth Marks’ on April 15th. So, I’d love to know what the strategy was behind this, if in fact there was any. Both films had the same director, Lewis R. Foster, the first was a pretty decent ‘all-talking’ comedy, released to audiences that were hungry for just such comedies, but then what made them revert straight back to a film heavy with visual gags and light on dialogue?
That’s not to say that I think it was a bad move. On the contrary! The essence of Laurel & Hardy’s magic and possibly even the key to their longevity and wide international appeal, I believe, is down to their ability to drive much of their films on visual comedy alone. Therefore, returning to their roots was perhaps exactly what the boys needed to do, to allow them to settle quickly into this new medium and made sure they took this enormous change, seemingly in their stride.
However, having said that ‘Berth Marks’ is a largely visual comedy, there are some very clever and funny uses of both sound and dialogue scattered throughout the film.
The plot couldn’t be simpler. Stan and Ollie are, as they describe themselves a “big-time vaudeville act“, traveling by train on their way to perform in a town called ‘Pottsville’.
In another big change from the limitations of their previous talkie, ‘Berth Marks” opening scenes are on location and include some wonderful sound footage of a steam train arriving at the station. Here we find Stan waiting on the platform carrying a cello. Ollie bursts onto the platform, frantically looking for Stan, knowing that they don’t have much time before their train departs. Despite being a few feet apart the boys keep missing each other until Stan spots Ollie and chases him around a while until finally, he gets in front of him.
The station used for filming these scenes was Santa Fe Le Grande, the exact same station, in fact, the exact same spot, where eleven years earlier Stan shot his solo film ‘Hustling For Health’ (1918). This was Stan’s last film for the Rolin Film Company and was produced by non-other than Hal Roach (the ‘Ro’ to Dan Linthicum’s ‘Lin’).
The film’s first brilliant use of sound comes here, as Ollie questions the unintelligible train announcer, played wonderfully by Pat Harmon, “Does this train go to Pottsville?“. To which the announcer, annoyed at having to repeat himself barks back, “Keep your ears open“, before proceeding to repeat the same unintelligible loud rambling noise, finishing with “All aboard!“. Throughout this, both Stan and Ollie’s reactions to the announcer’s gobbledegook are absolutely brilliant. You can see the concentration in their faces as they try in vain to decipher his ‘words’, finishing with the look of resignation that they don’t stand a chance. “Thank You,” Ollie says, with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. The announcer walks off-screen, but we can still hear him babbling his announcement and then we, that is us the viewers and also Stan and Ollie are allowed to just make out the words at the end “…and Pottsville”. This is a great gag; very cleverly conceived, taking full advantage of the potential that sound films were presenting.
There then follows a wonderful string of visual gags. There’s the usual hat swapping routine, a guy flying into the shot at speed after tripping over Stan’s cello, then the boys’ attempts to get on the moving train are very slapstick and very funny too.
Once onboard, Stan unwittingly sits on a little person, sits on and crushes another guy’s straw hat, and exposes a couple of sleeping passengers by tearing down the curtains to their berths – all in the space of a few minutes…and that’s not all! Whilst trying to follow Ollie through the carriages, Stan accidentally bursts into a private room, much to the shock of a lady who appears to be getting ready for bed. As Stan quickly disappears from sight, we see the lady’s annoyed husband, (who else but Charlie Hall), emerge from the room looking for the culprit. The first person he sees is L&H regular Harry Bernard. Assuming that it was Bernard that scared his wife, Charlie tears apart the back of Bernard’s jacket then turns and returns to his room.
Bernard turns to see who has unfairly attacked him, just as innocent Baldwin Cooke is passing by. Bernard follows Cooke off-screen into another carriage and returns the favour. This continues and eventually escalates to everyone in the whole carriage getting drawn into a clothes ripping frenzy, reminiscent of the good old silent movie finales of mass reciprocal destruction, such as in ‘The Battle of the Century‘ (1927) and ‘You’re Darn Tootin”(1928).
The remainder of the film is taken up mostly with a couple of scenes. Laurel & Hardy trying to climb into their shared top bunk and then, Laurel & Hardy trying to undress and get to bed inside their top bunk. There is some very funny, top drawer slapstick in these two scenes, especially the first, as Stan tries to climb all over Ollie in order to ‘quietly’ clamber into the bunk. Ollie’s expressions and exasperations are, as always, first-class and for the first time ever, Ollie utters the words, “Don’t shush me!” not once, but three times.
These scenes, especially the one that takes place in the cramped confines of the bunk itself, has received some hefty criticism, mainly for being too long and repetitive. Glenn Mitchell in his Laurel & Hardy Encyclopaedia states that “…the upper-berth scene is stretched beyond audience patience…”, which I think is a tad harsh. Yes, it does possibly go on a bit longer than perhaps it should, but I hadn’t watched Berth Marks for many years and this time around, I was kept well entertained by it. I think it’s worth remembering that these films were made as a kind of disposable entertainment – apart from perhaps the occasional re-release in cinemas. They were not made to be watched over and over and studied in the great details that we cinema buffs do today. They would be lapped up by cinema audiences upon release and then hardly ever seen again. So, I guess what I’m saying is perhaps we should be a little more generous and not criticise too harshly.
In actual fact, contemporary audiences must have responded pretty well to those sequences, as the bunk scene was revisited and tweaked to fit the prison cell setting of Pardon Us (1931) and also re-made with just a few small differences for, arguably, the best scene in The Big Noise (1944), and that’s not all…! Practically the entirety of ‘Berth Marks’ was re-used and incorporated into extended foreign language versions of ‘The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case’ (1930), but instead of the boys riding the train to Pottsville, they were on their way to Ebeneezer Laurel’s mansion to stake Stan’s claim to the inheritance. Many of the scenes were re-used, but some had to be re-shot, with the train interiors needing to be re-built.
The ending of ‘Berth Marks’ is quite simplistic. Just as the boys finally get settled into their bunks and attempt to drift off to sleep, the train conductor announces the next stop is “Pottsville“!! So, there’s a mad scramble to grab their clothes and disembark.
As the train pulls out of Pottsville station, we see Stan and Ollie standing on the platform in their underwear, holding arm fulls of clothes and wearing the wrong hats. There was possibly a hat swapping routine cut here, as in the next shot we see of them they have the correct hats on, with no explanation of how they did it.
However, there’s something missing! “Where’s the fiddle?” asks Ollie. The fiddle (or cello) has remained on the train and Ollie’s temper can stand it no longer… (In fairness, whatever instrument is in the case wouldn’t have been up to much at this point. When Stan falls over it on the train tracks, before getting on the train at Santa Fe, the instrument inside seems to have been broken into pieces).
I quite like ‘Berth Marks’, however, I admit that the berth scenes probably don’t stand up too well to multiple viewings in quick succession. But, nonetheless, I got many laugh-out-loud moments from their second outing in talkies.
But…what do you think of ‘Berth Marks’. Do share your thoughts below or on our social media pages. We’d love to hear from you…