It really is quite hard to believe that ‘Men O’War’ was only Laurel & Hardy’s third talking picture! Early talkies just don’t get much better than this.
Whilst their first outing, ‘Unaccustomed As We Are’ (1929), was over-loaded with dialogue and their second offering, ‘Berth Marks‘ (1929), was mostly visual pantomime, the team at the Roach studios got the formula for ‘Men O’War’ absolutely spot on.
Following the arrival of sound recording equipment, the studios had been on a steep learning curve, as they got used to the possibilities and the potential, as well as the perils and the pitfalls of recording sound, especially whilst out on location. As we can see from these first three Laurel & Hardy talkies, the Roach studio started with a film completely restricted to the controlled environment of the studio, then the second ventured out for a small number of scenes on location, and for this third outing two-thirds of it is filmed on location at the visually appealing Hollenbeck Park in Los Angeles. The park still exists today and there’s a great ‘then and now’ comparison video available to watch on YouTube put together by chrisbungostudios
Arguably acting as a sort of unofficial sequel to ‘Two Tars’ (1928), the boys once again take on the roles of sailors on shore leave, out for a good time. On this occasion, they’re strolling through the park and spot a couple of young ladies, played by Anne Cornwall and Gloria Greer, and decide to try to make up a foursome.
Unbeknownst to the chatting ladies, they are standing over a pair of ladies white bloomers/knickers/under-crackers (delete as appropriate), that have just fallen out of a basket of laundry, being carried by a washer-woman type character. The ladies remain ignorant of the undies and the boys and girls exchange extremely juvenile and pathetic, yet at the same time hilarious embarrassed glances and giggles. As the girls walk away the boys spot the underwear and immediately jump to the wrong conclusion. “They faw down“, laughs Ollie.
The next gag always makes me laugh. As Ollie is holding the undies aloft, a chap comes cycling past them and without taking his eyes off them shouts and laughs “Naughty, naughty…naughty, naughty!“, before plunging, head first, bicycle and all into the boating lake, to the screams of the leisurely rowers.
It just so happens that one of the ladies suddenly realises she’s lost her pair of white gloves and starts to worry and wonder where she may have lost them. Seeing the lady’s concern (and once again, jumping to the wrong conclusion), the valiant boys approach and enquire as to whether the ladies have lost anything. There then follows a very funny conversation, at cross purposes, where the ladies are talking about gloves and the boys are talking about undies. The boys’ glances and childish sniggers to each other are just delightful, as the girls describe the lost items as “white, very odd” and “so easy to pull on!” The use of dialogue here is so accomplished and makes good use of the innocent double-entendre, that just wouldn’t have been possible in the silent era.
The boys’ smiles are quickly wiped from their faces as a cop, played once again by Harry Bernard, approaches the girls and reveals that the lost items are actually a pair of gloves, by returning them to their relieved owner. The newly acquainted friends all agree to visit the soda fountain together and walk off arm in arm.
Although employing techniques that were not possible in the silent days, one aspect of the film that does mirror a lot of the boys’ best silent shorts is its structure, in as much as it’s split into three acts. The underwear scene is the first act and the second takes place at the soda fountain.
The next sequence is a remake and, thanks to the addition of sound, an improvement on a scene from the boys’ golfing comedy ‘Should Married Men Go Home?‘ (1928) and has to be one of the most famous in the boys’ canon. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it referenced on the boys’ social media fan pages.
The basic outline is that the boys want to impress the ladies by buying a round of four sodas, whilst only having fifteen cents, or in other words enough for three drinks. Ollie hatches a fool-proof (!!) plan of telling Stan to refuse to have a drink. Of course, every time Ollie asks Stan, he becomes confused, forgets the plan, and orders himself a soda. The fun here is all in the frustration of Ollie and also the bar attendant played by everyone’s favourite L&H foil, Jimmy Finlayson, as Ollie keeps having to cancel the order and take Stan to one side to re-explain the plan. It’s within these scenes where we are treated to hearing for the first time Finlayson’s trademark “DOH!” outburst.
There are so many laughs here, I especially love the little tit for tat fights that spontaneously break-out between the boys, as Ollie animatedly asks “Can’t you grasp the situation?“, and gives Stan a frustrated push and then gets a kick in the shin or a finger in the eye in return, or even has some of his chest hair ripped off. The yelps and cries that Ollie makes as this is happening are fantastic and add so much to these encounters, as they will continue to do for the remainder of their movie career together.
Eventually, knowing he’s getting nowhere, Ollie tells Stan that they can discretely share a drink between them. Stan gets to drink his half first, but downs the whole drink in one go. Once Ollie realises what’s happened he calmly questions Stan, who brilliantly looks like a scolded puppy, and claims that he couldn’t help drinking all the drink as “my half was on the bottom!”
Ollie soon realises that he’s underestimated the price of sodas and that the fifteen cents are only enough to pay half of the bill. As punishment Ollie leaves Stan to settle the bill with Finlayson. Ollie’s glance to the camera as he quickly leaves is hilarious as he is acknowledging that both he and we know what’s happening, but Stan is still in the dark…for now! Then we’re treated to close-ups of Stan’s expressions as he looks from the bill to the fifteen cents and back again, trying and struggling to comprehend why things aren’t adding up. In a moment of Stan magic, he then gambles some of his fifteen cents on a one-armed bandit and hits the jackpot! Problem solved.
The final third of the film could have been lifted straight from one of the boys’ silent films, as there is no dependency on dialogue whatsoever. It’s pure visual slapstick as the sailors fail abysmally to row the ladies out onto the boating lake. They begin fighting first with each other and then, in true L&H fashion, more rowers are dragged into the action as boats are upturned and rowers knocked overboard. Charlie Hall is the first into the mix as he rows straight into the side of Stan and Ollie’s boat. This is Charlie’s first speaking role in the boys’ films as he moans “What’re ya tryin’ to do…? Ya big saps!(?) Bumpin’ into my boat! DumbBell!”
The scene escalates, as it does in all the boys’ reciprocal destruction sequences, although this one is perhaps not as effective as its predecessors, possibly as a result of the limitations of being on water. The film ends as all the displaced rowers, one by one clamber on board the boys’ boat, including Hall, Finlayson, Bernard, and another L&H regular Baldwin Cooke. Inevitably, the boat can no longer remain afloat, under the weight of the assembled scrappers and sinks.
For much more detailed information relating to ‘Men O’ War’, including the problems encountered by filming a talkie in a very public place, check out Randy Skretvedt’s indispensable tome, ‘Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies‘.
Despite the, ever so slightly, sub-standard finale, I love ‘Men O’ War’. It has great dialogue and the performances are just wonderful. But what do you think? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or on our social media pages, i.e. Facebook and Twitter.