As soon as ‘They Go Boom’ was in the can, the Roach Studios closed down for their annual month-long vacation. This was certainly a well-earned break for the boys who had already turned out twelve fantastic comedy shorts in the first seven months of that year alone, not including their cameo appearance in ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929′.
Professionally, life was good for the Laurel & Hardy team, but personally, particularly for Babe Hardy, things were far from good as John McCabe relates in his biography, Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy…
“His self-esteem in the late Twenties began to suffer because he increasingly felt his lack of education. One afternoon playing golf, a friend’s friend in their foursome talked at length about a current national problem. Everyone except Babe offered a reasoned opinion on the matter, and his inability to do so severely embarrassed him.”
“That incident was to remain an intellectual watershed in his life. It kept bringing sharply home to him something more than his inadequacy as a conversationalist on current affairs. He realised, or thought he realised, that he did not have a personal identity at all, certainly at least not one that satisfied him .”
In addition to Babe’s growing personal identity crisis, his relationship with his wife Myrtle was also struggling at this time. Myrtle’s alcoholism was becoming very problematic and they were beginning to drift apart. On 25th July 1929, just two days before the Roach studio closed for the summer holiday, Myrtle filed for divorce, claiming she’d received “seven years of cruel treatment“.
Again, McCabe describes:
“Babe accepted the idea of divorce rather stoically. The idea of it, on reflection, both alarmed and comforted him…However…he still loved her. Despite the divorce application they stayed together at their home on Fredonia Drive, Los Angeles, agreeing to separate when further judgement was made on her suit.”
Following this personally challenging summer, Stan and Babe reported for work at the end of August and the ‘Laurel & Hardy machine’ set straight to work on the next short subject ‘The Hoose-Gow‘. In contrast to their previous picture, ‘They Go Boom!‘, which was filmed entirely on a studio set, ‘The Hoose-Gow‘ was filmed completely on location, and in comparison, the feel of the pictures couldn’t be more different. The boys are, as usual, brilliant in both scenarios, but the claustrophobic nature of ‘Boom!‘ is completely eradicated here, which is ironic in one sense, as the very first scene of ‘The Hoose-Gow‘ shows that the boys have been arrested and are being delivered, in the back of a paddy-wagon, to prison for their incarceration – arguably one of the most claustrophobic situations imaginable.
The paddy wagon enters a gateway leading through to a large prison complex, which keen observers may also recognise as the same prison used in the boys’ 1927 silent short ‘The Second-Hundred Years‘. The actual location used for both films was not a prison at all, but the Los Angeles County Hospital.
Meeting them at the prison is the warden, played by Tiny Sandford. He instructs all the prisoners, of which there are many, to climb out of the vehicle; the eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted fellow felon, Charlie Hall disembarking too. Hall would reappear later in the film, playing an important, yet totally different character.
Stan and Ollie protest their innocence, claiming they were “only watching the raid“, but it falls on deaf ears. Interestingly, the opening title cards, presumably written by Story Editor H.M. Walker, set the scene to reassure fans that the boys are not real criminals:
“Neither Mr. Laurel nor Mr. Hardy had any thoughts of doing wrong – As a matter of fact, they had no thoughts of any kind”
There follows some nice business with Tiny Sandford where Stan is hiding an apple in his mouth and then can’t get it out. The apple is a signal which, when thrown over the prison wall, would alert some waiting friends of a fellow inmate, played by Leo Willis, who had supplied the boys with an apple each. Willis, as well as working with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chase, had also previously been in three films with Stan and Ollie, namely, Flying Elephants (1927), the Max Davidson short, Call of the Cuckoos (1927) and Their Purple Moment (1928) and would go on to appear in four more films with the boys, ‘Below Zero’ (1930), Pardon Us (1931), The Live Ghost (1934) and The Bohemian Girl (1936).
After a period of mild panic from Stan, Warden Sandford kicks him up the backside, causing Stan to swallow the apple whole, much to his own relief. Sandford then throws Ollie‘s apple away, over the wall. This, of course, alerts the waiting goons on the other side of the wall, and they dutifully throw over a rope ladder. The warden immediately becomes sensible of what’s happening and scales the ladder himself, much to the goons surprise, who scarper pretty sharpish, letting go of the rope ladder, causing Sandford to plummet back down, still on the prison side. From here on in the boys’ cards are marked.
Shortly afterwards the setting changes dramatically as the prisoners are sent for some hard labour as a pick-wielding road gang. There are some classic bits of Laurel & Hardy ‘business’ throughout here, especially the recurring gag involving Stan’s pick keeping on getting caught up in Ollie‘s jacket and tearing it, slowly but surely to shreds.
Randy Skretvedt, in his unparalleled work ‘The Magic Behind the Movies‘, records an interview he held with Babe‘s widow, Lucille, where she described how Babe‘s body was marked with scars following his many years of film-making with Stan, and in particular she told of an accident during the road gang scenes in ‘The Hoose-Gow‘…
“The comedy business of the scene called for Laurel to nick Hardy in the seat of his pants with his pick – a real pick being used, as the rubber pick looked ‘fakey’ in action. The ‘nicking’ was to occur on Laurel’s uplift of the pick, but unfortunately for Hardy, his huge bulk moved too close to Laurel’s downward swing of the heavy pick, and he received a very real ‘nicking’ in his flesh….Everyone on the set but Laurel and Hardy roared with laughter. Only they knew what had really happened.”
More mayhem then ensues as the boys firstly sit at the warden’s own personal dining table and proceed to consume his lunch, much to Sandford’s displeasure. Then, in order to win favour with the prison camp chef and earn some food of their own, the boys go off to chop some wood. They choose to fell a large tree, (“the more wood, the more food“), not knowing that atop that same tree is Watchman Charlie Hall, in his second role of the film, in a lookout tower. When the trunk breaks, the tower does fall and down comes the watchman, tower and all, flattening the mess tent in the process!!
The final few scenes build up to a tried and tested L&H staple finale, a food flinging frenzy where everyone close-by is dragged into the fray, one by one. The prison governor, who else but James Finlayson, arrives in his chauffeur driven car, with two elegant looking ladies in tow, to inspect the prisoners and their facilities etc.
As Finlayson moves out of sight, Stan’s pick gets once again entangled in Ollie‘s clothing and Ollie throws the pick in frustration out of shot. It comes to rest in the Governor’s car radiator, causing water to gush out.
Prisoner Leo Willis is once again near at hand, with some pearls of wisdom for the boys:
“Hey! I’ll tell ya how to stop that leak…Put some rice in the radiator!…Get some from the cook tent”
For reasons best known to them, Stan and Ollie think this is sound advice and Stan rushes off to get the rice, while Ollie holds his hand over the leak. A few moments later and the radiator is filled with rice, the leak stops and the boys return to their work station, secure in the knowledge that nobody will be any the wiser.
Finlayson and his party finally return, climb into the car and the engine springs to life, but it doesn’t take long until the radiator is spouting gallons of sloppy rice, like some sort of rice pudding geyser. Finlayson’s double take is hilarious, as you would expect!
It all kicks off when Sandford boots Stan up his behind causing him to fall face first into the puddle of rice. Refusing to stand for this, Stan gets up and throws and handful of the rice into Sandford’s face. Sandford retaliates and throws and handful at Stan, who ducks and Finlayson gets it in the face instead…and as usual it goes on and on, until everyone, including Finlayson‘s female companions, are covered in sloppy rice.
Realising that they’re going to be in big trouble and spotting an opportunity to escape, the boys exit stage right and hide in the back of an untouched and unaffected car, belonging to the Governor’s entourage. However, when the boys are found to be missing, Sandford and Finlayson jump in to the front seats and prepare to begin a search of the area, only to throw the car in reverse and crash straight into a truck carrying very delicately balanced barrels of whitewash.
Two barrels empty their contents all over the back of the car and the last image we see is two ghost-like figures of Stan and Ollie rising from the back-seats, literally covered from head to toe with white paint…and fade to black.
‘The Hoose-Gow’ was the final film the boys released in 1929, a year in which they released some absolute classic comedies and fixed their position at the very top of the Hollywood comedy tree. It’s a very funny comedy with some great stand-out gags. But, more than that, I’m once again amazed at how, on the surface, the viewers and fans would have no idea of the real heartache and suffering that Babe was experiencing behind the scenes. It’s a real testament to his professionalism and dedication to his craft. And, whilst it was Mr. Hardy who was experiencing the heartache during this time, it wouldn’t be long before his good friend Mr. Laurel would also be having his fair share.