Just like the silent short ‘Hats Off‘ (1927), The Rogue Song has frustrated Laurel & Hardy fans for decades, as it is another ‘lost’ film. However, whereas ‘Hats Off’ is lost in its entirety, fragments of varying length and quality of ‘The Rogue Song‘ have surfaced across the globe over the years, giving us tantalising glimpses of the finished film.
It must be said from the outset though that ‘The Rogue Song’ was not, and was never meant to be, a Laurel & Hardy comedy. Instead it was a film, created by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as a debut movie for the star of the Metropolitan Opera House, Lawrence Tibbett and Stan and Babe were only included as comedy relief – and from the bits that I’ve seen, relief was certainly needed.
There also seems to be a little uncertainty surrounding the point at which the boys were signed on to the picture too – whether it was intended from the outset or, and I happen to think that this is the more plausible, were the boys crow-barred in to an already complete picture.
In Randy Skretvedt‘s typically comprehensive chapter on the film, he cites Hal Roach who stated specifically that:
“Metro had made this picture and it was too sombre. At the previews, the audiences didn’t like it. They wanted to know if Laurel and Hardy could work in the picture to lighten it up.”
Skretvedt also quotes a 1958 interview with Stan who claimed that leading actor Tibbett, had returned home to New York, on the understanding that filming was completed, only to:
“…fly back to Hollywood to shoot a scene with us – the only scene in which he and we appeared together”
In addition to the above contemporary accounts, the overwhelming impression that the existing footage, including the full soundtrack gives, is that the boys were very much added in at the end, as a desperate afterthought. Their scenes, even the one mentioned by Stan, where they do appear with Tibbett, do nothing to further the story and just feel completely shoe-horned in for the sake. Now, having said that, I do think their scenes appear to be the best parts of the movie, but then I am more than a little biased.
‘The Rogue Song’ is a romantic musical, filmed in Two-Colour Technicolour, set in 1910 and tells the story of a suave, singing Russian bandit named Yegor (Tibbett) who falls in love with Princess Vera (Catherine Dale Owen). All sounding pleasant so far, isn’t it? Well, it’s all downhill from here. Yegor then goes on to kill Vera’s brother, Prince Serge for raping his sister and causing her to commit suicide. Yegor then takes it out on Vera, forcing her into a life of apparent slavery amongst his bandit army. Vera manages to escape and Yegor is captured by soldiers and tortured. The couple realise they still love each other, but it’s all a bit late by then. It’s no wonder MGM executives, including Irving Thalberg stood back and thought some comic relief was needed!
So, to “lighten” the movie MGM agreed to borrow Laurel & Hardy from Hal Roach. Although, the film’s directorial credit goes to Lionel Barrymore, it’s almost certain that Stan and Babe‘s scenes were not directed by Barrymore, but instead were directed in the usual fashion by either Stan, Hal Roach or possibly even James Parrott, who was certainly photographed on set with the boys (See photo in Randy Skretvedt’s, Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies), or maybe even a combination of the three.
Laurel and Hardy‘s contribution to the movie adds up to about 15 minutes or so, scattered throughout the picture. The main scenes are highlighted here…
L&H Scene 1: The boys first appear right at the start of the film, in their only shared scene with Tibbett, as his character, Yegor, instructs Ali-Bek (Stan) and Murza-Bek (Ollie) to stay behind and look after the horses. It appears that Stan is upset by Yegor’s harsh tongue, and so Ollie tries to reassure his friend that it was nothing personal. He regales Stan with a tale of his own derring-do, which Stan has clearly heard many times before and he finishes Ollie’s last sentence with him
L&H Scene 2: There is a bit of business with the boys trying to close the inn door and this finishes with Ollie showing Stan how it should be done and as Ollie slams it shut, a pile of snow slides off the roof covering Ollie.
L&H Scene 3: Ollie is having trouble mounting his horse, so Stan suggests Ollie stand on a barrel to help him mount. Ollie says “At last you’ve shown some intelligence”. He climbs onto the barrel, which gives way under his weight and Ollie splashes into the barrel.
L&H Scene 4: Whilst dismounting from his horse, Stan gets his foot caught in Ollie’s coat and rips it as he tries to free himself. Ollie tells Stan to “Get your hands off of it!” and Stan gives is trademark cry whilst uttering “You’re always picking on me“, to which Ollie replies “Well it serves you right!“. Something then happens to Ollie that makes him yell with pain, but unfortunately, as this clip is audio only, I have no idea what the reason is.
L&H Scene 5: The boys buy some cheese and sit down to eat. Stan‘s piece of cheese is covered in flies and he eventually takes a bite. Then each time he tries to take another bite, a strange short buzzing noise is heard from inside him. The boys start to panic and Ollie attempts to hit the bee (that’s inside Stan), with a large stick. He only succeeds in hitting their donkey, who is none too pleased and proceeds to chase the boys away. A small amount of footage of this scene does exist.
L&H Scene 6: The boys arrive back from a long ride in the desert, which they describe as being very hot and sandy. Ollie wants Stan to give him a shave (does he never learn?), and Stan starts by dipping the shaving brush in their soup. Stan then becomes distracted and stuffs the brush into Ollie‘s mouth. Stan then starts to sharpen the razor, which sounds very much like a forerunner to a similar scene in ‘Busy Bodies‘ (1933). Finally, Stan drops the razor down the back of Ollie‘s shirt, which causes Ollie to anxiously squirm around until Stan removes it, after tearing the shirt to shreds.
L&H Scene 7: This scene is the longest existing clip from the film, featuring Laurel & Hardy. A huge storm whips up across the bandits’ camp and blows the tent up and away that Stan and Ollie were sleeping under. The boys run to find shelter and disappear into a cave, unaware that a big black bear has beaten them to it, just minutes earlier. Frustratingly, we are left looking at the entrance to the cave, whilst we hear the boys commenting on how dark the cave is. Ollie then asks Stan “Where did you get the fur coat?“. There follows a bit of confusion as Stan denies having one and Ollie insists that it ‘feels’ like a fur coat. The confusion ends as the bear roars and the boys run out of the cave for their lives.
L&H Scene 8: The boys are hiding out in a tree and overhear people saying the Yegor is dead. The branch then snaps and the boys come crashing out of the tree and land in a lake.
L&H Scene 9: The boys return to camp to inform the bandits that Yegor is dead. Ollie then goes on to say that Yegor’s final wishes were for Ollie to become the new leader of the bandits. The bandits laugh sarcastically at this suggestion, just as Yegor is heard singing in the distance – very much not dead. The last view of the boys is of them carrying out their new roles, scooping up the bandits’ horse’s muck.
Hal Roach, cited once again in Skretvedt, said that he wrote sequences for Laurel & Hardy, but they were rejected as they focused the film more on the boys and not on Tibbett. The rejected scenes were kept and used later in the boys’ 1933 feature ‘Fra Diavolo’, which, for a Laurel & Hardy fan, is much more satisfying than even a complete version of ‘The Rogue Song‘ would ever be.
Filming at MGM must have been quite a different experience for the boys. It sounds as though they had more of their usual directorial freedom, as they were accustomed to at Roach, even if that wasn’t strictly the MGM way, as Buster Keaton experienced himself.
Illustrating how different their filming experience outside the familiar confines of the Roach Studios was, Wes D. Gehring’s ‘Laurel & Hardy: A Bio-Bibliography‘ reprints a piece from an contemporary article in ‘Pratfall‘,:
‘Interviewed on M-G-M’s cafe sun porch, the team was stopping traffic with their rose-pink and purple satin outfits. Self-conscious about the attention, Laurel observed, “Over on the Hal Roach lot, where we belong, they take us more for granted.”‘
As frustrating as a missing film is, I find it some comfort to think, without wanting to sound overly harsh, that if one had to choose a Hal Roach era film to be without, ‘The Rogue Song‘ is probably the one. Stan himself wasn’t overly happy with their finished scenes. In a 1989 letter to Randy Skretvedt, John McCabe, the boys’ official biographer, quoted Stan as saying: “The things we did in Rogue Song weren’t awfully good“. He also added that ‘their contribution was bound to be unmemorable’, being “Too little, too late“.
You can watch a reconstruction of ‘The Rogue Song‘, using the existing soundtrack, discovered clips and stills and you can get a reasonable idea of the finished film. CLICK HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cekirq79Fzk
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