Filming began October 30, 1929, to November 11, 1929
Released January 4, 1930, Two Reels
Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by James Parrott,
Photographed by George Stevens, Sound by Elmer Raguse
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Edgar Kennedy, James Finlayson, Anders Randolf
After their brief sojourn at MGM, filming The Rogue Song‘, the boys were soon back in front of the cameras at the Hal Roach ‘Lot of Fun’ for business as usual…and that business was Night Owls.
The story of Night Owls is an interesting one, as Laurel & Hardy historians, including Randy Skretvedt, Glenn Mitchell and Simon Louvish all claim its genesis was likely Stan’s 1914 vaudeville sketch ‘The Nutty Burglars‘, written originally for himself and two other ex-Karno colleagues to perform under the name of ‘The Three English Comiques‘. It is also suggested that Stan’s inspiration for writing the sketch could be traced even further back to a 1908 sketch entitled ‘An Unwilling Burglar‘ penned by Stan’s father, Arthur Jefferson.
It’s hard to say for sure what someone’s actual source of inspiration was and the arguments for Stan and Night Owls are certainly understandable, but after reviewing the ‘Nutty Burglars’ sketch, as laid out in A.J. Marriot’s comprehensive work on Stan’s pre-film career, ‘Laurel: Stage by Stage‘, its only really the comic burgling aspect that shows any direct connection to the later 1930 Laurel & Hardy short.
Night Owls holds a significant place in the boys’ canon, as it is the very first film to feature a tune that would become synonymous with Laurel and Hardy and remain so for the rest of their careers and beyond. The tune is, of course, the famous ‘Ku-Ku‘ song. It wasn’t composed specifically for Stan and Ollie, however, but instead as a radio time signal, for the KFVD station, that was located on the Roach lot.
The tune’s creator was Marvin T. Hatley. Along with the great Leroy Shield, Hatley was responsible for creating the wonderful music playing in the background of the boys pictures. Among others, Hatley notably composed the Oscar nominated scores for Way Out West, Block-Heads and Our Relations.
Randy Skretvedt, who became close friends with Hatley, records the moment that Stan first heard the Ku-Ku ‘ditty’, that would become the soundtrack to a major part of his life:
“Stan recalled, “We heard it one morning in a restaurant and thought it was funny-sounding music that would be good to start out pictures off with…The preview audience laughed at it, everyone thought it seemed to fit, and we decided to continue using it”
The film opens with cop Edgar Kennedy being roasted by his Police Chief (Anders Randolf) and laughed at by his colleagues (including Desk Clerk, Harry Bernard and fellow officer, Baldwin Cooke), over a newspaper article demanding a new Chief of Police, after a spate of forty-two unsolved burglaries in one week on Kennedy’s beat. Kennedy is told, in no uncertain terms that if there is one more robbery, without an arrest, he’ll be fired. Edgar Kennedy, although well known for playing cops in a number of Laurel & Hardy films, plays this particular cop very differently than in most other films. He puts over a character that is fairly dim-witted and dopey and the butt of jokes for his contemporaries. It’s nice to see Kennedy being given the opportunity to display some of his acting talents, rather than being restricted to the one-dimensional representation of the typical comedy cop.
Following the Chief’s departure, Kennedy’s chums then mockingly suggest he frame a burglary himself, in order to make an arrest, a suggestion that appeals to the low-browed officer.
Later that night, Kennedy comes across vagrants, Stan and Ollie, asleep on a park bench. After threatening to arrest them and send them for 90 days on the rock pile, Kennedy offers the boys a chance to redeem themselves, by agreeing to rob the Police Chief’s house. At first, the boys are appalled at the suggestion, and Stan is firmly refusing, but given the alternative and following a promise that, after being arrested for burglary, “Kennedy will fix it!”, Ollie convinces Stan that they should go through with it. What Ollie actually whispers to Stan is a mystery, but it’s a lovely little moment, that exemplifies the close, trusting bond the two friends have.
The majority of the remainder of the film quite simply covers the boys’ attempts to scale a wall and break into the Chief’s house, without making a sound. Can they do it? Well, there’s probably no need to, but I’ll give you two words – Im Possible!
There are some very funny sequences and gags throughout, just little moments, such as the boys hitting each other childishly with their hats and Stan picks up a dustbin lid to shield his face, and then when nothing comes he lowers it, only for the waiting Ollie to give him a quick punch in the jaw. It’s almost cartoon humour, but it’s certainly funny.
Another gag is when they’re trying to scale the wall and Stan uses Ollie to stand on in order to climb up. He then attempts to hoist his friend up after him and in doing so tears the seat out of Ollie’s trousers, prompting the usual hilarious camera look from Hardy!
Descriptions of these sorts of scenes can never do them the justice they deserve, but for me, there are many moments of simple, enjoyable, laugh-out-loud comedy in this short. In ‘Laurel & Hardy, The Magic Behind the Movies’, author Randy Skretvedt describes Night Owls as “a lesser L&H comedy” and if this is indeed the case, it must say a lot for the great ones.
It appears that Stan Laurel himself was disappointed by the finished product, but this was more to do the constraint of keeping the picture to the two-reel length, as he explains in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, December 29th, 1929:
“We are very anxious,” he said “to send out our pictures in whatever length they reach when they are completed. Nineteen hundred feet is the usual length for a two-reeler, and it necessitates some regrettable cuts. We were compelled to eliminate much of the business leading up to the big laughs in ‘Night Owls’ and the laughs themselves suffered by it. Comedy, especially our type of comedy, must be cumulative in effect, not abrupt.”
I’m not really qualified enough to argue against Stan or Randy, but I think Night Owls has been sold a little short. As a fan, I completely enjoyed it from start to finish.
Just to make things even more enjoyable, James Finlayson then shows up, playing the role of Meadows, the Police Chief’s butler. There are some great sequences where Meadows and the Chief, who is retiring to bed for the night, hear some of the commotion caused by the boys outside and Meadows sticks his head out of the window to investigate. From the shadows, the boys quickly do their best impersonations of wailing cats and Meadows is sufficiently fooled.
The Chief tells him to ‘do something about it‘ and so Meadows throws a pair of slippers down at the ‘cats’, and his aim is spot on, hitting the boys on their heads three times in total. However, Stan decides to throw his back up at the window, knocking the unsuspecting butler over. You’d think that would arouse suspicions, but no. They must be used to some pretty mean cats in that neighbourhood and ones that can pitch too!
These scenes with Finlayson hanging out of the window, looking for signs of would-be intruders are very similar to another earlier comedy and one that also has a number of connections with Night Owls. Mabel Normand’s 1926 silent comedy The Nickel Hopper, produced by Hal Roach, written by Stan Laurel, featuring Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy and James Finlayson, playing the part of a moustachioed house owner, on the lookout for an intruder (sound familiar?). It’s a pleasant little silent comedy and Hardy’s brief performance as an over-enthusiastic drummer is something to behold. In addition to the aforementioned connections, Glenn Mitchell suggests that the studio set from Normand’s comedy were re-used by the Roach team numerous times, one time being in Night Owls.
Once the boys are finally over the wall, they then have to get inside the house. Anyone familiar with Laurel & Hardy’s body of work will know, if there are two people who can milk the attempt of gaining entry into a building, it’s Stan & Ollie and we’re treated to the full works here.
Inside the house, the set used for the staircase looks very similar, if not identical, to the one in wealthy Ollie’s house in Early to Bed.
It’s not long before the household is alerted to the burglars’ presence, as the boys finally sit down on a piano stool, to wait for Kennedy to come and ‘arrest’ them. What they don’t know is that Kennedy has been knocked unconscious in the street, during the earlier slipper throwing scene. As they lean back on the piano, they unwittingly activate the automatic piano player function and up-tempo music comes blaring out. The boys, unable to stop the piano, make a sharp exit out of the window, just as Kennedy arrives into the house to make his daring arrest of the dangerous criminals. The Police Chief and Finlayson enter to see Kennedy standing there, holding the boys’ swag bag, just as police reinforcements arrive. Kennedy is apparently red-handed and under arrest…and fade to black.
An interesting aside is provided in an article printed in the Bradford Evening Star, March 6th, 1930:
“Laurel and Hardy Ruin Grand Piano: When Laurel and Hardy start their monkeyshines before the movie camera nobody can foretell how the scene will end. These popular funny men do their stuff spontaneously much of the time. They themselves do not always know where their antics will lead. So well defined are their characterizations that any business of one always demands a certain kind of response from the other. And so expertly do the comedians work together that “ad-libbing” is made easy.
Recently, however, Mr. Laurel was almost at a loss to know what to do when his pompous pal, Mr. Hardy, began to get rough with an expensive grand piano that had been rented for their new comedy, “Night Owls”. The camera was grinding, the microphones were eavesdropping and Mr. Laurel had to act. A couple of amateur burglars, they were looting a house when the player grand piano begins to play. Not knowing how to stop it, Mr. Hardy “adlibbing”, stuffs a bear rug under the lid to muffle the sound. This bit of business called for Mr. Laurel to do something even more stupid, and the “dumbest” thing he could think of was to jump on the piano lid. So he did. It is the biggest laugh in “Night Owls” but it cost the Hal Roach studio some money to cover the damage.”
Away from the cameras, another occurrence, worthy of note, happened at the Hal Roach Studios around this time. Roach recruited Stan’s previous Gaffer, Fred Karno to the studio staff team. Roach had obviously heard much about Karno from Stan and with his links to Chaplin as well, he must have thought Karno was a comedy genius that could do wonders at the studio as a gag writer. He was signed on a five-year contract, but this was terminated after only four months, as Roach soon realised that Karno was in fact “just a businessman“, who hired funny people to write for him.
Extract from the ‘Exhibitors Herald World’, October 26, 1929: “Karno Starts Work As Associate for Hal Roach. (Special to the Herald World) NEW YORK, Oct 22 – Fred Karno, Famous London Music Hall impresario and reputed discoverer of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, starts work today, as an associate producer with Hal Roach. The contract covers a period of five years.”
Night Owls was also the first picture that the studio released in multiple languages. With the assistance of Spanish and Italian language coaches, the boys learned to phonetically speak their lines of dialogue (admittedly, there’s not a lot of dialogue in this film), and the scenes were filmed first in one language and then in another. For later films, the boys would add French and German to their releases.
An article entitled ‘Hollywood High Lights‘ in the February 1930 edition of ‘Picture Play’ Magazine, written by Edwin and Elza Schallert, states:
“Stranger things may have happened lately, but none odder comes to our mind at the moment than the plan to make Spanish versions of the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy comedies, with the stars themselves speaking the soft southern tongue. As a matter of fact, it is more than simply a plan. One of the comedies, ‘Night Owls’, has already been finished. Even more amazing does it seem to find that the two fun makers are being coached in their Hispanic enterprise by a chap who glories in the Irish name of Robert O’ Connor. In explanation, it may be said that while his father was Irish, his mother was Spanish.
Laurel and Hardy speak a number of lines in their Spanish picture, and an entire company of Mexicans was called in to support them. Naturally, they themselves had to learn their lines parrot-fashion. Laurel had much more trouble than stout Hardy. Because of a peculiar “ish” inclination in his speech, he had literally to smother this by getting up steam and making a wild dash into the articulation of the foreign language.”
These versions went down a storm in Europe and, although a costly process, ensured good returns from overseas audiences for the studio and also that Laurel & Hardy were firmly accepted into the hearts of the movie-going public in many European and Hispanic countries.
Writing again in the May 1930 edition of Picture Play, the Schallert’s report back on the boys’ success in Spain:
“First blood in the conquest of foreign markets with foreign-language talkies made in Hollywood, has been drawn by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They are a hit in the Spanish city of Barcelona, where their film ‘Night Owls’, called ‘Ladrones’, in its Hispanic Version, has been exhibited.
The two funny men spoke their lines poll-parrot fashion, and the reports were that though the Spanish was not especially rhetorical, it was exceedingly amusing, and the Barcelona audience laughed their heads off.
Laurel and Hardy are now endeavouring to wiggle their palates around French and German syllables, and while the strain is terrible, as far as they are concerned, the results are said to be most laughable.”
Agreeing with this view was ‘The New Movie Magazine’ from April 1930:
“Word comes from Spain that Laurel and Hardy are rocking records by talking the toreador language in their latest epic. They’re likewise crushing ’em over here.”
One thing that can be said with some certainty is that whilst the influence on Night Owls from the past, i.e. The Nutty Burglars is small, the influence of Night Owls on a later L&H project can be without doubt. The project in question was Stan and Ollie’s 1952 stage sketch On the Spot also known as A Spot of Bother. The sketch, penned by Stan specifically for their nine-month tour of live appearances of Great British and Irish Theatres, had Night Owls as its primary inspiration, with a few touches here and there borrowed from others of the boys’ classic films. To find out more detail about this sketch, including not only a mass of photographs but also a complete audio recording of the boys performing it live on stage, I wholeheartedly recommend you check out Michael Ehret & Nico Cartenstadt’s wonderful book ‘Spot On! An Audiovisual Account of Laurel & Hardy’s 1952 British Tour’.
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