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 (in my opinion at least).
But, so what? Who cares? ‘Night Owls’ is a funny Laurel & Hardy comedy with plenty of laughs, so that’s all that really matters, right?
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 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 given 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. Skretvedt also makes mention that Stan Laurel himself wasn’t ‘entirely happy‘ with the finished product of ‘Night Owls‘. Something Stan put down to the film’s editing. In order to get the film to the desired length, they had to make:
“…regrettable cuts…[that eliminated] much of the business leading up to the big laughs…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 Finalyson 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 mustachioed house owner, on the look out 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’s 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.
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 contrac 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 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 compete 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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