‘Brats‘ is a really interesting film and I say this for several reasons. Firstly, it’s one of the only films where Laurel and Hardy carry the whole film completely on their own, with no supporting cast.
Second, its the first film where we see the boys playing dual roles. In ‘Brats‘ the boys play both themselves and also their young sons, in later films they would also play their wives (Twice Two, 1933) and their twin brothers (Our Relations, 1936).
Third, the fact that the boys are playing their own kids, opposite their adult selves, allows the viewer the direct comparison of the behaviour of the adult Stan and Ollie against that of Laurel and Hardy children, and arguably, the conclusion must be drawn, that there is no real difference. Stan and Ollie as grown-ups, are basically children in adult clothing.
‘Brats’ wasn’t the first time that either of the boys had played themselves as children on film, as Rob Stone points out in his ground-breaking history of Stan and Babe’s early careers, ‘Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy‘. Stone records that in July 1918, Babe Hardy appeared alongside Chaplin imitator Billy West, in a film, produced by Charles Parrot (later to become Charley Chase), called ‘Playmates‘.
The film followed both actors’ characters through their lives, starting from when they were small children playing together and witnessing the way that, as men, they take very different paths in life – West’s character taking the lawful high road and Hardy’s very much taking the low road of crime. About the film’s production, Rob comments that:
” Special sets were built for the prologue scene of Playmates, oversized furniture and the like giving the illusion of Babe and Billy being small boys”.
This special effect of grown men, appearing to be children by playing on oversized furniture is the whole basic concept behind ‘Brats‘. So, given the obvious connections of Charles Parrot and Babe Hardy to the ‘Laurel & Hardy’ writing team, a very strong case could be made to say that ‘Playmates‘ was the inspiration for ‘Brats‘. Whether it actually was or not, we can’t be sure, but the likelihood of this being the case, has to be pretty high.
Randy Skretvedt’s indispensable and comprehensive tome on the boys’ films, covers ‘Brats’ with the usual wonderful level of behind-the-scenes detail. His interviews with the people that worked at the Roach Studios, alongside Stan and Babe, tell us how they successfully achieved the desired effects. Set designer and craftsman Thomas Benton Roberts and ‘Optical-effects wizard’ Roy Seawright both informed Randy that they built a huge replica set, three times the size of the original ‘adult’ set.
The technical ability of the team at Roach was clearly excellent, as the shots of the adult size set, blend seamlessly with the children’s oversize set. Nothing jars, nothing looks out of place and, although I know nothing of the practicalities and technicalities of film editing, I would confidently say that ‘Brats’ is put together perfectly. For a film made in 1930, it sits comfortably alongside any modern films, that similarly has its actors playing dual roles, but with the massive difference and benefit of today’s costly CGI effects teams.
In addition, another quality that this film has, is that despite its lack of a supporting cast, and despite the fact that the action is enacted on a studio set, limited to three or four rooms, it does not have the claustrophobic feel as there arguably is in, for instance, ‘They Go Boom!’
The film’s story, written jointly by Leo McCarey and Hal Roach, couldn’t be simpler. Stan and Ollie are left to look after their children at Ollie’s house, whilst the wives are having a night out.
Both sets of boys try to pass the evening away by playing games. The parents play drafts (Stan is apparently a drafts master, much to Ollie’s disgust) and pool, while the children are building with blocks or playing at boxing. As any Laurel and Hardy fan knows, however, the smallest and most innocent of activities carried out by the boys, in any guise, will always end up disastrously and true to form both pairs end up fighting. The pool table is particularly and amusingly ruined after only a few shots have been played.
Without much of a plot, its hard to effectively explain the unfolding story, but that’s not to say the film is dull or pointless, far from it – it is one gag after another, from start to finish, literally from top to bottom.
As the children noisily smash a ceramic ornament, we hear Stan reprimand them with the impossible instruction, “If you must make a noise, make it quietly“, a phrase which finds its way into many of the boys’ films and as a result is often quoted by fans.
One particularly memorable scene with a laugh-out-loud conclusion is when, giving in to his frustration, due to not being able to get the children to go to bed and after being hit on the head by a flying roller skate, Ollie snaps, “If you brats don’t get to bed, I’ll break your necks!”
Stan steps in and imparts his words of wisdom: “Shhh! Don’t talk to them like that! Treat them with kindness…you’ll get more out of them. Remember the old adage: You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead!”
Ollie’s reactions to this advice is very comical, as despite the absolute nonsense that he’s just heard, Ollie seems to totally understand the logic and nods enthusiastically. As a result his temper softens and he promises to reward the first child, who is “undressed and to bed“, with a nickel.
Outside of the bedroom door, Stan stops Ollie at the top of the stairs: “See what a bit of kindness can do?” he asks.
“You’re right!”, returns Ollie, “A little bit of kindness goes a looong way!” and as he goes to walk down the stairs, he puts his foot immediately on a roller skate and descends the stairs on his backside, at double speed, with his legs sticking comically vertical in the air. Hilarious stuff, that never fails to make me laugh out loud!
The finale of the film is quite satisfying too. The children have left the bath filling up for quite some time, and unbeknown to the parents, the entire bathroom is filling with water. When little Ollie asks for a drink of water, Stan begins to fetch one from the bathroom, but is stopped in his tracks by Ollie, who qualifies his action by saying, “You might spill it!“. Ollie then goes to fetch the drink himself and opens the bathroom door, releasing a tidal wave of water into the bedroom and washing the adults up against the wall.
Continuing the habit of making foreign language versions of their shorts, and thanks to the success of the Spanish versions of ‘Night Owls‘ and ‘Blotto‘, ‘Brats‘ was released in German as ‘Gluckliche Kindheit’ and in French as ‘Le Bons Petits Diables’.
Writing in the May 1930 edition of ‘The New Movie’ magazine, Homer Croy wrote a substantial article on the boys’ foreign adventures in film, entitled ‘The Seriousness of Being Funny in Four Languages“.
Croy visited Laurel and Hardy on set:
“The first day I saw them work was in ‘Brats’. When I arrived, the two lads were in a bed that would have made Brigham Young weep with joy; the biggest bed I ever saw in my life…it was especially made for the occasion and was twice the sizeof an ordinary two-dollars-a-day-bed. In fact it was made extra large as Petite Laurel and Hardy were playing the parts of children and were dressed the same. They had made the English version and now tore into the German version”.
Croy’s article began by explaining the way in which Hal Roach ‘allegedly’ introduced the idea of foreign language versions to the boys.
“For years Laurel and Hardy had worked in silent pictures and knew every twist and turn and shade value, until they had become veritable Professors of Comedy, and then in the twinkling of an eye, they were demoted to kindergarten class. It was a stumper. That night they left the lot happy and came back the next morning looking like the Prisoner of Chillon.
Laboriously and patiently they began to learn how to make sounds again, and were getting along rather well, when again an earthquake threw them out of bed. Hal E. Roach himself was the subterranean disturbance.
“Boys,” he said one morning as they were slipping out of their cars, “from now on we are going to make talking pictures in four languages”…”I mean you two are going to make pictures in four languages.” said Ogre Roach…
“You’ve got to,” said the Ogre of Culver City. “You boys are going over so well that I can sell you abroad and I can’t sell you in English. You’ve got to learn to be funny in English, French, German and Spanish”.
“How much time have we to learn those three foreign languages?” asked Monsieur Hardy.
“Until Thursday” said Roach.
How factually true this exchange is, is open for debate. One thing for certain is that Hal Roach doesn’t come out of it too well, to say the least. It may well be a fictional account, of a true story, embellished with untruths for dramatic effect, but surely nobody would do a thing like that and certainly not make Mr. Roach out to be an ogre – would they??!
I love ‘Brats’ and my children love it too. This is a film that can get youngsters engaged with Laurel and Hardy and from then on, I’m sure they’ll be bitten by the bug too.
I’ll end this blog with a question: What’s better than a film with Laurel and Hardy in it?
Answer: A film with two Laurel and Hardy’s in it!
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