Since their official teaming in ‘The Second Hundred Years‘ (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s star had been continually rising. By the end of 1930, their two and three-reelers, in multiple languages, were universally loved by audiences, as well as the majority of critics all around the world. Their popularity was such that their short subjects were even given prominent top billing ahead of feature presentations.
Was it inevitable then, that sooner or later the boys would star in their own feature film? Recourse to the literature tells us that Hal Roach, Stan Laurel and Babe Hardy were all reluctant, possibly even dead against making the transition to feature length films. From the creative angle, the argument that the longer the film the harder it is to sustain the laughs is certainly understandable. But, from a financial perspective, and taking into account what a shrewd businessman Hal Roach seems to have been, Laurel and Hardy had become too much of a bankable brand, with each picture expected to become a sure fire hit, even before release. So, from this angle, I would say yes, whether the stars wanted it or not, a Laurel and Hardy feature film was indeed inevitable.
As the legend goes, if legend is not too strong a word, ‘Pardon Us’, or ‘The Rap’ as it was originally entitled, started out life as a regular two reel comedy. The intent was to parody MGM’s successful prison drama, ‘The Big House’, released earlier that year, and the end result is incredibly similar, identical even, in many parts.
Years later, Hal Roach recalled that he approached the powers that be at MGM and asked if he could use the huge sets from ‘The Big House’ to make his comedy and MGM agreed, but only on condition that Stan and Babe would be made available to them, on loan, to feature in a future MGM feature production. Roach refused, possibly as a result of being underwhelmed with the previous experience of loaning his top stars out for ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929‘ and more recently ‘The Rogue Song‘. Instead he had his team build their very own oversized sets back at his ‘Lot of Fun’, and at great expense. In order to financially recoup the extra outlay, Roach had no choice but to increase the picture to triple its original length, thus making it the boys’ first feature film.
However, and not for the first time, Stan Laurel told a different story. Randy Skretvedt, in his wonderful book, ‘Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies‘, cites a letter Stan wrote to a fan in April 1957. In it Stan claimed that MGM had initially refused Roach’s request, commenting that:
“These major studios won’t rent their sets until the picture has had over a year’s run, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone to the expense…It was intended for a two reel subject but…[it] went so well at the preview, Hal Roach decided he wouldn’t spoil it by cutting it down…and instead added three more to it and made it a feature“.
Just to cloud these waters a bit more, Glenn Mitchell’s ‘Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia‘ forwards another sound reason for the transition, being that the growth of double-feature programming in theatres was impacting negatively on the requirement for short subjects, therefore compelling Roach to enter into the feature film market.
But, the most ludicrous reason of all must come from journalist Hannen Swaffer, in ‘Picturegoer‘ magazine, as cited again in Glenn Mitchell’s ‘Encyclopedia’.
“[Swaffer] hinted that the comedians had been goaded into Pardon Us by their wives, anxious to move into the Beverly Hills district denied to those working in short subjects.”
In fairness, whilst the notion of Stan and Babe being pushed into makes features by their wives does indeed sound ludicrous, there were in fact contemporary reports of certain areas of Hollywood being out of bounds for stars of short subjects. For instance, Bob Moak, writing in the September 1929 edition of ‘Picture Play Magazine‘:
“Hollywood, like every other small city in the United States, is a community divided against itself. It, too, takes cognizance of the caste system. But where the railroad tracks form the great social divide in Oshkosh and Kanakakee and Davenport, three reels of celluloid tape serve as the film capital’s arbiter…Yes, Hollywood, too, has its other side. Here, however, the question is not the size of one’s bank account, but rather the length of one’s films…Now, Stan [Laurel]’s income is sufficient to permit him to employ a staff of servants to maintain his attractive home in Beverly Hills, of which place Mary [Pickford] also is a resident and a voter. Yet the real-life path of Stan Laurel has never crossed that of Mary Pickford. Should the two meet on Hollywood Boulevard, it is doubtful if one would recognize the other. Between these two players, who have genuine admiration for the histrionic ability of one another, lied that imaginary three thousand feet of film.”
So maybe there is a shred of truth behind Swaffer’s claims?
Whatever the real reason behind the move to features, (and personally I think we can rule out the boys’ wives), ‘Pardon Us’ is a decent first attempt.
Understandably, expectations within the industry were high, as was the confidence of the film’s distributor, as this MGM advert in ‘Motion Picture Herald‘, May 2nd 1931 illustrates:
“By public demand! Laurel-Hardy in a full length feature comedy!…With every additional release they become more and more a national institution, a sure guarantee of fun in the theatre…Hal Roach and M-G-M have been working on it for months. It will unquestionably be the funniest picture the world has ever seen! No expense, no effort is being spared to make it just right! We owe it to the uncounted millions who will pack your theatre. ‘Pardon Us’ is something to cheer about!”
So, no pressure then!
The picture as a whole is certainly enjoyable, although one does get something of the sense that it could be two or maybe three short subjects pieced together to make a longer whole. But, as this is the team’s first attempt, and just as with ‘Unnacustomed As We Are’ their first go at producing a ‘talkie’, a little understanding should be attempted and exceptions should be made.
Stan and Ollie are presented, not as shabby vagrants, but instead smartly dressed in tidy suits and clean derbys. This opening scene also informs us that Stan has a strange dental problem that makes his tooth buzz every time he speaks, like the rude sound of someone blowing a raspberry. This is a running gag throughout the picture and the cause of much of their problems.
We meet the boys shopping for home brew ingredients. Stan points out to Ollie, that they won’t be able to drink the quantity of beer that they plan to make and so, aiming to generate a bit of sneaky cash, Ollie explains to Stan “What we don’t drink, we can sell!
However, as this is taking place in prohibition era USA, the boys’ entrepreneurial enterprise doesn’t last long and the scene swiftly cuts to the boys being led in handcuffs to the huge gates of the big house.
This scene mirrors the start of ‘The Big House’ where Robert Montgomery is led slowly to the gates, and in addition the next few scenes are also unashamedly parodied, where Stan and Ollie are being processed by the officers, played by Harry Bernard and Tiny Sandford. In the MGM original the officer asks Montgomery if this is his first time in prison, to which the answer comes back “Yes”. Montgomery is corrected to answer back “Yes sir”.
In ‘Pardon Us’, Stan and Ollie are asked their names and Stan answers:
Stan: “Stanley Laurel”
Officer: “Say sir when you’re addressing me! Now, what’s you’re name?”
Stan: “Sir Stanley Laurel”
This is finished with a dodgy tooth raspberry, which does nothing to endear him to the officer.
They’re taken away to bathe and change into their prison garb and there’s a great gag where the boys are standing beside the two large sunken baths. Stan is thoroughly drying the inside of his ears with a towel. He throws the towel on the wet floor and it covers over a bar of soap. Fed up with how long they’re taking, Tiny Sandford bellows to Ollie to “fall in” and Ollie steps straight onto the hidden bar of soap and slips dramatically backwards, fully clothed into one of the baths full of water.
Once dry, the boys are led into the office of the prison warden, where they listen carefully to the warden’s monologue about how, if they behave well, they will get along fine, but if they misbehave, prison life will be “hell on earth” for them. When asked if they understand, Stan politely says, “Yes sir” and then buzzes a huge raspberry at the warden.
The once placid warden is instantly enraged and he screams to Sandford to throw them into Cell 14 with ‘The Tiger’!
As well as being the boys’ first feature film, it was also their first film working alongside one of their most fearsome of foes in the Laurel & Hardy Stock Company, fan favourite, Walter Huntley Long. Long, playing the part of prison hard-man, ‘The Tiger’, was very likely chosen for this role due to his resemblance to his character’s counterpart in ‘The Big House’, the savage convict ‘Butch’ played by Wallace Beery. Long’s appearance and mannerisms, including his voice were a perfect take off of Beery’s performance and as such he plays the perfect part. Long would go on to work with Laurel and Hardy in four more pictures, namely, ‘Any Old Port’ (1932), ‘Going Bye-Bye!’ (1934) (in which his character’s name was also ‘Butch’), ‘The Live Ghost’ (1934) and ‘Pick a Star’ (1937).
The first scene with The Tiger is a classic and truly memorable. As prison guard, Tiny Sandford leads the boys to meet their new cell mates, Long is looking out at the ‘new fish’ through the bars of the cell. He challengingly addresses Stan with “Hello Squirt!“. To which Stan innocently replies, “Hello” and his buzzing tooth follows up with a raspberry, much to the surprise of The Tiger.
As soon as they’re inside the cell, The Tiger wastes no time in pushing Stan to one side and menacingly repeats himself, daring Stan to do the same, “I said Hello, Squirt!”, and, of course, Stan does do the same, including the raspberry.
The tension in the air is palpable, as all the cell mates look from their bunks, waiting for The Tiger to explode with murderous intent…but the explosion never occurs. Instead, The Tiger shakes Stan’s hand, laughs and says “You’re the first guy that’s ever had the nerve to raspberry The Tiger!…I like a guy that does that!” Ollie looks on dumbfounded, then an idea occurs to him, just as The Tiger turns around and asks “What’re you in for?“. Ollie boldly replies, “We’re a couple of beer barons!” then sticks his tongue out and blows a huge raspberry in The Tiger’s face. The Tiger immediately punches Ollie right in the nose, knocking him to the floor. A guard comes to the door and tells the inmates to quieten down and get to bed.
This next sequence is not a parody of ‘The Big House’, but instead is a re-hash of one of their own gags from ‘Berth Marks’ (1929). The inmates sleep in bunk beds, three beds high and six beds to a room. For some unexplained reason, the boys don’t have a bed each, they have to share the top bunk, with the Tiger snoring below them on the middle level and a final prisoner asleep on the bottom bunk.
Although the gag is re-used, there is just enough difference to give it a some originality and it doesn’t last as long as the original. Firstly, the bunk is much smaller in the prison and Ollie lies very still, while Stan fidgets and tries to get comfy. Ollie’s reactions are so subtle, yet say so much, showing once again, what a master he was at this type of comedy. Eventually, the bunk gives way and the boys come crashing down on top of The Tiger, whose bunk also gives way under the weight of the three men and they all crash down on top of the poor prisoner on the bottom.
We next join the boys attending the schoolroom with a number of other inmates and a welcome addition to the cast list is schoolteacher James Finlayson, who puts in his usual show-stealing performance. The keen-eyed fan can spot a number of familiar faces during this very funny scene. For instance, alongside Messrs Laurel, Hardy, Long and Finlayson can be found Charlie Rogers, Leo Willis, Will Stanton, Baldwin Cooke and Frank Holliday (the policeman in ‘Below Zero’) is the guard who comes into the room and knocks against the door frame.
The scene has Finlayson asking his class questions and, little by little, the answers, typically those given by Laurel and Hardy start to infuriate him. To top it all off, Leo Willis makes a catapult and fires a paper pellet into Ollie’s face. Ollie returns fire, but not before Stan dips the pellet into the inkwell. Instead of hitting Willis, the soaked pellet smacks Teacher Finlayson right in the kisser! Cue one of Finlayson’s trademark, one-eyed glares and the boys are sent to solitary confinement, better known as ‘The Hole’.
When they’re finally released from the ‘Hole’, the boys are accosted on the prison yard by The Tiger and his pals. The group have decided that this is the day they’re going to try to escape and as they spot the gates opening for some delivery men, The Tiger decides this is their chance.
The next few minutes, on my DVD copy at least, are a little confusing, as it appears that The Tiger has an idea how to use Stan and Ollie to get outside the gates, but whatever his plan is seems to have been cut from the film. We suddenly hear the prison alarms sounding and cut to the Warden looking out of his window. Next we see the prison gates being hastily closed and can clearly see Ollie on the inside, in the middle of the prison yard, amidst a large group of prisoners. The next shot is of a guard running in to the warden’s office, telling him the reason for the alarm sounding is because The Tiger has escaped, along with Stan and Ollie – despite the fact we’ve just seen Ollie being secured inside the yard, with the alarm already sounding.
Despite this, we learn that The Tiger has quickly been recaptured, but the boys were nowhere to be found. This is because they’ve craftily hidden themselves in blackface amongst a colony of cotton pickers. This must be the happiest workforce, certainly the happiest group of cotton-pickers in the history of the world. They can’t seem to stop singing and walk around with huge smiles on their faces.
The boys seem very happy living as part of the workforce and even join in the singing, with Babe showcasing his beautiful singing voice with a solo rendition of ‘Lazy Moon’ and Stan performing a soft shoe-shuffle. As Randy Skretvedt points out, these scenes with the cotton pickers were actually a later addition, as Hal Roach and Stan were unhappy with the film to that point. Mr. Skretvedt also informs us that the production of ‘Pardon Us’ took so much longer than expected, filming had to be stopped at one point, to enable the boys to go off and film their short ‘Another Fine Mess’, before returning to complete the jailhouse feature.
Back on the plantation, the warden’s car breaks down, on his way to the prison. His daughter is with him and Stan and Ollie offer to help fix her car. They get quite a shock when they realise who is with her and they nervously get the car running again. The warden, who hasn’t seen through their disguise is thanking them for their kindness, when Stan’s buzzing tooth gives them away and its back to the prison for them both.
Back inside, there is another resurrection of a gag from one of the boys’ previous films, this time it’s the dentist scene from their 1928 silent ‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’. It’s time to get Stan’s buzzing tooth fixed and so he is sent to the prison dentist to have it pulled. If the movie’s cast list wasn’t long enough already, we now find Charlie Hall working as the dentist’s assistant, “Hey Rosebud…Sit Down!“, he orders.
Stan is clearly terrified, sitting in the waiting room, looking at the fellow patients in agony around him. There is a wonderful moment here when Ollie, risking being
disciplined, sneaks into the waiting room, in order to support his pal. Stan’s delight at seeing Ollie is obvious and its a really heartwarming moment that strengthens our understanding of the unbreakable bond between these two friends.
Of course, their experience in the dentist’s surgery is never going to run smoothly and a mix up sees Ollie’s tooth getting pulled by mistake, “You got the right tooth, but the wrong man!” When the mistake is realised, the dentist then has a go at Stan and this time pulls the wrong tooth, but the boys scarper before any more trauma is inflicted upon them.
The finale runs along the same lines in ‘The Big House’. The prisoners are planning a big escape, involving a shoot out with the guards. In the dining hall, with the help of some of the kitchen/serving staff, guns of all sizes are being passed along the rows, under the tables, as the prisoners arm themselves in readiness for the carefully prepared plan to spring into action.
All is going well until a machine gun lands in Stan’s lap. The boys, of course, are totally oblivious to any plan, and Stan pulls the gun into full view. He shows Ollie, who turns to see the barrel of the gun pointing in his face. He panics and tries to grab the gun and the boys accidentally start firing wildly into the air. Chaos ensues, with a mass shoot out between the prison guards and the inmates.
The prisoners weren’t ready and The Tiger wants revenge. Amidst then scenes of battle and gun smoke, The Tiger chases the boys around the prison with a big knife and a murderous look in his eye.
The DVD copy that I used for this blog differs from the original theatrical release, as at this point a deleted scene, involving a fire breaking out in the warden’s house and the boys rescuing his daughter, is reinstated from the Spanish version, with the limited dialogue dubbed over. There are some good gags as the boys attempt the rescue, with The Tiger still trying to kill them, until he also spies the warden’s daughter. Now the boys have to rescue her from both the fire and The Tiger.
It’s great to have the fire scenes reinstated, but it has to be said that they don’t really fit seamlessly into the story, as the editing is a bit harsh, but mostly the plot lines from the two versions are running on different lines.
The boys manage to pull off the miraculous in both versions however, and so, ultimately, the warden’s daughter and the prison are saved and the boys receive a pardon for their bravery.
‘Pardon Us’, also and somewhat confusingly known by pre-release titles ‘The Rap’, ‘Their First Mistake’ and also ‘Jailbirds’ in the UK, seems to have received mixed reviews.
“Laurel and Hardy’s first feature length release and a comedy wow in every foot…As in their shorts, Laurel and Hardy are the whole show. They have never been more hilarious. And don’t let anyone tell you that their particular brand of humor cannot be sustained for seven reels. ‘The Rap’ proves differently” Motion Picture News, 27 September 1930.
“Laurel and Hardy here graduate into longer pictures, and while they aren’t quite so good here as in compressed chucklers, the picture is plenty funny…” Photoplay, October 1930.
“We wish we could rave about this one, the first full-length comedy of those funny fellows, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. But – through no fault of the boys – it’s not up to expectations. A good two-reel idea…is padded interminably….” Screenland, November 1931.
“Good two-reel comedians, when they make full length features often flop, but not so Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in their first feature length production…It’s a burlesque on ‘The Big House’, and if you don’t believe that can be funny, go and see what a mistake you’ve made…It’s a scream“. Silver Screen, November 1930.
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