Filming began 30th December 1930. Released 9th January 1931. Three Reels
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Mae Busch, Thelma Todd, James Finlayson Director: James W. Horne
“Every man has a past with some little indiscretion he would like to bury – Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy have thirty or forty they would like to cremate -“
At the start of 1931 Stan Laurel and Babe Hardy were sitting pretty as, arguably, the best known and most loved comedy team in the world. Their appeal to cinema audiences across the globe seemed to have no limits, their names alone being all that was required to ensure a packed theatre. It seemed that everything they touched turned to gold.
In a relatively short period of time the boys had gone from ‘All-Star’ squad members to the studio’s star players and no film highlights this transformation more so than ‘Chickens Come Home’. Let me explain…
In true Laurel and Hardy style, ‘Chickens Come Home’ is a shameless re-make of one of their early silent films, namely ‘Love ‘Em & Weep‘ (1927) and so this conveniently enables us to make a direct comparison.
Staying true to the original, the story revolves around a business tycoon, who is running for mayor. He is visited at work by an old flame, brandishing a potentially incriminating photo with the unscrupulous aim of blackmail! She demands a settlement that evening at 7pm, but of course, the tycoon and his wife are hosting a big important dinner party at that very same hour.
To ensure that the devious diva and the tycoon’s wife are kept apart, the tycoon sends his business colleague to the blackmailer’s home, in order to keep her occupied and away from the dinner party. This of course enrages the villain and she steams on over to the party to cause havoc.
The tycoon is having a tough time getting away from his wife, who is becoming increasingly suspicious, his butler and also his dinner guests and it’s not long before the party takes an unexpected turn. Ultimately, the tycoon and his colleague are chased into the distance by two very angry wives.
Retaining their places from the first incarnation of the film were Stan, playing the tycoon’s inept colleague and Mae Busch who, in her first film with the boys since ‘Unaccustomed As We Are’ (1929), returned as the blackmailing old flame. Conversely Thelma Todd, taking up the role of the tycoon’s wife, makes her final appearance with the boys for a couple of years, until ‘Fra Diavolo’ (1933). Finally, Norma Drew, in her only appearance with the boys, replaced Vivien Oakland as Stan’s wife, completing the primary cast.
However, the main change to the casting and the one that emphasises the progression of the Laurel & Hardy team the most, is in the roles of Babe Hardy and James Finlayson. Both were in the original and both returned for the re-make, but this time, Hardy is no longer a dinner party guest (little more than a glorified extra in ‘Love ‘Em & Weep‘), instead he has the prominent role of the self-satisfied tycoon, previously occupied by Finlayson. In turn Finn takes up the role of Hardy’s butler, originally enacted by Charlie Hall, but Finn’s contribution is much more worthwhile than Hall was ever allowed to be in the original. Incidentally, Charlie Hall doesn’t appear in ‘Chickens’, but he does have a token role as an elevator operator in the Spanish language version of the film, ‘Politiquerias’, but more on that later…
In 1927, top billing for ‘Love ‘Em & Weep’ went to Mae Busch and James Finlayson who, along with Charlie Hall, were appearing for the first time alongside Stan and Babe. It’s interesting to note that for a time Finlayson, Stan & Babe enjoyed equal billing as part of the Roach ‘All-Star’ team, often being described as a comedy trio, and deservedly so as the Scot was always a wonderfully reliable comedy partner. But, at the start of 1931, when the cast returned to re-make their earlier film, Stan and Babe’s ‘Laurel & Hardy’ act had outgrown the ‘All Star’ label and they’d blazed their own trail to greatness. They were now and would always be headliners of their own movies. As good, or even as great, as James Finlayson and Mae Busch were, they would only now appear with Laurel and Hardy as supporting stock players.
Although ‘Chickens Come Home’ is a very good film and I know it has lots of admirers, I have to say that its not one of my favourites. I think this is due to the fact that it’s very much a situational comedy and therefore very plot driven. For me it has to rely too heavily on dialogue to move the plot along, whereas my favourite Laurel and Hardy comedies are always the ones in which there is a simple job for the boys to accomplish and they fail miserably but hilariously, with many visual gags and just the right amount of dialogue to tickle my funny bone.
In the opening scene we discover that Ollie is head of his own company, dealing in high grade fertilizer, of all things. There are some nice bits of pomp and ceremony here from Ollie, sitting alone at his desk, as he enjoys feeling important. The smallest things like lighting a cigar and reading his newspaper are all done with an elaborateness that only Babe Hardy could.
Ollie presses a buzzer on his desk and a gentleman comes into the office whom Ollie addresses as Mr. Kinsey. This actor is Hamilton (Ham) Kinsey, who actually appeared in many Laurel and Hardy films, but you would probably never realise it, as his usual role was as Stan’s double. For the eagle-eyed among you, Kinsey also appears later in the film playing an elevator operator working in Mae Busch’s apartment buildings.
Mr. Kinsey is sent to fetch Mr. Laurel, the General Manager, who when entering the room immediately smashes the door into Ollie’s face, crushing his cigar. I love the way that Ollie disgustedly flicks the crushed cigar over his shoulder, whilst looking straight down the camera.
Soon after, Mae Busch arrives on the scene clutching the incriminating photograph of her and Ollie cavorting on a beach. Ollie is unmoved by this at first, as the photo was taken “…in my guilded youth, my primrose days, before I was married“. But, as Busch’s plan is to leak the photo to the newpapers and in so doing wreck Ollie’s mayoral campaign, she declares, “It doesn’t mean a thing – you haven’t changed a bit…baby!”, this on top of reffering to him earlier as “Just the same old apple-cheek boy!”. With a large gulp, Ollie has no choice but to take her seriously.
At one point, whilst Mae is making unwanted advances towards Ollie, they accidentally press all the buzzers on the desk and into the office rush six members of Ollie’s staff, catching him in a compromising position. Interestingly, Randy Sktretvedt informs us that these individuals are Baldwin Cooke, who regularly appeared with the boys, Alice Cooke, Baldwin’s wife, the aforementoned Ham Kinsey and joining them with small supporting roles of their own are Venice Lloyd, wife of camerman Art lloyd and Clara Guiol, sister of one of the boys’ earlier directors, Fred Guiol.
Ollie quickly recovers himself and orders his staff to leave and then begrudgingly agrees to meet Mae at her apartment at 7pm that evening. However, just as things appear to be getting settled, who should turn up unnannounced at the office reception, but Mrs. Laurel (Thema Todd). In a panic, the boys bundle Mae Busch into the adjoining bathroom just as Mrs. Hardy enters to tell her husband that she’s arranged an important dinner party for Ollie, inviting some very influential individuals to his election campaign. The party of course is set to start at 7pm that same evening! What are the chances??
After a couple of near misses, Mrs. Hardy eventually leaves, without discovering the concealed woman and once the coast is clear, Mae Busch follows suit, leaving the boys to hatch a plan as to how they can logistically solve this evening’s impending conundrum.
Ollie solution demands that Stan must go to Mae’s apartment to keep her occupied until he can get away from his party to make the settlement. But Stan is not impressed with the plan, knowing his wife won’t like it.
Ollie: “Call her up and tell her you’re working!” Stan: “You don’t know my wife! She wouldn’t believe that.” Ollie: “Well, if she was dumb enough to marry you, she’ll believe anything!”
A few moments later Ollie finds himself on the phone to Mrs. Laurel, politely informing her that it is “positively imperative that Stanley works tonight“. To which Mrs. Laurel, who’s just been sitting at home being told by the neighbourhood busy body not to trust any man, replies, “Is that so?! Well, I don’t care anything about your campaign! Listen! You tell him for me, that if he isn’t home for dinner – I’ll break his arm!”
Ollie’s reaction is hilarious, as he bluffs out the rest of the conversation to give the listening Stanley the impression that all has gone to plan, and his wife has given him permission to work late. Ollie’s plan swings into action…
At her apartment, unsurprisingly, Stan is no match for Mae Busch, who is incensed that Ollie has tried to pull one over on her and sent “this dumb-bell” in his place and after forcing Stan to give him Ollie’s telephone number, she calls the house. Meanwhile, Ollie is at his dinner party with his wife, dinner guests and his nosey and interfering butler, Finlayson. Finn immediately smells a rat as he listens in to Ollie’s conversation and fixes Ollie with one if his trademark, one-eyed stares. This happens a number of times throughout the evening and Ollie keeps having to slip Finn money to keep him quiet.
As the party goes on the phone calls become more frequent and Mrs. Hardy (Todd), also start to suspect fowl play from her husband. Finally, Stan speaks to Ollie to warn him that he’s failed with his mission and Busch is on her way over!
There’s a couple of great musical themed gags here, where Ollie has been requested to sing for his guests and the untrusting Mrs. Hardy begins to accompany her husband on the piano, and hands him the music sheet that she has chosen entitled, ‘You May Be Fast, But Your Momma’s Gonna Slow You Down‘. Sadly, we don’t get to hear Ollie sing this one, but his reaction speaks volumes.
The scene then changes quickly to Stan trying but failing to prevent Busch from leaving her apartment and getting spotted in the act by his wife’s friend, the neighbourhood busybody, who just happens to live across the hall from Mae Bush – I mean, what are the chances..? Of course, she immediately sets off to dish the dirt to Mrs. Laurel.
Back at Hardy’s party, we do now get to hear Ollie hilariously singing the next number, again chosen by his wife, ‘Somebody’s Coming To My House’. This has to be my stand out moment of the whole film as Ollie plays it absolutely perfectly. His desire to put in a performance for his guests, trying to front it out with his wife but his overwhelming nerves getting the better of him. Then when he hears a car horn from outside he can’t help but scream out whilst mid-song – it’s just brilliant!
The finale is, as with all the film, very faithful to the original. Ollie threatens Mae with a gun, she faints and they try to smuggle her out on Ollie’s back, with a large coat over the top of them both, so she looks freakishly tall – Thelma Todd’s amazed/bemuzed double take is priceless here, but comes a good second to Finayson’s double-double take as he spies them too.
It’s at this point that Mrs. Laurel arrives, brandishing an axe and the whole scene descends into the usual chase into the distance. Very farcical, but very enjoyable nontheless.
Once again, the reviews from around the time of the films release were very positive and it surprises me that not one reviewer that I’ve found clocked that this was almost a carbon-copy re-make of one of their earlier films – after all ‘Love ‘Em and Weep’ had been in theatres only four years previous. At least if they had realised they kept it under their hats.
“...Plenty fun follows…Swell and riotous” Photoplay, May, 1931
“This is a Laurel-Hardy screamario that will rock ’em in their seats. This ace comedy team may have touched this one for all-round hilarity, but they’ve never topped it. And they probably never will…” Film Daily, March 15th, 1931
As briefly mentioned above, the boys did make a phonetic foreign language version of ‘Chickens’, but this time they only filmed it for Spanish speaking audiences. The film was entitled ‘Politiquerias’ and to ensure plenty of bookings, the Roach studios decided to increase the picture’s length from the standard US version’s three-reels, to full feature length. This was not uncommon practice, as in the past they stuck two shorts together to make a feature, as in the case of the foreign versions of ‘The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case‘, the studio stuck ‘Berth Marks‘ on to the front of ‘Murder Case’, to suggest the train journey in the cramped bunks was how the boy’s travelled to Ebeneezer Laurel’s mansion.
‘Politiquerias’, however, was treated differently, with new additional scenes filmed and added to pad out the running time. As usual, a number of the major actors are replaced, including Mae Busch, whose couterpart, Rina De Liguoro, whilst taking a good part plays the blackmailing old flame perhaps too much like a Disney villain for my liking.
This version is well worth watching for two very different reasons. Firstly, we get more Stan and Ollie – well in truth its mostly Ollie and Finlayson, but nevertheless, the footage is really enjoyable and it’s always a treat to hear Ollie and this time Finn as well, attempting the Spanish language. But the second reason is the most interesting and I have to say is very unexpected.
The majority of the extra footage centres around the evenings entertainment provided for the guests at Ollie’s dinner party. The first is a magician, who performs some decent card tricks, using Finlayson as an assistant. Finlayson even pulls some cards out of thin air too, just to show the smarmy magician, that he knows some tricks himself. But, its the next act which, I’m sure, is some of the most bizarre cinema you’re possibly ever likely to see, certainly in the middle of a Laurel and Hardy comedy. The act in question is the arabian-clothed Hadji Ali who drinks down endless glasses of water – and I do mean endless. It felt like I was watching him for days, and just when you think he’s finished, he dunks his glass into a big goldfish-style bowl and swigs down four more! Then, he spits it all out again, fountain-style, across the room into some sort of container. Finlayson can’t believe his eyes, and then Ali turns around and showers Finn with a blast of regurgitated water too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there! Next, he swallows over thirty whole hazelnuts, washed down with yet more water and then spits them all out, one by one onto a silver platter. Finally, for his grand finale, he drinks down a good quantity of kerosene and uses it to set fire to a model house, before dowsing the flames down with some of the water he’d guzzled earlier and had been keeping in reserve!
Randy Skretvedt’s, Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies contains full details on all of these scenes (and all the boys’ other films of course) and provides lots of information about the weird and wonderful Hadji Ali too. It’s well worth grabbing a copy.
I’ll leave the last word on ‘Chickens Come Home’ to one of the contemporary reviewers, this time from Motion Picture Magazine, June 1931:
“Once upon a time, there were hordes of comedy teams in the movies. There still are plenty around, but you don’t hear much of them. The reason? Laurel and Hardy. There’s no other twosome that can begin to compare with them. The reasons are fairly obvious in ‘Chickens Come Home’…They don’t get their laughs by cheap wisecracks. They talk as little as possible, and pantomime as much as possible. Watch for this one.”
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