Filming began 2nd February 1931. Released 4th April 1931. Two and Three Reels
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlie Hall
Produced by Hal Roach; Director: James W. Horne
“Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy stuck together through thick and thin – One pocketbook between them – always empty -“
Question: When is a re-make not a re-make? Answer: When you replace a goat with a dog, of course! At least, that was Stan Laurel’s opinion when answering correspondent, Gerard Stigter, in a letter dated December 1963, about the reasons why Laurel and Hardy re-made Angora Love (1929) into Laughing Gravy. Stigter also included the boys’ 1932 short, ‘The Chimp’ in his question and with good reason. The plot of all three films has its central theme as the boys trying to conceal an animal from a landlord. First a goat, then a dog and then finally a chimp (well, technically its a gorilla, but lets not get into that).
Stan though, in his answer to Mr. Stigter’s question, insisted all three films were not intentional remakes, and insisted the plots were “entirely different“. Not that I like disagreeing with Mr. Laurel, but I think ‘entirely different’ is stretching it a little, certainly in the goat versus dog argument, but I suppose it’s possibly plausible where the gorilla is concerned.
I’m not alone with this opinion, as William K. Everson, in The Complete Films of Laurel & Hardy, calls Laughing Gravy, “an exact reworking” of Angora Love and Glenn Mitchell, in his Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, describes it as the “official remake” of the same. In either case, whether it was a remake or an entirely original plot, Laughing Gravy is a brilliant Laurel and Hardy comedy.
When the time came for the production of this particular short, the team at the Hal Roach Studios were still playing catch-up, due to the shooting of the boys’ first feature-length outing running so far over schedule. So, as with ‘Another Fine Mess‘, the notion of making a quick and shameless remake of an already tried and tested story would be fairly understandable. It took time to come up with new stories and new gags, but it was a lot quicker to improve on an already successful formula.
‘Laughing Gravy‘, in real life, a slang term for liquor, refers to one of the main characters of the picture, a small, loveable dog belonging to Stan and Ollie. Animals were a common, if not regular constituent of Laurel and Hardy comedies. Goats appear with the boys three times, in Do Detectives Think, Angora Love and Saps at Sea, we find cats in Night Owls and Brats, gorillas in The Chimp and Swiss Miss, elephants in Flying Elephants and Babe’s solo feature, Zenobia, horses in Wrong Again, The Music Box, Way Out West, Great Guns and of course Ollie’s equine reincarnation in The Flying Deuces. But, the creature that bags the most numerous and arguably most prominent roles in the boys’ films are dogs. The boys began their careers together with The Lucky Dog, then who can forget the memorable Buddy in Perfect Day, attacking Uncle Ed’s gouty foot, the little mutt in Bacon Grabbers attacking Ollie’s braces/suspenders, Stan’s mountain rescue St. Bernard in Swiss Miss and their parkbench friend at the start of Early to Bed, to name just a few.
Randy Skretvedt tells us that the dog Stan named ‘Laughing Gravy’ was actually rescued by the Roach studios from a local pound, to be trained and used in a forthcoming Our Gang comedy, Little Daddy. So popular did she become around the studio, she could be found hanging out with employees all over the lot, even in Hal Roach’s office. She was given parts in many Roach shorts including alongside Charlie Chase and Thelma Todd, who was particularly fond of her and she could often be found sitting in her lap. Charlie Hall was said to have been so taken with Laughing Gravy, that he even took home one of her puppies – amusingly suprising when you see how Hall treats the dog in the film.
Laughing Gravy, along with Tit For Tat, is arguably, one of Charlie Hall’s greatest moments on film. From start to finish he is a joy to watch, as he menaces the boys and their canine companion – one moment, throwing the little dog out into the snowy night, then claiming to be “so kind-hearted”, for not throwing the boys out with her. Then, in another moment, we see him shouting and shaking his fist in anger up at his bedroom ceiling, as plaster falls on top of him, for the second time that night, due to the boys’ own bed noisily collapsing in the room directly above. Charlie Hall doesn’t have the comically physical expressions and appearance of, say, James Finlayson, so he has to work extra hard for his laughs, but he gets it spot on in this film – so help me Bob…Oooh!
Hall was born in Birmingham, UK in 1899 and left his native land in 1920, aged 20, to take up a job working in a canning factory in New York. He didn’t stick this line of employment for long however, and soon headed across to the west coast, to seek out new opportunities for himself in Hollywood. According to Charlie himself, he claims to have worked for Mack Sennett, Larry Semon and Cecil B. DeMille, before ending up at the Hal Roach Studios. By the end of 1923, Charlie was working part time on ‘The Lot of Fun’, as a carpenter, before beginning to get small parts as an extra in the many comedies being churned out. According to John Ullah’s wonderful biography of Charlie Hall, appropriately titled “This is More Than I Can Stand“, Hall’s first screen appearance at Roach was the 1923 Stan Laurel short, Mother’s Joy. He went on to appear in many of Stan’s solo projects, including Smithy (1924) and Postage Due (1924), as well as appearing alongside Charlie Chase, Our Gang, Glenn Tryon, James Finlayson and then of course, following their official teaming, Laurel and Hardy. In fact, Charlie Hall appeared in more films with Stan and Babe than any other actor, turning up in 47 of the boys pictures. Many times, he would just walk on as an extra, but he also played major roles, such as the jealous husband in Them Thar Hills and a spiteful neighbouring retailer in Tit For Tat, and the bad tempered (yet, kind ‘arted) landlord, in ‘They Go Boom‘ and of course, Laughing Gravy.
At the start of the picture, we join Stan and Ollie on a cold, snowy night, in their boarding house, owned by Hall, trying to catch forty winks. Stan is fast asleep, but is hiccuping/hiccoughing so loudly in his sleep, that he’s keeping Ollie awake and keeps making their little dog jump out of his skin. Babe Hardy’s reactions to Stan here are brilliant, especially his little glances across, first to him and then to us, right down the camera lens. They’re so subtle and fleeting, that they’re easy to miss, but they’re just sublime. Eventually, Laughing Gravy has enough of Stan’s explosive and disruptive noises and starts to bark his dissaproval, which panics the boys as their landlord (Hall), does not allow pets in his building.
Ollie settles the dog back down and returns to the bed, shushing Stan for making too much noise. As Ollie climbs into the bed though, the bed comically collapses, causing the dog to bark loudly. What’s worse, is that the collapsing bed, dislodges a load of plaster from the landlord’s bedroom ceiling, and it rains down hard onto his head, rudely waking him from his slumber, to the noise of the barking dog.
Hall charges upstairs and confronts the boys. He quickly discovers the dog, hidden inside a bedside table and throws him out into the snowy night.
Stan: “Poor little Laughing Gravy!”
In a sudden rush of blood Stan goes to march out of the house to fetch ‘his dog’, but Ollie stops him, pushes him aside and in typical Ollie fashion, informs his friend that he’ll do it, as Stan will make too much noise and wake the landlord!
Ollie sneaks out, in just his nightshirt, into the freezing night and quickly bundles Laughing Gravy up in his arms. Typically, the door blows shut behind him, locking both him and the dog outside.
Stan, who is watching from their upstairs window, ties a couple of sheets together, lowers them out of the window and pulls the dog up and back into the warm bedroom. Hilariously, as soon as Stan sits down in the chair next to the window, so visibly pleased to have his dog back safe, he shivers at the cold air coming in from the open window and forgetting all about Ollie, still stuck outside in just his nightshirt, he closes the window and makes a fuss of his rescued pet.
Eventually, Stan’s attention is regained and the sheets are lowered again for Ollie, who quickly ties them around his waist and Stan starts to haul him up the side of the building, although not before he ties his end around his own waist and nearly gets pulled straight out of the window.
As if the sight of Ollie scaling the side of the building, on the end of a couple of bed sheets, isn’t funny enough, the sheets unravel and Ollie is sent plummeting downards into a conveniently (or inconveniently for Ollie) placed and thickly frozen-over water butt.
In the end, Stan has no choice but to come down to the front door to let Ollie in, the boring traditional way. There’s a nice gag here, when the door opens and Ollie is revealed with his whole night shirt as stiff as a board and his feet encased in huge blocks of ice.
Back in the room, the boys get into bed, this time with the dog and the bed breaks again, once more showering Charlie Hall in another layer of plaster. He races up stairs and hammers on the door. The boys panic and shove the dog up the chimney, to keep him hidden.
The wait is too long for the landlord to bear and, with a good run up, he charges at the door, just as Stan opens it for him to enter. Hall coasts through the doorway, goes sprinting through the bedroom, watched all the way in amazement by the boys, and he disappears off camera and we hear a huge crash. Stan and Ollie go to investigate and find a landlord shaped hole in the door and the landlord himself entangled in some kitchen cupboards amid a scene of destruction. Very, very funny.
“That settles it!“, Hall snarls, “Out you go, first thing in the morning, bag and baggage…Ya’ get me?!”
He disappears back to his room, leaving the boys to retrive the dog who has by now scaled the chimney and is stuck on the snowy roof. Stan is sent up the chimney to fetch the dog back and Ollie hangs out of the window, ready to receive Laughing Gravy as Stan passes him over the roof edge – all perfectly normal stuff, right?!
Ollie decides the best course of action is to climb out of the window and reach up to get the dog from Stan. He ends up with the window sliding shut behind him, once again leaving him locked out, clinging on to an icicle laden guttering and reliant upon Stan Laurel to save his life, by heaving him up and onto a snow and ice covered roof. It’s fair to say, it’d been a tricky night for Ollie up to this point!
Somehow, the boys manage to negotiate the treacherous roof and they climb back down the chimney, although Ollie demolishes the stack, as he climbs in. Poor old Ollie then gets wedged at the bottom of the chimney, with just his legs dangling in the fireplace. Stan gives three or four good tugs on his legs and Ollie comes crashing down, with a tonne of bricks and dust. And, we always know there’s one last brick somewhere, destined for Ollie’s head!
Back in the room, all three of them are now covered completely with soot from the chimney and there follows some fabulous gags as the boys try to fill a tin bath, with the intention of first washing Laughing Gravy and then themselves. The timing, as Stan slides the empty bath to one side, just as Ollie tips a bucketful of water, soaking the floor, is absolutely perfect. So too is the timing of the next gag, as Ollie slips on a bar of soap, flies upwards and backwards landing in the bath, just as Stan appears and absentmindedly pours the next bucket of water straight over his friend’s head. Ollie’s resigned camera looks are never better than here.
After some more excellent bits of bath business, the soapy contents get thrown by Ollie over Charlie Hall, who has just sidled unnoticed into the room. In a fit of pique, Hall gives them fifteen minutes to pack their belongings and get out of his property.
As they’re being shown the door by Hall, double-barrelled shotgun in hand, they’re stopped from leaving by a cop (Harry Bernard), who is quarantining the house for two months, due to a smallpox outbreak. Charlie Hall turns to the camera and says, either to us or to the world in general, “This is more than I can stand!“. He walks off camera, shotgun still in hand and we hear two(??) gunshots. The boys and the cop solemnly remove their hats and all slowly walk off screen.
This is where the film ends, or at least what is now known as the two-reel version, which was the official version released to English language theatres in 1931. But, in 1985 a third reel, containing an alternative ending sequence was discovered. This ending picks up from Charlie Hall’s soaking. Hall hands Stan a letter that informs him that he’s just inherited a substantial fortune from his late uncle, but will only qualify for it, if he “severs all connections with Oliver Hardy, whom your uncle felt was responsible for your deplorable condition“.
To spare Ollie’s feelings, Stan hides the contents of the letter, which absolutely burns Ollie up inside. Ollie makes numerous declarations about how he’d never pry into someone’s private affairs. Again, his looks to the camera betray his real feelings and you can see the cogs whirring in his head as he tries to think of a way to get Stan to show him the letter.
The acting from both is brilliant throughout this scene and eventually Stan discloses the letter’s contents. Ollie feels badly when he realises Stan was trying to protect his feelings and he tells Stan that he should leave to go and live the high life. Stan reluctantly agrees and begins to leave, but is stopped in his tracks as Ollie takes Laughing Gravy, to keep as a companion. Stan begins to leave again, stops, thinks for a moment, then tears up his inheritance cheque. Ollie is overjoyed that Stan has given it all up for the sake of their friendship, that is until Stan says he didn’t do it for him, he did it to stay with Laughing Gravy.
In his book ‘The Magic Behind the Movies‘, Randy Skretvedt suggests that this one line is the reason that the third reel was removed prior to the film’s release, as its not consistent with the boys’, ‘together through thick and thin’ relationship, citing a 1935 Stan Laurel interview with Film Weekly, where Stan spoke on the importance of the Laurel & Hardy “characterization'” remaining consistent through their films.
Two phonetic foreign language versions were filmed, in French (Les Carrotiers) and Spanish (Los Calaveras), and which were interestingly released with the third reel ending in place. This was, however, more to do with the length of the film, rather than the importance of its content. The footage of both the foreign versions were combined with the boys short ‘Be Big!‘, to make a feature length release. The Be Big! content starts the film, then its stated their wives divorce them and the boys end up living together in Charlie Hall’s boarding house, and the three reels from Laughing Gravy compete the feature.
This was the very last of the phonetic foreign language films the boys made, as pressure from Roach’s distributor to stop gave them little choice. In a nutshell, having the actual stars of the films speaking in their native tongues was much more preferable than having a dubbed version for the foreign markets. So, the Laurel and Hardy pictures were exposing the MGM productions for not going that extra mile and MGM had no intention of recording multiple versions of the same films.
Overall, Laughing Gravy appears to have been well received by the critics.
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy try to smuggle a dog into a no-dog rooming house. Very funny.” Screenland, September, 1931
“…The resulting complications, including Mr. Hardy in a snow storm and a night shirt, are howls.” Photoplay, May, 1931
“Laurel and Hardy produce a bushel of laughs in this one…Putting it on heavily with the slapstick brush, the comic pair gambol through the show…Their antics include falling off the roof, shattering chimneys and other laughter-producing movements. Film Daily, June 14th, 1931
I’ll leave the final word of this blog to Mr. Charlie Hall. John Ullah’s excellent biography includes a wonderful extract from a letter Hall wrote to a correspondent, describing the night he attended a premiere of Laughing Gravy, along with Stan and Babe. The venue was the Fox Theatre in San Fransisco and Roach had agreed to let the boys make a personal appearance after the film:
“The main feature was run through first, followed by Laughing Gravy…followed by Laurel and Hardy’s personal appearance. It was fully a couple of minutes before the boys could open their mouths there was such pandemonium…Then they put on a few gags and introduced me…Stan gave Babe the well-known nod and grin and they started to cut off my shirt. They ripped my brand new suit off my back between them and chased me off the stage clad only in my vest and pants”.
Do let me know what your thoughts are on Laughing Gravy and this blog – I’d love to hear from you!
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