Filming began June 15th, 1931. Released October 31st, 1931. Two Reels
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Mary Carr, James Finlayson, Billy Gilbert
Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by James W. Horne, Sound by H. M. Walker
“Seeing America! Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy have cast off all financial worries –
Total assets – One Ford, Model 1911- One Tent, Model 1861 – One Union Suit, two shirts and three socks“
“Hal Roach, who is now working under a “five and one” plan, meaning five weeks of production and one week of vacation throughout the 1931-32 season, has placed two new comedies in work. Laurel and Hardy have started in “One Good Turn” under the direction of James Horne…”
So reported The Film Daily, 28th June, 1931. It’s unclear as to the exact reasons for the ‘five and one plan’ that Roach introduced, but an educated guess may point the finger at a cost-cutting exercise, this was after all, the height of the Great Depression in the United States and Hollywood was certainly not immune to it. After the fiscally devastating Wall Street crash in September and October 1929, all the main movie studios felt the impact of the Great Depression that followed, including Roach’s ‘Lot of Fun’. Financial pressures were such that five months later, Roach would bring in Henry Ginsberg to assist him as a Vice President and General Manager of the studio and oversee the cutting of costs wherever possible. Ginsberg appears to have been very efficient and effective in this role, but it earned him few friends on the lot. Speed and efficiency became the order of the day and there was little room for sentiment. Stan Laurel nicknamed Ginsberg ‘The Expeditor’ and Richard Currier, as Craig Calman tells us in his biography of Hal Roach, was quoted as saying “Everybody hated Ginsberg”. In fact, key members of Roach staff including Currier, George Stevens and possibly even H.M. Walker would eventually fall at the swinging of Ginsberg’s cost-cutting axe.
In the early 1930s, over a third of all movie theatres closed down and studios such as RKO and Fox, that had previously recorded annual profits in the millions of dollars per year, suddenly found themselves bankrupt. Even the mighty Paramount, despite producing five of The Marx Brothers’ best pictures during the years 1929 and 1933 shared this same experience. Only MGM, the studio responsible for distributing all of Hal Roach’s products, remained profitable during this period, albeit those profits were slashed by over two thirds.
People needed to be entertained and to laugh more than ever and so comedians such as Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy kept the cinemas, that were able to remain open, busy and The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, who’s trademark in humour was to poke fun at figures in authority kept audiences, who had become hopeless and bitter towards the establishment, entertained.
Watching films like Brats, Blotto and Be Big!, its easy to forget the struggles that America was going through, especially from our modern standpoint. It was in this challenging environment and against this backdrop that Stan, Babe and their team at the Roach studio, wrote and produced many of their best loved comedies, including One Good Turn. Yet, whereas in films such as Come Clean, Our Wife and Chickens Come Home, to name but three, the boys are comfortably well off and secure in their domestic arrangements, One Good Turn addresses and acknowledges the deprivation that many people were faced with as a daily reality and places Stan and Ollie right on, or even below, the bread-line.
The picture, which began shooting the day before Stan’s 41st birthday, opens with a reasonably pleasant scene. The boys, although apparently homeless, have made camp in the countryside, with the tent pitched close to their Model T, their only major possession. Stan is cooking up some soup on a camp fire and Ollie is at the stream, washing what few spare clothes they own. Even in this dire situation, the boys are clearly making the best of things and this is one of their traits that really endears them to fans. No matter how desperate their predicament, they will always pick themselves up and try their best, finding even the smallest thing to smile about. On this occasion, it is the soup. Both boys have a sneaky taste of the soup and it’s clearly bringing them great joy and anticipation. Sadly, this small tasty morsel is all that will pass their lips as its not long before Stan trips over the tent’s guy ropes and their only means of shelter falls into the camp fire, immediately catching fire. Stan tries to extinguish the blaze by throwing a couple of mugs of water over it and then, even though the tent is lost, and despite Ollie’s attempts to stop him, he empties the pan of soup onto the burning mess. No tent, no soup!
Watching this sequence, one can see how close Stan seems to be to the flames and so it comes as no surprise to read the following from the official Hal Roach Studios Press Sheet for the picture :
“If you play with fire you’re sure to get burned. It’s an old proverb and true. At least it was proven to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy while making scenes for ‘One Good Turn’…In an early sequence of the picture a tent in which they are supposed to live catches fire. While they were endeavoring to put out the fire sparks flew into their clothing and both Stan and Oliver were rewarded with nice, fat little blisters”.
So, with no shelter or food to eat, the boys climb into the Model T and drive to town, where they plan to humiliate themselves by humbly begging for food.
They arrive at the home of an elderly lady, played by Mary Carr, who was actually only 57 years old when this was filmed, in the first of her two appearances with Laurel & Hardy, the second being a small cameo in Pack Up Your Troubles (1932).
There’s a nice couple of gags leading up to the boys knocking on the door. First Stan is baffled by the simple mechanics of opening the gate, much to Ollie’s annoyance, and then as Stan wipes his feet on the doormat, his wiping action send the dusty mat flying through the air and landing in Ollie’s face.
Eventually after a few more bits of typical Laurel & Hardy business, they finally knock at the door and Mary Carr answers. Ollie, as the boys’ unelected spokesman, addresses the old lady and uses his genteel southern charms. Even though they are begging for food, it is done is such a lovely and humble manner, it would take a cold heart indeed for anyone to resist. And so, unlike in Below Zero (1930), when the boys’ are in similar dire straits, but struggle in vain to find genuine compassion, they find it here at the first time of asking.
Ollie: “Pardon the intrusion lady, but my friend and I are victims of the Depression! We haven’t tasted food for three whole days!”
Mary Carr: “Fancy, not eating for three whole days!”
Stan: “Yes Mam! Yesterday, today and tomorrow!”
Stan must have been fond of that particular gag, as he planned to re-use it, if in a slightly condensed form, in a proposed series of TV films in 1954 as recorded by John McCabe in ‘The Comedy World of Stan Laurel‘. After a lengthy and arguably unsatisfactory time away from the Roach fold, the boys, following a reunion during the ‘This Is Your Life‘ television show, had been signed by Hal Roach Jr. to return to the studio where they made their name and record a series of four TV films, based on nursery rhymes and aired in full colour. The working title that Stan favoured, for it was he who was to finally regain complete creative control of the project, was Laurel & Hardy’s Fabulous Fables and, if the first four films were successful, another seven were scheduled to follow. Sadly, the Fabulous Fables never got to the filming stage, as Stan suffered a minor stroke during the scripting phase and the project was shelved, never to be completed.
Here, in 1931 however, the boys’ land on their feet, as the old lady takes pity on them and invites them to dine at her kitchen table. Despite initially rejecting any form of recompense for her kindness, Stan talks the old lady into allowing them to chop some wood for her, while they wait for the food to be prepared. Ollie sits and observes while Stan attempts to chop the logs into smaller pieces, of course making a meal of it, and the many looks that Ollie gives to the audience, right down the camera here are absolutely sublime. Hardy was an absolute master at this technique. It is true to say that he wasn’t the only actor to ‘break the fourth wall’ with a look, Stan himself does it many times through the boys’ films, but Babe Hardy mastered it completely. By giving us even the smallest of glances, he draws the audience straight in and we instantly understand his thoughts and feel his frustrations.
Its not long before the meal is ready and the boys are sitting at the table. Now, you would expect that for two guys who haven’t eaten for days, they would have gone at their plates and devoured every morsel within seconds, but not so with Stan and Ollie as they very quickly descend into a tit for tat food fight and the meal is completely wasted. An especially funny gag is the piece of rubbery ham that hangs out of Ollie’s mouth and Stan decides to pull it, stretching it to breaking point and and then letting it SNAP back painfully on to Ollie’s lips!
Unlike many Laurel & Hardy films, One Good Turn is quite heavily plot driven and the next stage of the story unfolds in the next sequence as the boys overhear Mary Carr and James Finlayson rehearsing a scene from their community play. Finlayson is threatening to throw the old lady out into the street, as she cannot pay the $100 owing on her mortgage, as she appears to have had all her money stolen from the house! The scene is hammed up in over the top ‘Am-Dram’ fashion and there is a great gag when Mary Carr is on her knees begging Finlayson for compassion and as she hangs off his trousers, pleading for mercy, Finlayson’s trousers get lower and lower, finally exposing his underwear. Then to top the gag off, Finn’s suspicious look he casts at the old lady is priceless.
Back in the kitchen, Stan and Ollie are totally unaware that what they are overhearing is merely two actors rehearsing their lines and they gallantly determine that they must raise $100 to save the lady from being made homeless. Again, this is another feature of the boys’ characters that endears them to audiences and that is their willingness or desire to hep others, no matter how deplorable their own situation, their love for their fellow man (or woman, in this case) always comes first. One only has to think of their failed attempt at being bandits two years later in Fra Diavolo. They cannot line their own pockets at the expense of someone who appears worse off than themselves – and they end up handing their own money over to their victim instead! But, I digress…
To raise the $100 the boys set up an impromptu auction to sell off their Model T. This scene is the very first appearance of Billy Gilbert in a Laurel & Hardy picture.
Billy was born into a performing family, his parents both being opera singers and little William soon began treading the boards in vaudeville. It was during a performance at the Mayan Theatre in 1930 that Billy’s talent was spotted by a member of the audience, Stan Laurel. According to an interview Billy gave for Pratfall Magazine (Vol.1, No.3), after the show, Stan went backstage to meet Billy and discovered that he wrote his own material and Stan signed him to a five-year contract as a writer-director. Billy Gilbert has a solid place as a fan favourite among Laurel and Hardy fans the world over for his wonderfully characterful roles, including his role in ‘The Music Box‘ as Professor Theodore Von Schwartzenhoffen MD AD DDS FLD F F F and F.
buy the Model T for $100, but as Ollie is about to let the hammer fall, a hard-of-hearing stranger asks Stan the time, to which Stan shouts “1:25!!”.
Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments on this film and on this blog too.