Filming began July 15, 1931 to August 11, 1931
Released December 12, 1931, Four Reels
Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by James W. Horne, Sound by Elmer Raguse
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charles Middleton, James W. Horne
Beau Hunks, renamed Beau Chumps in the UK, is a unique film in the Laurel & Hardy canon and whilst it’s the first time we see the boys join the Foreign Legion and the first time we see them placed in desert forts, fighting against sandstorms and opposing forces, these factors are not what give the film its uniqueness. The reason Beau Hunks is unlike any of the boys’ other films is simply its length.
The success of Stan and Babe’s pictures up to this point and also that of the Laurel and Hardy team more generally, had been built upon their gag-packed two reelers. The boys had already ventured sporadically into three-reelers, in pictures such as The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and Chickens Come Home as they would again over the next few years and in addition, they’d also released their first feature-length movie, Pardon Us. The boys’ brand of two-reel comedy seemed to lend itself well to an extra reel and with the features like Pardon Us and the others that would follow, arguably crafted in such a way, with more developed plot lines, sub-plots and song and dance numbers, they were set-up to carry the pictures effectively to five and even six reels. Beau Hunks, on the other hand, ran to four reels which was an unusual and yet very telling decision on behalf of the Roach studios and more so of Hal Roach himself.
As it transpired the people that profited the most financially from Beau Hunks were the theatre owners. The extra pulling power of advertising an extended length, featurette-style Laurel and Hardy comedy was perfect for the box-office, but as Hal Roach himself, as quoted in Randy Skretvedt’s The Magic Behind the Movies, explained:
“It was already sold as a two-reeler; we couldn’t get any more dough out of all the circuits because they’d already bought it…But it was just one of those things; it was intended to be a two-reel comedy, but it just kept getting funnier, and it ended up as a four-reeler. And it was so good that we didn’t want to cut it…”
Incredible then that, despite knowing that he would lose money on Beau Hunks, Roach still allowed it to be made and released as a four-reeler, simply because he wanted the product to be the best that it could be, regardless of the ultimate financial consequence. This appears to have been an attitude that was beginning to catch on across the various studios producing short comedies at that time and for a very good reason.
In an attempt to combat the growing popularity of the ‘double-feature’ exhibit at theatres, a trend that was making it difficult for producers and distributors of short subjects to sell their wares, a number of the large studios were either testing the viability of, or seriously considering the production of extended short films, to three and four reels. On December 12th, 1931, Motion Picture Herald reported that Educational, Columbia and MGM all had “definite plans for the production of three and four reel shorts“, while several other smaller studios were planning to introduce them in the following 1932-33 season. Others, such as Universal held high level talks, but decided to hold off production until further study of the demands for extended shorts had been completed.
Mack Sennett had been given instructions, or perhaps permission, by the top brass at Educational, to proceed with the production of six, extended length shorts, starting with an Andy Clyde picture. But, it was the Hal Roach Studios that led the way with an agreement already in existence between Roach and his distributor, MGM. In the same article MGM Short Subject Sales Manager, Fred Quimby, highlighted the fact that “already four of eight Charlie Chase comedies have been three reelers, two of eight Boy Friend comedies have run to three reels, and four of eight Laurel and Hardy’s have run in excess of two reels, with their latest, “Beau Hunks,” running four reels.”
Previously, production companies had tried to legally challenge the spread of the double feature, but realised that the uncertainty surrounding the legality of their claims would make any attempts difficult to say the least. Thus, the scramble between studios to produce extended shorts, was their attempt to tackle the growing problem of falling sales, due to the “encroachment of double features on short subject sales”.
For Roach, at least, there was a certain level of success from their efforts. Beau Hunks was indeed embraced by exhibitors and used as a second feature on many double-feature bills and audiences responded. Contemporary reviews for the film were very positive, with many reviewers describing it as ‘A Wow!‘ and ‘One of their funniest comedies yet!‘. Photoplay Magazine called it “Rare Stuff…better than most features” and if anybody on the Roach team still needed reassurance, it was surely provided by this commentator in the Fort Lauderdale News, January 13, 1932, who wrote:
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Hal Roach’s stout and slim comedy team, who have achieved outstanding popularity in the comedy field during the last couple of years as a result of their delightful characterizations in two reel comedies, are with us again…Fortunately extra length is no handicap to this pair for the longer their picture, the more laughs to laugh at.”
Yet, whilst audiences evidently flocked to see the picture and contemporary reviewers were generally upbeat about it, the boys’ more modern reviewers and chroniclers haven’t been as positive. Simon Louvish, in Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy, claims that the temporary change in director for Beau Hunks, from James Parrott to James Horne was responsible for a “dip” in standard and meant it stood apart from Laurel and Hardy’s “masterpieces” from the same period. Author William K. Everson, writing in The Complete Films of Laurel & Hardy, wrote of Beau Hunks, “Four reels was a clumsy length for Laurel & Hardy, and they never repeated it. It was not long enough to allow for a story line or to justify worthwhile production values, and at the same time it was far too long for loosely-connected slapstick.”
Whilst Everson’s first point may be valid, I would argue that the production values of the film were as high as could be expected, if not a little higher. Illustrating this point, The Lincoln Journal Star, August 5th, 1931 ran a story entitled, “Even Comedies Are True To Details” and in it stated:
“…In order to insure [sic] correct military procedure in ‘Beau Hunks’ the studio has engaged one Louis Van de Necker, (ex-legionnaire and World war veteran) to play the part of a corporal in the story.
All the uniforms have been carefully patterned after originals. More than two hundred and fifty regulation Labelle French foreign legion rifles have been imported to use in the film. And even the medals and honor citations worn by the soldiers are exact replicas of those awarded legionnaires for gallantry.
All this work and care should result in a correct and authentic foreign legion background…”
Nevertheless, despite the film earning lukewarm reviews from more recent historians, one only has to consult the online army of Blog-Heads and the wider Laurel and Hardy fan community to understand that Beau Hunks is still certainly well loved, with plenty of fans naming it as one of their all-time favourites.
The film opens with a wonderful sequence of Ollie sitting at his piano, romantically singing “You Are the Ideal of My Dreams“. It’s a beautifully accomplished rendition and showcases Babe Hardy’s tenor voice to perfection. This is something that I wish could have been used more in the boys’ films, as whenever he sings, it’s usually one of the highlights of any film.
Mr. Hardy’s biographer, John McCabe tells us that Babe loved to sing. As a child with a “strikingly good soprano” voice, young Norvell ran away from his home in Milledgeville, to join a travelling troupe of entertainers for a short while, before returning to the bosom of his family home and his mother’s home cooking. His dream of singing and performing on stage soon returned though, and in his teenage years he got a job at the Milledgeville Opera House, where he would act as a stand-in, should any of the entertainers fall sick or not show up. Norvell’s ‘stand-in’ performances always ended with him signing the same song, “You Are the Ideal of My Dreams“.
Although it’s this song that we hear Ollie singing during the opening of the film, the original cut had him singing two songs. According to Glenn Mitchell’s Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, on Roach’s re-issuing of Beau Hunks in 1937, Ollie’s first number, ‘Pagan Love Song‘, was removed, along with the opening title card, due to objections based on the censorship regulations of the strict ‘Hays Code’, introduced in 1934. This was not the film’s only casualty of the Hays censorship police, as Simon Louvish explains, offence was also taken at a line in the film, “The Legion is hell on earth and in heaven” and so that too was removed.
Ollie’s romantic number ends with a dreamily self-satisfied sigh and after some subtle questioning from Stan; “What are you getting so mushy about?“, we learn that Ollie is going to be married to the “sweetest girl in the world“.
The romantic mood is soon shattered though, along with Ollie’s heart, as a letter arrives informing Ollie that his fiancee loves another man and that it’s best they never see each other again. A photograph of the girl in question, “Jeanie’Weanie“, is none other than starlet, Jean Harlow, in a portrait taken at the time of the filming of Double Whoopee.
Hal Roach had spotted Jean Harlow’s potential and gave the young wannabee actress’s career a kick start, casting her in roles in three Laurel & Hardy shorts, Liberty, Double Whoopee and Bacon Grabbers. It wouldn’t be the last time her likeness appeared in the boys’ films however, as a photograph of her, as well as in Beau Hunks, can be also be seen on the mantlepiece in Brats. Harlow always remembered Hal Roach’s kindness and the help that he gave her with her career and so gave the producer her permission to use the photos.
Hal Roach, in conversation with author Craig Calman and noted in his book, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach, said of Beau Hunks that, “I think that is my favorite Laurel and Hardy picture…I had the cheapest leading lady in that one, by the way…Jean Harlow was a friend of mine, and we used only her photograph as the girl that jilts Babe”.
Ollie can’t bear the suffering caused by Jeanie-Weanie and so he decides that the only course of action is for both he and Stan to join the Foreign Legion and escape to a place where he can forget! This becomes a running gag throughout the picture as almost every man they come across is brokenhearted over the same girl and keep her photograph as their secretly treasured possessions.
From here, the main purpose of the picture seems to be to parody the then popular Foreign Legion/Beau Geste (1926) style films. The boys, as you would expect get in to plenty of unintentional trouble with the fiery Commandant, played wonderfully by Charles Middleton. Middleton, best known perhaps for his portrayal of Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials of the mid-thirties, would reprise his role of the Commandant eight years later in the feature-length, The Flying Deuces, which is, to all intents and purposes, a straight forward remake of Beau Hunks.
According to an article in Boys Cinema, 12 Sept, 1932, a hundred and fifty members of the Hollywood American Legion were recruited to act as soldiers and also double as the desert Riff Army. The same article also suggests that the filming for the desert scenes took place at a resort called Hermosa Beach in Calfornia, whereas a letter dated October 2nd, 1962 written by Stan Laurel to fan, Tom Sefton stated:
“Re “Beau Hunks” film, the marching & sand storm scenes were made in El Segundo (the Sand Dunes) it was difficult to shoot, had to avoid telegraph poles & the many ‘Shacks’ etc… The Arab Chief who attacked “Fort Arid” was played by Jimmy Horn the director, the original fellow was a very bad actor, after several rehearsals, Jimmy Horn decided to play the part himself – I thought he did a very good performance.”
Randy Skretvedt has provided some clarity on this by confirming the actual shooting location as the Palisades Del Rey dunes, which are located about 9 miles north of Hermosa Beach.
The picture is full of great gags and lines of dialogue throughout. From the “Mr. Levity” scene and Ollie demolishing the piano at the beginning, to the arrival at the fort, where Stan fails to call out his line-up number and when pushed for it, he gives the Commandant his telephone number “Hollywood 4368“. Then there also scenes such as, Ollie massaging Stan’s foot, thinking it’s his own and his confused face when he looks down and sees three legs, is just fantastic. There’s the march through the desert, where the boys fall down a large sand dune and skittle the commanding officer, before becoming lost in a huge sandstorm.
The final sequence of the boys foiling the raid on Fort Arid by the cartoonish Riff army is entertaining enough, and their clever ploy of throwing tacks on the floor, that ultimately disables the bare-footed assailants, is original but is perhaps better suited to a Looney Tunes cartoon than a Laurel and Hardy comedy. The Los Angeles Record, Thursday 17th December, described it in a fittingly corny way:
“They finally win the war against the “Riff-raffs” by scattering tacks in the barefooted trail of the desert warriors, and they are de-feeted” (pause for the groan! Ed.).
The final payoff gag comes as the Chief of the Riff-Raff, played by director James W. Horne, is captured by the legionnaires, only to reveal that he also has a photograph of Jean Harlow too!
Ultimately, any investigation into the background of Beau Hunks can’t fail to shine a light on a very particular and interesting time in Hollywood history. As previously mentioned, praise must be given to Hal Roach for allowing the film to run to twice its intended length, regardless of the negative financial implications, purely to ensure it fulfilled its creative potential. This attitude was also picked up by other studios who hoped that quality would win the day over quantity, as the producers of short subjects were becoming acutely aware that the ‘double-feature’ trend was threatening their ability to sell their products.
Beau Hunks was a tremendous success at the box office and with the critics. The extended short certainly punched above its weight and managed to win a place as the second part of double-feature programmes in countless theatres. And yet, this was the one and only time Laurel and Hardy appeared in a four-reeler and in fact, they would only make three more three-reelers after this.
Having adjusted brilliantly during the huge transition from silent films to talkies, the honeymoon period for the short subject now appeared to be coming to an end, as the winds of change began to blow through Hollywood once again.
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