Filming began: September 14 to September 23, 1931, and November 9th to November 11th, 1931
Released: March 5, 1932, Two Reels
Produced by Hal Roach Directed by James W. Horne Photographed by Art Lloyd Dialogue by H.M. Walker
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Walter Long, Jacqueline Wells, Harry Bernard, Charlie Hall
“In Port – Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy were just home from a whaling voyage – Mr. Hardy shipped as the head harpooner, Mr. Laurel went as bait – -“
The ‘lost films’ of Laurel and Hardy are subjects of much interest for fans. The Rogue Song, although now recovered in part, is still a source of fascination, as is the infamous Hats Off, still frustratingly missing in its entirety some ninety-two years after its release. Although Any Old Port is a film that the majority of us are very familiar with and likely have in our home video collections, one could suggest that it too is something of a ‘lost film’.
The reason for this questionable statement is that, whilst the film itself is a pleasant comedy, it bears little resemblance to the original picture that was planned and even shot. Before it was released, an entire reel was chopped and left on the cutting room floor, following previews. The result is a film that we all know and, some might say, love, but to be fair it’s actually a bit of a nonsensical mishmash.
The boys are a couple of sailors, just returned from a whaling mission, and they stumble across a forced marriage that’s about to take place and they attempt to thwart it. They succeed by rescuing and freeing the damsel in distress, and the finale is the resulting payback from the would-be groom. Having fled the lodgings, they realise they’ve left all their money in the room, so they agree to participate in a boxing contest, in order to earn some quick cash.
For the plot of a two-reel comedy, that may sound perfectly fine, and for the most part, you’d be right. However, the dramatic cuts that were felt necessary by the studio created just as many questions as it did answers.
For example, the Universal 21 disc boxed set of the boys’ films, released in the UK, includes Any Old Port on a DVD, collected together with a number of other shorts, The Live Ghost, Sailors Beware, Two Tars, Men O’ War, Why Girls Love Sailors and Towed in a Hole. All these are assembled under the title ‘Maritime Adventures‘. The big question left unanswered by Any Old Port is, why are Stan and Ollie sailors? What part of the plot was reliant upon the audience’s understanding that they are men of the sea? The design of the opening titles is nautically themed, and indeed H.M. Walker’s gag title card is based completely upon the boys’ latest whaling adventure, but it has absolutely no relevance to the plot. They could just as easily have been the usual Stan and Ollie in suits and bowlers, looking for a room for the night.
There is a reason for the confusion, however, and it’s all down to the hastily made, wholesale changes conducted by the studio, following, what must have been, a very disappointing response from the film’s pre-release preview. As Randy Skretvedt details in ‘The Magic Behind the Movies‘, following the previews, the entire first reel was cut and discarded, leaving the film’s original second reel to become the ‘new’ first reel. Along with the many stills that exist from the rejected first reel, Randy fills in the blanks, detailing the missing action from a shooting script, giving us some idea of what this ‘lost’ Laurel and Hardy comedy would have looked like.
Stan and Ollie are sailors on board a boat, skippered by Captain James Finlayson and First Mate, Tiny Sandford. The boat docks and the sailors are allowed to collect their pay and begin their shore leave. All the sailors begin to leave with their little exotic pets on their shoulders. Our boys appear with a fully-grown ostrich on a lead, that Stan claims is an African canary. They leave the ship and Stan receives his pay from the Captain, but Ollie is refused, as he’s already in arrears with the Captain. Once off the boat, Ollie sees Stan counting his wad of cash and successfully befuddles his friend enough to trick him into giving him his pay bundle.
The film then continues with the scene of the boys walking down the street and eventually finding ‘Ye Mariner’s Rest’ lodgings, which ultimately became the starting scene for the film that we all know today. The unreleased film continued right up to the
point where the villain of the piece is dumped into the water. Only, instead of running away and getting roped into a boxing match, as per the existing version, they hand the rescued girl over to her real fiancee. There was a final tussle with the villain, who had climbed out of the water, and the boys push him back in, before being dumped in the drink themselves by a passing truck.
One can only assume that, during its preview, the hand on the laughometer wasn’t very active throughout the opening sequences, and so significant changes were deemed essential. Despite possibly not being all that funny, at least the plot would have hung together a little better. The boys being sailors would have made more sense, for a start. We’d have seen them on their boat, with the Ostrich gags and with Finlayson and Sandford and all the money shenanigans too. But still, a comedy has to do one thing above all else – make people laugh! Whether the plot makes sense or not, surely has to be a bonus and so, the boys were brought back on set, to shoot some hastily prepared additional scenes.
Any Old Port is definitely a film of two halves, with some suggesting it’s more like two one-reel shorts, glued together. The first half contains the scenes in the hotel, rescuing the girl from the advances of her villainous guardian, and then the second half contains the boxing match. They do feel very separate and understandably so, given the nature of the filming, as already discussed.
This is a Laurel and Hardy picture, however, and as such, there are always going to be some very funny moments. Some of the best and most memorable comedy comes from the dialogue interchanges. Phrases such as Stan’s, “Oh, what a terrible catsafterme!” and “We’d like a room with a southern explosion“, can be included high up on any list of the funniest bits of Laurel and Hardy dialogue. The boxing match finale also has its laugh-out-loud elements too, with Stan and Ollie’s warm-up preparations and Stan’s flapping ears, after he spots his opponent for the first time, being hilarious highlights.
Despite having filmed a similar boxing sequence for their silent classic, The Battle of the Century (1927), they manage to come up with all-new gags and avoid it feeling like a carbon copy. The result is an entertaining few minutes of silliness, although it appears not everybody shares this view, including author William K. Everson, writing in The Complete Films of Laurel & Hardy, “A singularly disappointing effort…the climactic fight is surprisingly dull and unfunny, especially so in comparison with the similar and hilarious sequence in Chaplin’s City Lights of the previous year“.
It may indeed compare unfavourably with Chaplin’s, admittedly, brilliant sequence, with its clever choreography, but “dull and unfunny” is a little harsh.
If the stories contained within the Roach Studios promotional Press Sheet can be believed, the boxing scenes certainly proved to be inspiring for at least one individual:
“One of the strangest requests was received by Stan Laurel during the filming of ” Any Old Port, Laurel and Hardy’s latest Hal Roach M-G-M comedy. The prize fight sequence in the film attracted innumerable spectators, all of whom flocked to the Culver City Stadium where the scenes were made. One young man, who had all the earmarks of a prizefighter, was particularly interested in the antics of the comedian in the ring.
At the completion of the picture Laurel was approached by the young man who introduced himself as a professional boxer. The following day the actor received a letter from the fighter in which he asked for the abbreviated “shorts” that he wore in the picture. It was an odd request but Laurel sent the ring costume and three weeks later received another letter from the fighter stating that he had worn the “shorts” in his last three fights and had won them, on knock-outs.“
I referred earlier to ‘the villain of the piece‘ and I am referring, of course, to the proprietor of ‘Ye Mariner’s Rest‘, Mugsie Long, played, by the wonderfully imposing, Walter Long. Walter Long is a well-known and loved member of the ‘Laurel and Hardy Stock Company’ and it’s surprising to learn that he only featured alongside the boys in just four of their pictures, not including their cameo in Hal Roach’s attempt at a Hollywood musical, Pick a Star (1937).
As, The Tiger in Pardon Us, Butch Long in Going Bye-Bye, and the tough sea-captain in The Live Ghost, Long was always a dependable and formidable opponent of the boys. But it’s here, in Any Old Port, as Mugsie Long, where his character is given more depth than the usual hard-fisted, knuckle-headed bruiser. He’s exceptionally shabby, bad-tempered, and ill-mannered, and with his down-right unlawful intentions towards his ‘slavey-girl’, (Jacqueline Wells), he is arguably at his most frightening – and Walter does it brilliantly.
Away from the cameras, Walter Huntley Long was, reputedly, a genuinely nice guy. Author Leo M. Brooks (The Laurel & Hardy Stock Company) informs us that Long was born on 5th March 1879, in New Hampshire and enjoyed a successful stage career, treading the boards in New York, before being drawn to the lure of the silver screen in 1909/10. Long served his country during the First World War, serving in France and, being a “highly educated man”, rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel. He appeared in hundreds of films, including silent and sound pictures, but paused his acting career to rejoin the Army during World War II, with the Military Police and also now and again, returning to the Broadway stage. He will always be best known as a screen villain or heavy, and his physical appearance ensured that he could excel in these types of roles.
The considerable danger that Long posed in Any Old Port, was not, in fact, the only danger to the boys connected with this picture. Firstly, on November 27th, 1931, Variety reported :
“Laurel and Hardy are teamed up for the doctor’s once over. Hardy received second degree burns on his right arm when lighting a gas heater Wednesday night. Laurel injured his right knee Thursday (12) while making retakes for ‘Any Old Port’ at Roach”.
The ‘retakes’, were very likely the boxing match sequences, as they replaced the original second reel. Stan’s knee injury is also a possible reason that this would be the last time he used his trusty, old trademark scissor-jump, as he chased Mugsie around the ring, with the loaded glove. Stan, after all, wasn’t getting any younger!
A further and potentially more serious incident, associated with the film, is one that could have turned into a real ‘catsafterme‘. On July 23rd, 1932, Stan and Babe arrived in Southampton, UK, to begin a well-earned vacation, organised for them by their films’ distributors, MGM. What they hadn’t realised, however, was the trip had been pre-arranged as a huge publicity campaign, with a long schedule of personal appearances to promote the team. It immediately turned into a media and fan frenzy, throughout the UK.
The boys were besieged by legions of fans everywhere they went. On the evening of July 25th, just two days after arriving in the UK, they were to appear on stage at London’s Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, to say a few words, following a showing of Any Old Port. Unfortunately, The Evening Standard had advertised the fact and as a result, an estimated two thousand fans besieged Leicester Square, to try to catch a glimpse of their heroes. A.J. Marriot skilfully records, in Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours, the moment the boys’ car arrived outside the theatre:
“In the melee which followed, with the crowd frantic to get a look inside the comedians’ car, one of the doors was torn from its hinges. Inside, Stan and Babe were terrified they were about to be crushed, for the car appeared to be giving them as much protection as a paper bag…”
Fortunately, the boys escaped without harm, but this was evidence, if any was indeed needed, of just how popular the team were and equally, just how fanatical their fans had become.
Around this time, over the English channel and throughout continental Europe, English language pictures were beginning to be banned from being exhibited. As the foreign market was such a huge source of income for the Roach studios, they quickly began to look for ways to save this lucrative part of their business. As Craig Calman reproduces in, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach, a communication dated March 14th, 1932 from Morton Springer, Culver City Export Corp. of MGM to the Roach studio, discusses a potential method of side-stepping this new obstacle:
“Send dupe negative of ‘Any Old Port’ without dialogue to France…As an experiment we are going to release ‘ANY OLD PORT’ with just a musical accompaniment and if it is successful, we will release all of the Laurel/Hardy comedies in this manner and possibly some of the other subjects…”
This ‘experiment, using Any Old Port as the guinea-pig, appears to have been successful, as three months later, Mr. Springer was back, requesting musical scores for another eight Laurel and Hardy titles, in readiness for their release without dialogue. This is further proof that the boys’ brand of largely physical comedy, enabled them to weather such storms and consistently remain relevant and transcend language and even sound itself.
Upon its domestic release, the film garnered a mixed reception from the critics. Thankfully, for many publications, the Laurel and Hardy team could still do no wrong. The Film Daily, January 31st, 1932 ran with: “A Laurel-Hardy laugh number that rates well up with their usual fine brand of comedy antics…The fight is a wow, done in typical Laurel-Hardy manner…”
Motion Picture Herald, Feb 13th, 1932 described it as, “…enormously funny…it should make any audience laugh long and loud…”.
Equally positive and being a little more specific in its praise was, The Muscatine Journal and News Tribune, on May 7th, 1932: ” A hurricane of mirth brings comedy kings Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in their latest feature comedy, “Any Old Port”…Laurel’s ring tactics are funnier, if possible, than any of his previous characterizations..”
From the available publications though, the only negative comments came from Variety, which, to be fair, was never really overwhelming in its praise for the boys’ films. They were clearly not impressed with Any Old Port, as this review from June 28th, 1932, reveals: “Average rough-house two-reeler in its field and considerably below the usual grade for this pair. Comedy lacks resourcefulness and falls into tried and tested chase stuff. All apparently built around one solid laugh, well placed and swiftly sprung…Outside the one surprise laugh, it’s mediocre stuff.”
It would interesting to know what the Variety critics would have made of the original cut of Any Old Port, before the extensive editing and retakes. Perhaps they valued a strong story over the numbers of laughs generated? Sadly, we can never know.
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