Filmed: October 19th to October 26th, 1931
Released: January 23rd, 1932
Produced by Hal Roach
Directed by James Parrott
Photographed by Art Lloyd
Dialogue by H.M. Walker
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Blanche Payson
“When the cat’s away – The mice start looking up telephone numbers”
“The round Oliver Hardy and the slim, timid Stan Laurel seem to be pulling a Greta Garbo around the Hal Roach studios. Parsons, Jr., writes to tell me they are so mysterious about the plot that no one outside of Roach and James Horne, their director, knows what it’s all about. The title is Helpmates, which doesn’t help much to gain an idea of what these two comics are up to”. The Sacramento Bee, October 8th, 1931
This reported studio secrecy surrounding the plot of Helpmates may well have been due to the simplicity of its design. The prospect of two men tidying a house is perhaps not going to set the movie-going world alight with anticipation, whereas a film shrouded in mystery, just might. Little did they know, the film they were making would be remembered as one of their very finest.
It can be said with some confidence that Laurel and Hardy’s short films made around the start of 1932 are among the best of their entire partnership. The Academy Award-winning The Music Box would be their first of the 1932 season, but their final creation for 1931 was Helpmates. Filmed at the end of October 1931 and taking just seven days to shoot, Helpmates is hailed by many, including notable commentators William K. Everson and Randy Skretvedt, as perhaps ‘the finest’ short film the team ever made. This is high praise indeed.
The fact that Stan and Babe were producing some of their best work to date, at this particular time, is an achievement not to be underestimated. The Laurel and Hardy team or brand was hugely popular, in great demand, and producing what contemporary critics labelled as some of the best comedies ever seen. Yet, whilst everything happening in front of the cameras was turning to gold, behind the scenes things were turning more than a little sour. This had nothing to do with the boys’ partnership though, the Great Depression was beginning to have an effect, both on life in the studio and in the wider world.
Beginning with the Wall Street Crash in October of 1929, the Great Depression was a decade of high unemployment, poverty, and a general lack of opportunity for any kind of economic growth across the whole of the United States. The movie industry rode its luck as long as it could, and some even considered it ‘Depression-Proof‘, however, the luck ran out, as ticket sales began to dry up during the 1931-32 season. By 1933, cinema attendance and its associated revenue would fall by a massive forty percent.
Many studios were still attempting to pay off the massive loans they’d taken on to equip themselves and their theatres, in response to the industry-changing introduction of sound pictures. The Depression was a financial disaster for many studios and for some it proved ruinous.
In attempts to survive, new initiatives were devised, such as the double-feature attraction, which itself threatened to outcompete Roach’s main product, the short subjects. But, the most unavoidable response for all studios and especially at Roach, was to cut salaries and production costs wherever possible and it was this that would have the most effect on Stan and Babe and specifically on their team at the ‘Lot of Fun’.
It was Henry Ginsberg’s unenviable task to ensure the studio’s financial sustainability against this challenging backdrop. He proved to be incredibly effective; great for the longevity of the studio, but not so great for the personnel working there. It was around the time of the filming of Helpmates that Ginsberg’s economy drive kicked in and
George Stevens, one of the boys’ regular cameramen and one of their close friends, became one of the first to be kicked out. By the end of the year, Elmer Raguse, the man who had successfully converted the Roach Studios to sound pictures in 1929, was let go and film editor, Richard Currier would follow twelve months later. Stan and Babe’s world was rocking, their team was being broken apart, but not even that could stop them from creating award-winning comedy.
It’s interesting to note that, following his arrival in the Autumn of 1931 and despite the, arguably, unsavoury nature of his role, Ginsberg really hit the ground running. Author, Craig Calman records in his book, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach, how within weeks of commencing his employment, he was thoroughly enjoying his work:
“December 2, 1931: Henry Ginsberg letter to Warner Bros. associate Jacob Wilik…”Things are breaking very marvelously for me. I am terrifically happy, and have found in Mr. Roach an associate that is so entirely different from anything in the business that it really astounds me…”
So confident was Mr. Roach in his new employee’s abilities, that he immediately awarded him the role of vice president and general manager of the entire studio and left him in sole charge while he himself departed on record-breaking trips, flying around South America.
Also worthy of note and again reproduced by Craig Calman, is a message sent by Ginsberg to Hal Roach, dated August 17th, 1932 confirming that he was in communication with Elmer Raguse, currently working at the Fox Studios, “in an endeavour to get him back and start with us when we open.” Clearly, not all of Mr. Ginsberg’s enthusiastic early decisions had been good ones.
On August 16th of the following year, Variety ran a short article about Ginsberg, stating that “picture people howl over his salary cutting proclivities”, however, the piece did confirm that during his first ten months of employment at the studio, he had reduced production costs by 35 percent. It was perhaps fortunate, therefore, that Helpmates was already in production before Ginsberg took up his tenure, as the kind of expenditure afforded to its production would certainly not be allowed under his new, cost-cutting regime.
As with all their best pictures, the plot of Helpmates couldn’t be simpler. Ollie has had a wild party and he enlists the help of his best buddy, Stan, to help him clear up the evidence, before his wife returns home later that day.
The film opens with some clever photography by Art Lloyd, now the boys’ primary cameraman following Stevens’ departure. We see Ollie is talking directly into the camera, with an ice pack on his head, clearly berating somebody for throwing a ‘wild party’. As the camera tracks away, it is revealed that we are looking at Ollie’s reflection in the mirror, and he is actually chastising himself.
In the wake of the party, the Hardy house has been left an absolute mess. The official Roach studios Press sheet describes the scene:
“There are about fifty empty bottles lying here and there about the rooms, on the sideboards, smoking stands, tables and behind picture frames hanging on the wall. The dining table is covered with dirty dishes partially filled with food. Over these is a goodly sprinkling of poker chips that were used in the game, played just before the luncheon, at which everyone lost.
There are millions of cigarette butts lying about the house. Selzer bottles may be found concealed in chairs and in the corners. Of course many holes have been burned in the carpets and the overstuffed set so a general lace effect is established in the tapestry…”
Ollie receives a telegram, informing him that his wife is returning home later that afternoon, unexpectedly early, throwing him into a flat spin. The main theme of the picture, therefore, is simply, Ollie calling in his best buddy, Stan, to help tidy up before his wrong-doing is discovered.
Through a cleverly devised and subsequently humorous telephone conversation, we learn that Stan hadn’t attended the party, due to being bitten by a dog and having to attend the hospital for fear he might get “hydrophosphates“.
The following article, also from the Press Sheet, explains the thinking behind the plot:
“The actual way in which Stan Laurel acts with Oliver Hardy in the previous pictures was used as a story plot for “Helpmates”…Fans of these two comedians are fully aware of how much help Laurel is to Hardy, regardless of the situation. If the rotund Hardy is in trouble you can depend on Laurel to get him into more trouble with his blundering helpfulness …the Hal Roach writing staff collaborated with the two comedians in writing a plot around all their screen troubles and titling it ‘Helpmates’.
The plot itself just carries out in photographic form the ideas of hundreds of their past pictures. Laurel is never actually helpful to Hardy and by making the situation ridiculous enough the idea carries through the entire story.”
To say that “Laurel is never actually helpful to Hardy” is a little unfair, as Randy Skretvedt pointed out in conversation with the author on Episode 10 of The Laurel & Hardy Blogcast, when Stan is left to his own devices, he cleans up the house perfectly, until Ollie joins him that is, and immediately disaster strikes again. It is only when Stan and Ollie are together that things go drastically wrong.
As usual, it is Ollie who comes off the worst again in this picture, and if one took the time to count the number of incidents Mr. Hardy falls foul of, this could be something of a record. During the course of the film, he is bashed, battered, soaked, covered in flour and soot, he trips, falls and is beaten up and abandoned by his wife, and then finally has his entire house burned to the ground. As Babe Hardy’s biographer John McCabe expertly puts it, this film:
“…shows Babe at his absolute best, in full command of his skills. Ollie-as-victim was never more delightfully realized than in Helpmates…where he is at the mercy of three aberrant forces of nature – a shrewish wife, his vacuous partner, and himself.” Babe the Life of Oliver Hardy (1989).
In his earlier, ground-breaking, biography of the boys, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, McCabe also illustrates that in addition to Helpmates providing the perfect showcase for Babe Hardy’s talents, it was also a important picture in highlighting significant growth in the development of the Stan and Ollie characters:
“It is this straightforward imbecility that came to be the primary trademark of the Stan Laurel character. In the earliest films, Ollie and Stan are simply dumbbells; sometime during the early thirties, slowly, complete and profound stupidity gained the ascendancy…it is a deepening of characteristics that had only been suggested by the first films…until Stan and the gag-men started to think continually of his character as having not a mote of sense. The same process applied to Ollie. His dumbness, too, increased until it reached profound proportions. In contrast to Stan, his courtly facade gave him an appearance of rationality, and yet he was possibly even more ignorant because he thought he was brighter. The absurdity of such lines in Helpmates as, OLLIE: “You never met my wife, did you?”, STAN: “Yes, I never did.”, helps define their difference. Such ignorance infuriates Ollie…and then in the next minute he does something equally imbecilic.” Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy (1976)
Synonymous with their on-screen characters, the boys’ clothing is also discussed at some length in the film’s Press Sheet. In addition to counting Ollie’s five different outfits that are all ruined in the course of the action, the Sheet also displayed the following:
“Laurel and Hardy never throw their old clothes away —they use them in pictures. Last year the two comedians purchased several dozen new suits to be used in their comedies. In their more dignified roles the suits stayed comparatively fresh but whenever the action of the picture necessitated damage the suits were stored for future use. Their famous torn clothes and dusty derbies are used for their “tramp” pictures. During the filming of their latest comedy “Helpmates”… both Laurel and Hardy donned the last of their new batch of suits. They automatically became their “old” suits for altogether the two comedians ruined six suits of clothes in the picture…”
Such was the destructive and messy nature of the filming of Helpmates, that the Press Sheet also recorded:
“Twenty pounds of cold cream was consumed by Laurel and Hardy during the filming of “Helpmates”… An average of three pounds a day was used by the comedians as a cleansing cream to remove make-up and grime of the daily work, which constituted a variety of baths in soot, flour, dish-water, smoke and common every-day dirt”.
Then, returning once again to the subject of clothing:
“Stan Laurel lost his prize derby hat in the filming of “Helpmates”…The particular derby worn by Laurel in the opening scenes of the picture had been used by the comedian in seven pictures. Although it can be easily replaced a certain amount of sentiment was attached to the laugh provoking ‘sky piece’, which was literally blown to bits by an explosion which marks one of the highlights of the picture.”
The explosion is a highlight of the film and comes as a result of the boys attempting to light the gas oven. In a gag that they would use a number of times, in later films, Ollie turns on the gas tap, in order to dry his soaking wet clothes in front of the stove, but before he gets the chance to light it, he is distracted by Stan’s incompetence and so leaves the gas tap to fill the room with gas. Eventually, he returns and strikes his match, causing a giant explosion that throws him through the door and crashing through the dining table. Whilst it’s perhaps not sensible to take the Press Sheet’s articles as entirely without a degree of fictitious elaboration, it certainly makes for entertaining reading:
“The audience that sits… watching the antics of Laurel and Hardy in… “Helpmates” will not realize the experience of the comedians while filming the explosion scenes for the picture. Both actors suffered smarting powder burns in an effort to make the scene as realistic as possible”.
The picture is absolutely stuffed full of wonderful gags, one on top of another and always resulting in Ollie at the messy end of things, which in itself is even funnier than if Stan had had a fair share of the misfortune. It’s a hilarious film and certainly worthy of the praise bestowed upon it and the level of esteem in which it’s held. With only two brief appearances from supporting players, Robert Callahan as the telegram messenger and a vicious Blanche Payson, in her final film with the boys, as Mrs. Hardy, Helpmates, is pure undiluted Stan and Ollie.
After all the trials and tribulations of attempting to make the Hardy house clean and tidy, Stan’s final act of helpfulness is one that simply can’t be topped. Whilst Ollie is in his bedroom putting on the only clothing he has left, a naval fancy dress costume, complete with a sword and a feather-trimmed hat, Stan has magically transformed the Hardy house to a pristine state. Ollie departs to collect his wife, leaving Stan to light a fire to make the house comfortable for their return. He is confused though as his match will not set fire to the thick logs in the grate, so he dowses the logs in petrol. In addition, Stan kicks over the petrol can, spilling its contents over the fireside rug. Stan’s effortless skill at making this look completely accidental makes it appear as if it wasn’t intended in the script/plot, but it certainly was intentional. In the very next scene, we see Ollie arriving home, without his wife, sporting a black eye and a bent sword. He returns to his home’s charred shell, as Stan stands amongst the burned-out wreckage, hosing the smoking ruins with a garden hose.
This finale gag was the most elaborate of the whole film, as the studio actually built a full-size bungalow just so they could burn it down. Returning to the Press Sheet, it informs us that although it looks as if the house is actually a real address, on a real street, it was actually purpose-built, in close proximity to neighbouring properties giving it a very realistic situation.
“…a real home is built and then burned down for a laugh…A regular five bedroom bungalow was built on the edge of the studio property within a few yards of an adjoining home. Every precaution was taken to prevent the film fire from spreading to the neighboring property but for realism it was necessary to be as close as possible to the other house… In order to get the desired results from the ruins of the burned building the studio fire department stood by and took charge of the blaze when the director considered enough of the house had gone up in smoke. Many of the inside timbers of the building were “doped” to keep them from burning through completely and with the help of water some of the house was saved…”
It was exactly this kind of elaborate expense, for the sake of a gag, that Henry Ginsberg would put an immediate stop to. Fortunately for Stan and Babe, they only needed each other to be funny.
As one might expect the film was received very positively on its release:
“‘Slapstick Riot’…Plenty of slapstick stuff that will make anyone and everyone laugh. The comedians work hard and get mussed up plenty to put over the laughs…It’s one long laugh”. The Film Daily, November 29th, 1931
“Laurel and Hardy make the most, as usual, of the opportunities here presented for extracting real laughs from situations, however replete with slapstick they may be…and the result will make anybody laugh as they seldom do.” Motion Picture Herald, December 12th, 1931
“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are a scream in this slapstick comedy which is a laugh from start to finish…” Motion Picture Times, December 15th, 1931
The picture remained in theatres well into the following year. The following review from Variety, April 19th, 1932, a publication that was never overwhelming in its praise of the boys, did acknowledge the quality of the film’s dialogue, in addition to its slapstick nature:
“It’s of the same knockabout, drag-’em-out hokum familiar to the L-H technique, this time just a bit more loquacious in dialog [sic].”
Helpmates is a very well-crafted film, heavily layered with gags and set-ups closely followed by the pay-offs. It is very slapstick in nature, with lots of physical comedy, and yet, as Variety reluctantly pointed out, it does have excellent, original, and oft-quoted lines of dialogue too.
This is a movie that is pure Laurel and Hardy. If you were to boil down all the boys’ films, down to a very concentrated core, you would be left with something very akin to Helpmates. It has everything from fun, chaos, and catastrophe, to really funny lines of dialogue and sublime pantomime, and arguably most important of all, it reinforces the undying love and friendship, in the face of utter devastation, between these two wonderful fellows.
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