Filmed 15th February to 24th February 1928, Released on 19th May 1928
With Mr and Mrs Hal Roach freshly departed on their marriage-saving around-the-world tour, the Culver City Studio was now dependent on Warren Doane, General Manager and Vice President, to steer the ship. Doane set to his task with determination.
At the end of January 1927, Doane gave a luncheon at the studio, to which he invited journalists from all the prominent trade papers. He aimed to rally their support to tackle a long-running problem that threatened the longevity of the Hal Roach Studios and those of his competitors, such as Mack Sennett and Al Christie.
The problem was a low status or, more succinctly, a lack of importance given to short features by theatre owners and exhibitors. Hal Roach himself would become a vocal champion, an ambassador of sorts for short subjects in the following years. He would campaign tirelessly for their equality with feature-length productions; this was especially notable in the early thirties, as the double-feature programme ominously threatened to displace one, two and three reelers altogether.
Yet, it was Warren Doane, in Roach’s absence, that publicly took up the baton and sounded this early call to action. One of the trade papers in attendance at the luncheon was the Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World. In their issue dated 4th February 1928, they recorded and printed Doane’s remarks to the assembled media:
“In his speech Doane said: “It has by now been thoroughly demonstrated that no operator of theatres can be influenced by the general argument that he ought to have a two-reel comedy in his show. That argument has been used by the comedy producers, by the trade papers editorially, and by the distributors with practically negligible results, and in my opinion, properly so, because as an argument it is no argument.
We must realize that the theatre is being operated for the same reason that any other business is operated, which is to make money for its owner rather than to make money for the producers of two-reel comedies. I am firmly of the opinion that a motion picture, no matter how short nor how long, which cannot convince exhibitors that it has ability to bring people to the box office, has no place in the first-run theatre, and its importance in subsequent runs must be very slight, indeed.
Therefore, in my opinion, the solution of the problem is for comedy producers to furnish the industry with product that has box office drawing power. Through a number of circumstances the attention of the industry has been directed to subjects of feature length and very little attention been given to short subjects, so that in the recent past the majority of short subjects produced have merited no greater prominence than they have received.”
The very fact that Doane made the above public statement, which would undoubtedly have been constructed in collaboration with Hal Roach, shows, if nothing else, the absolute confidence they had in the quality of their studio’s product. One could also argue that this may partly have been an attempt to squeeze their competitors, whose shorts were perhaps of lesser quality, out of the market altogether, thus giving the Roach Studios a larger monopoly.
Eleven days after the article containing Doane’s speech was printed, the studio’s golden boys were back on set, attempting to maintain the consistency of the quality of their output in their latest picture, Their Purple Moment.
At the studio, Stan and Babe could seemingly do no wrong. Their popularity increased with every picture, and Roach finally decided to throw everything he could behind the Laurel and Hardy team. To that end, he allocated one of his best directors, James Parrott, to assume the directorial responsibility for the boys’ latest picture.
Parrott joined the Roach studio as a gag writer and extra back in 1917, then after a few years became a sizeable lead comic in his own right, under the name Paul Parrott. As his comedies failed to hit the heights, he was eventually replaced by another comedian, his younger brother Charles, who gave himself the screen name Charley Chase. Under James Parrott’s direction, the Charley Chase output became one of the studios’ most successful series.
However, by late 1927 and into 1928, it had become apparent that the Laurel and Hardy comedies were fast becoming the studio’s premier product. James Parrott became Stan and Babe’s principal director from here on. He was a significant contributor to some of Laurel and Hardy’s best and most-loved comedies, with around twenty directorial credits to his name.
Parrott was a popular and loyal member of the Roach staff and was friends with Stan and Babe away from the studio, often socialising with them individually. His friendship with Stan would likely have been a significant factor in their success working together on the lot. As has been well documented, Stan’s influence on the construction and production of the Laurel and Hardy pictures was considerable and grew along with the team’s reputation itself. Any director assigned to the Laurel-Hardy unit had to accept that Stan would be there as an additional uncredited director as well as one of the star performers.
In John McCabe’s seminal work on the boys, Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy, McCabe quotes another Roach director and close friend of Stan’s, Charlie Rogers:
“Stan was the spirit behind the directors…But whenever Stan suggested something in conference or during shooting, it almost always proved to be the right thing…He watched closely over the pictures, but it was like kind of a beneficent father, not a bossy one who always wanted his own way at any cost. You see, by nature he is a polite man and a gentle fellow, and those qualities always came over… He was the director’s conscience…”
Their Purple Moment marks a significant moment in the development of the Laurel and Hardy team. It was the first of what would soon become a staple genre for the boys to exploit again and again – the age-old contest of husbands versus wives.
Forget Walter Long, Noah Young, Tiny Sandford, Charlie Hall, even Jimmy Finlayson. Laurel and Hardy’s most significant and certainly most intimidating nemesis had to be their on-screen wives! Of course, there had been female co-stars playing opposite them in earlier films; however, Their Purple Moment was the first Laurel and Hardy comedy where we find our heroes pitted against the overbearing and conniving spouse. Stan and the gag writers found this reservoir rich with comedy potential. It would be well tapped over the coming years of their screen partnership, providing some of their most memorable and hilarious moments.
Even though stories around domestic entanglements were standard fayre for the writers and gag men toiling on the Roach lot, and indeed throughout Hollywood in the late twenties, there is perhaps little wonder that this theme eventually found its way into Stan and Babe’s work. Babe’s struggles with his wife Myrtle’s alcoholism continued, causing the Hardys much distress and heartache. In addition, according to Stan’s biographer, Fred Lawrence Guiles, at some point during this year, 1928, Stan began a ten-year affair with actress Alyce Ardell, signifying that all was not rosy in the Laurel household.
Clarifying this affair is almost impossible as the relationship never appears to have been sensationally or even respectfully reported by the press. In fact, Guiles seems to be the only biographer to have recorded this life event, his primary source of information being another of Stan’s ex-wives, Virginia Ruth Laurel. According to Guiles, this would be the first of such affairs that Stan had behind Lois’ back over the following few years. However, one should be cautious of taking such claims at face value, especially given that the primary source was an estranged ex-wife of Stan’s and also the lack of clarity and corroborating evidence. What is certain is that Stan’s marriage to Lois wasn’t to last.
Life with Stan, with a new baby to care for in the mix, can’t have been easy for Lois. It wasn’t just the long hours he spent at the studio, creating gags and writing scripts, filming the scenes and then continuing in the editing room when the day’s shooting was over. After all that, Stan would then bring colleagues home with him to talk through story ideas over drinks and cigarettes. So, if Stan’s experience of what having a wife was like is reflected at all in the way he represented them on screen, one can’t help but think he may only have had himself to blame.
In the opening scene of Their Purple Moment, we find Stan standing on his doorstep, getting a story straight in his head, before entering his house and joining his battle-axe of a wife, played by Fay Holderness, who is waiting for him and his pay packet. Stan’s wife, named on the title card as Mrs Pincher, clearly lives by the code ‘what’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine’. However, we soon learn that somehow, Stan has been holding back a few dollars each time and stashing his money in a secret location, right under his wife’s nose. Unbeknownst to Stan, his suspicious wife has spotted the stash and retrieves the money, replacing the cash for cigar coupons.
Next, Ollie and his equally hard-line wife come calling at Stan’s residence. Ollie’s miserable, downtrodden appearance, his facial expressions and body language wonderfully convey his misery.
The comedy here is all in the boys’ little gestures. Their physical discomfort, especially Ollie’s, is just a joy to watch and perfectly demonstrates what a brilliant actor Oliver Hardy was. Like a naughty child, his attempts to share his tales of woe with his buddy, without his wife witnessing, are sublime.
As the story pans out, the boys grab Stan’s secret wallet full of the phoney cash and persuade their wives to let them go off for an evening at the bowling alley. Of course, their actual plans are more centred around having a night on the town, courtesy of Stan’s savings.
Whilst strutting through town, the boys pass a nightclub called The Pink Pup, just as two guys are violently chased out of the venue for being unable to pay their bill. The Pink Pup, built on the Roach Studios’ backlot, also appears in earlier shorts, such as Love ‘Em and Weep and Putting Pants on Philip, and would turn up again, for instance, in That’s My Wife.
The fleeing customers have left behind their two girlfriends, played by Kay Deslys and Anita Garvin, who are asked by the Maître d’, played by Tiny Sandford, to pay the bill, but clearly, they have no money either. Ollie gallantly offers to “assume all responsibility” for the ladies, and so the new foursome enters The Pink Pup for a slap-up meal and a jolly good time.
On top of the ladies’ existing bill, the group proceed to run up an even greater one. This enlarged bill includes big steak dinners for all four of them – and even one for the girls’ cab driver who has burst in, demanding to be paid! Stan even treats a group of performing dwarves to candy. It’s at this point that Stan discovers the wad of cash in his wallet is nothing more than cigar coupons. He nervously asks for the cost of the candy to be added to the bill and looks again into his wallet.
Then follows the first example in a Laurel and Hardy film of the prolonged close-up of Stan struggling to comprehend what’s right in front of him. He varies between a mixture of despair, confusion, a refusal to believe his eyes, re-checking his wallet and then back to despair, and the cycle begins again. This is such a brilliant and unique gag, and one could argue that no comedian other than Stan Laurel would dare to or even be able to pull this off. It was so effective and so unusually noteworthy that, on the film’s release, Motion Picture News, 26th May 1928, afforded it special mention as part of their review:
“Laurel is a dandy comedian; in this comedy he fares better than does Hardy. Laurel is subjected to a long close-up showing his bewilderment and consternation when he finds out what is in his wallet.”
Eventually, Stan discreetly gets the message of their desperate situation to his friend, and Ollie’s reactions are just as wonderfully painful to watch. Once again, the comedy is all about reactions and facial expressions, as we visibly see the reality of the situation sinking in for both of them. Some hilarious moments follow as the boys try several times to sneak out by sliding off their seats, using the darkened room and the floorshow as cover.
Inevitably, the boys’ wives turn up at the club, having been tipped off by the neighbourhood busy body, who happened to witness the boys entering the venue with a couple of strange women on their arms. After much running and crawling, trying not to be seen, the two desperate husbands find themselves in the kitchens, quickly joined by Tiny Sandford and then a couple of furious wives.
The finale, whilst mildly amusing, is somewhat disappointing. Ollie pins the blame on Stan, who throws a fruit pie at Ollie, only to succeed in hitting Ollie’s wife full in the face. Matters quickly descend into a food fight, a sort of poor man’s version of the pie-fight climax to The Battle of the Century, and the film fades out with Ollie’s pie-covered face looking exasperatedly into the camera.
This finale is disappointing, even for a two-reeler, as it leaves many unanswered questions. For example, one is left wondering what happened to the girlfriends, how the unpaid bill and taxi fare get settled, and what kind of retribution is doled out by the wives, to name but a few.
However, over the years, research by leading experts such as Richard W. Bann and Randy Skretvedt has at least provided solid reasons for why the picture ends in this manner.
Initially, a different ending was scripted and even filmed. Yet, following previews, the production team deemed the audience response unsatisfactory, and they returned to the studio and shot a completely new ending.
After the wives arrive at the club in the original ending, Stan and Ollie are concealed backstage in the dwarves dressing room. The little people aid the boys even further by trying to help them escape. The boys don frilly dresses, complete with hats and parasols and, walking on their knees, they join the dwarves’ dancing act and perform alongside them as part of the floor show. During the performance, though, they are spotted in turn by the girlfriends, the taxi driver, the waiter and their wives.
Still in costume, the boys flee the club whilst the wives settle the outstanding bills. However, as soon as Stan and Ollie get outside, they are stopped by a passing street cop, played by Edgar Kennedy. They quickly evade Kennedy’s clutches and run off down the street (presumably still on their knees) until the pursuing wives eventually catch them. The boys laugh at their situation as they begin to get frog-marched home, but at the last, the wives fall into a vast, deep curb-side mud-filled hole.
On paper, this original ending makes more sense and successfully brings the escalating storyline to a much more satisfactory conclusion. Production stills do exist of some of these cut scenes, which at least give us some idea of what the intended ending looked like if nothing else.
In 1981, Richard W. Bann asked Hal Roach why he’d chosen to replace this original ending. The boss’ response was brilliantly no-nonsense and business-like:
“By bringing this up,” Roach challenged, “you suggest we made a mistake changing the windup. I say you are projecting your hopes into what you read in the script, just as we did. A lot of the time, what’s written does not play. The routine with the midgets –escaping as midgets – did not pay off in the screening room. Otherwise, we would have kept it. The business with the pies may not have been great, but that always worked with audiences. We didn’t have time for anything better. Run your print with an audience, then come back and tell me if we did the right thing changing it.”
Context is an essential factor to keep in mind when attempting to analyse old movies. For the modern-day consumer, so used to watching films to death and studying the extended cut of this and director’s cut of that, it’s easy to lose sight of the original intended purpose for pictures made during this golden age of Hollywood. The film had to serve the theatre audience’s needs following its release and very little else. The studios produced movies as a disposable commodity, not made for countless viewings and microscopic inspection. As Mr Roach points out, the original, scripted ending, whilst arguably appearing more satisfactory to our modern tastes, wasn’t appreciated by the 1928 audiences that previewed it.
Rather than a complicated plot-based ending, what the public actually wanted or maybe even demanded was a ‘chase ending’, as John McCabe expertly describes:
“It is perhaps easy to think of the chase sequence as the easy way out in ending a film. In the case of the one or two-reeler, however, it was in most instances mandatory. Mack Sennett and Larry Semon were the great exponents of the chase, but there is hardly a film of the golden days of comedy that does not use the spirit of the chase in some form or other in its final footage. In these early days of their character development, Laurel and Hardy used the chase frequently. It was then what it is now: a wrap-up, a gathering of climaxes…”
The response to Their Purple Moment suggests that the Roach Studios made the right call, as the overall reception was generally very positive. Several reviewers correctly identified that the picture was not as good as the boys’ previous outings. Nevertheless, exhibitors and critics widely acknowledged the film as another quality short from the best comedy team in the business.
Illustrating this, the following contemporary reviews, taken from various publications, come straight from the horses’ mouths:
“Their Purple Moments – A comedy full of laughs that will chase away all your blues. Roars and more laughs!” Latrobe Bulletin, 4th August 1928
“The first weak one I have had from this pair. It is pretty slow until the last 400 feet”. Central Theatre, Selkirk, Manitoba, Canada in Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, 2nd November 1928
“Laurel-Hardy – Oh boy, no matter how sore we get on Metro, we can’t help but give this team a big hand! They are wows, and Metro’s short product is certainly helping to build up our business. Hope the ’29 product is as good”. Screenland Theatre, Nevada, in Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, 10th November 1928
“A good one from a good team. These boys know how to make them laugh”. Fairfax Theatre, Kilmarnock, VA in Exhibitors Herald World, 4th May 1929
Finally, returning to Raymond Ganly, writing in the notable trade paper, Motion Picture News, 26th May 1928, possibly summed it up best, reviewing it thus:
“What appears to be the best comedy team in present-day short subjects – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy – appear in this new Hal Roach comedy, invested with an amazing amount of laughter and replete with really funny happenings. Is it as good as “The Finishing Touch” and that other laughable affair in which they were washing machine salesmen? No, not quite as good. But even when this pair is offered an average assortment of gags they give vent to humor far above the ordinary comics”.
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