In May 1928, Mr and Mrs Hal Roach, the intrepid explorers, returned from their worldwide tour. Their global adventure seemed to have been a great success; the Roach’s had saved their marriage, the studio hadn’t fallen apart in the boss’ absence, and now it was time to head back to Culver City. From New York, the home leg of Roach’s journey went first to Chicago, before the three-day trans-continental rail trip to California. A photographer from the Exhibitor’s Herald World snapped the couple upon their arrival in Chicago; then, at the termination of their trip, they were photographed for Motion Picture News, being welcomed back to tinsel town by a posse of little rascals from the Our Gang comedies.
Back at the studio, Roach arrived to find the Laurel and Hardy unit busy filming their latest picture, Early to Bed. Although a photo in Screenland proves that newly signed-up star, Marian Byron visited the boys on set, she does not appear in the picture, and neither, for that matter, does anyone else. Early to Bed is one of those very rare films in which Stan and Babe are the only actors on screen throughout the entire film; the only other picture equally devoid of any supporting cast being 1930’s Brats.
The absence of supporting players is not the only reason that Early to Bed is distinct from the rest of the Laurel and Hardy canon. The picture has a very mixed reputation and is arguably one of, if not the most divisive of the boys’ films—the main reason for this being the abandonment of the established Stan and Ollie characters.
The opening scene is pretty standard fare and places the viewer in comfortably familiar territory. We find the boys sitting on a park bench
with their dog Buster. Stan has a perfectly vacant expression – the lights are on, but nobody’s home. Ollie opens a letter that reveals he has inherited his late uncle’s fortune and is now rich. Stan is happy for his friend but quickly bursts into tears, wondering what will become of him now that his friend is off to live a new life. Ollie shows concern, gives it some thought, and happily declares that he will take Stan to be his butler. This is a lovely demonstration of the Stan and Ollie relationship, but from here, the picture goes in a completely new direction.
The rest of the film sees subservient butler Stan trying to get his drunken employer, Ollie, to bed at 3 am, following a boozy night out on the town, and this is where many fans’ opinions begin to split.
Firstly, there is the issue of the sudden change in the boys’ relationship. Ollie has appointed Stan as his butler to keep the friendship together, but now Stan has become deferential, addressing Ollie as ‘Sir,’ which doesn’t feel right.
Ollie’s drunken behaviour towards Stan is also difficult to accept. It begins reasonably playfully at the door, as Ollie plays a practical joke on Stan and shuts him out, but it quickly falls into very tiresome and cruel and continued bullying of his long-time friend. Although it’s all done in drunken jest, it is in contrast to a standard Laurel-Hardy comedy. Usually, Stan would eventually get his own back with a poke in the eye or a kick in the shin, or Ollie would fall foul of his own conceitedness and topple from his high horse. This always restored the balance, ensuring that neither man had the upper hand or a higher status than the other. Sadly, there is no such equality for Mr Laurel here.
Stan knows his place, and Ollie abuses his position as Stan’s superior. Ultimately, after many cruel pranks and incidents, Stan breaks down into tears. However, this is not the confused and childish cry that we are familiar with; this feels different. This is the cry of a friend whose will and heart have been broken.
Arguably, the lowlight of the film is when, after having been woken from sleep by Ollie creeping into his bedroom and emptying a pitcher of cold water onto him, Stan declares that he resigns and will leave in the morning. Ollie’s drunken merriness instantly changes here, and his face straightens as he tells Stan with some malice, “You can’t leave – I won’t let you–!. Babe leaves and slams the door behind him. This exchange couldn’t be further from Laurel and Hardy.
The following morning, Ollie laughs in Stan’s face when he’s presented with Stan’s bill for services rendered, and it is some relief when Stan finally sees red. Having taken as much as he can stand, Stan runs amock throughout Ollie’s palatial home, breaking everything he can lay his hands on.
One gag that is worthy of mention is the finale. Ollie hides from Stan in a vast ornamental water fountain adorned with stone facsimiles of Ollie’s head. Each head is spurting water into the pool below, and Ollie replaces one of these heads with his own, taking mouthfuls of water and spitting it out. Stan is baffled by this, and when Ollie runs out of water, he continually bangs him on the head to start the flow again. Eventually, Ollie breaks and begins laughing at the silliness of it all. Notable commentator William K. Everson considered this “one of the most captivating routines they ever did.”[i]
It’s undoubtedly an elaborate gag, but not an original one. The gag first appeared in another Roach comedy, 1927’s, Should Men Walk Home, starring Mabel Normand and featuring Babe Hardy in a supporting role.
The original scripted ending had the dog also hiding in the fountain, his head next to Ollie’s, equally terrified of Stan’s rage. Stan spots Ollie hiding and spitting water in the fountain and hits him over the head with a tomahawk, knocking him unconscious. The script has Stan dragging Ollie upstairs and unwittingly out of an open window – fade to black.[ii]
The finale that made it into theatres ended with Ollie offering the hand of friendship to Stan, saying, “-Let’s forgive and forget – and be pals again–.” Stan submits, smiles, and shakes hands, but Ollie pushes him backwards into the water, laughing uproariously.
So, the question one might raise is how did the boys come to steer so far off course in this picture. Since the official pairing of Stan and Babe in the Second 100 Years, the boys had been developing and honing the Stan and Ollie characters, and a successful formula had organically emerged – so, why change it? A few possible reasons or causes could be considered.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, a completely new director, Emmett J. Flynn, was brought in to take the helm. Flynn certainly had a decent reputation, with an article in Moving Picture World, 18th September 1926 describing him as “One of Hollywood’s best-known directors,” however, his previous work mainly consisted of westerns and costume dramas, with not a single comedy in sight. Hal Roach must have considered Flynn’s talents worthy of a prominent position in his studio, though, as an article in Variety, 30th May 1928 stated:
“Emmett Flynn is to direct a series of Stan Laurel and Babe Hardy comedies for Hal Roach…”
In addition, Motion Picture News, 16th June 1928, ran an article entitled, “Roach Studio Staff For New Season Complete,” attaching newly signed Flynn’s name to the directorial team on Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, and Max Davidson comedies.
It’s clear, therefore, that the director’s involvement with Laurel and Hardy’s latest picture was not intended to be a one-off. Still, in actuality, it turned out to be the only film Emmett Flynn would direct for the Roach Studio. Perhaps, the following article, featured in Picture-Play Magazine, May 1928, offers the likely reason why his tenure on the ‘Lot of Fun’ was so short-lived:
“A certain amount of ironic justice occasionally is meted out in Hollywood. A few years ago Emmett Flynn was one of the foremost directors in Hollywood, having made a reputation with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and his brother, Ray Flynn, was his assistant.
Emmett quickly won the reputation of being upstage and hard to get along with, though his brother was contrastingly obliging and agreeable. Consequently, it has afforded some satisfaction to a good many of their associates to witness the parallel careers of the brothers Flynn.
Emmett, since his last contract expired, has not worked in many months. His brother meanwhile, by industry and application, has become a director and is said to be advancing rapidly. Incidentally, he is a director of Fox pictures, the same organization which failed to renew his big brother’s last contract.”
It’s not hard to believe that a new director, projecting a superior attitude, who was not easy to get along with, would have struggled to integrate into the family atmosphere of the Roach Studio. Supporting this, there appears to have been problems within the crew during filming of Early to Bed, with Flynn replacing cinematographer Len Powers and his two assistants with George Stevens, Jack Roach, and E.L. White, six days into the eight-day shoot.[iii] Something was not right. Once filming concluded, Emmett Flynn exited stage left!
Whether Flynn was responsible for Laurel and Hardy’s complete change of direction in this film is unclear, as the initial story idea would have been developed, as usual, by Stan and the writing team. However, what is certain is that three weeks after Flynn washed his hands of the project, Leo McCarey brought the boys back for three days of reshoots.
Importantly, among the new footage added was the unscripted first scene with the boys on the park bench – arguably the only recognisable Laurel and Hardy moment in the entire picture. Randy Skretvedt also suggests that one final and notable McCarey alteration was likely the film’s conclusion.[iv] Having the boys begin the film as our two recognisable friends and then at the very end seeing them shaking hands and making up could well have been McCarey’s eleventh-hour attempt to salvage the film and maintain the established Laurel and Hardy ‘brand’. For many fans, though, it was too little, too late.
In terms of performances, Stan and Babe carry the film incredibly well. Babe’s performance is very convincing, and the change in character provides him with an opportunity to show off some different acting skills. It’s also quite pleasant to see Ollie looking much more dapper than usual, with his hair slicked back and sporting a blazer and straw boater.
If Hardy’s acting performance is convincing, so too is Stan’s. One can’t help but feel enormous sympathy for Laurel’s character, as his cries seem very heartfelt, and the sense of relief one feels when Stan finally retaliates and ends the friendship is considerable, proving just how far off the mark this film is.
That the film provokes this reaction is precisely why so many fans are turned off from this picture. Stan and Ollie’s relationship is one of Hollywood’s most unique and beautiful creations and is the reason that the popularity of their comedies remains consistently strong almost a hundred years after its creation. As Glenn Mitchell points out, the film’s mixed reputation “reflects the seriousness with which admirers take the team’s relationship.”[v]
However, not all fans feel negatively towards this picture. Author Charles Barr described Early to Bed as “their simplest film and one of their best[vi],” and William K. Everson said, “Although a lesser Laurel & Hardy, Early to Bed contains good gags, amusing titles, and an interesting variation on the usual relationship between them.[vii]”
Following the film’s original 1928 release, critics and exhibitors were also divided in their opinions:
“Laurel and Hardy have a fairly humorous picture in this one, which undoubtedly would have been better had the attempt not been made to cram it too full of comedy. It is just one knockabout episode after another, with some of them funny and others not so funny. Had the action been cut down to a little more moderate speed and some of the sillier sequences eliminated, the best of the gags would have registered better.” Motion Picture News, 28th July 1928
“Laurel and Hardy – well. That’s enough said. Exhibitors don’t need to be advised how good these babies can be. Here the two Hal Roach funsters have an extremely simple story to work with. Their material when boiled down really amounts to practically nothing. And yet they are funny, get the laughs and strengthen the thought that they are the best comedy team in present-day movies, whether shorts or features. It is all a matter of quality, gentlemen, both in Stan’s and Oliver’s performances, in the clever direction and the good tone of the material. Hardy shows he is a more adept comic than his companion in this one. Laurel seems limited to a vacuous expression and a cry-baby look of injured dignity. On the other hand, Hardy gives evidence of a real roysterer whose moods change rapidly, whose bag of facial expressions, gestures and general comical antics is fuller than Laurel’s. But both are good. Emphatically so. The story only has three characters, the amiable pair and their dog. But it carries an impressive veneer of humor and easily deserves the recommendation: “Good for any house.”” Motion Picture News, 3rd November 1928
“This should rate as a novelty since these two big time comedians are the only ones in it. Already as expected, M G M has started to capitalize a good thing, but has also started to cheapen these productions. Better watch out or they’ll be rating with Stern Brothers”. Kenwood Theatre, Chicago in Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, 15th December 1928
“Not so good as the usual Laurel-Hardy. Perhaps because it was so dark-dark-DARK!” Screenland Theatre, Nevada in Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, 29th December 1928
Even though the creative decisions behind the production of Early to Bed are now shrouded in the midsts of time, it was the last Laurel and Hardy film in which the boys detoured from their established Stan and Ollie characters. Indeed, Stan became very protective of their distinctive identities and did not want them to be diluted or altered in any way. For instance, he was very apprehensive about the suggestion that they should appear in comic operettas, in costumes other than their trademark derbies and suits, believing it would affect the public’s perception of their screen personas. He need not have worried.
If nothing else, Early to Bed is valuable for proving that the greatest and most endearing attribute that Laurel and Hardy possessed, and the thing that needed to be protected at all cost, was their relationship. It didn’t matter what they wore; all that mattered was that they were united. Two minds, without a single thought.