However one might feel about Early to Bed, the experience gained by the Roach Studio staff from making that picture must, arguably, have been one of learning. That Stan and Ollie’s relationship was never tinkered with in this way again and that the studio and Emmett Flynn, the film’s director, immediately parted ways despite their new, long-term contract surely indicates dissatisfaction with the director and possibly with the finished picture. It can perhaps come as no surprise then that the boys’ follow up short, Two Tars, was a resounding return to form and formula.
The ingredients that had ensured the success of all Laurel and Hardy pictures thus far had at its base, our two main protagonists, shoulder to shoulder, together against the world. Add in a good, heavy dose of reciprocal destruction, escalating into a carnival of mass carnage, and there was the perfect Laurel-Hardy comedy recipe for the silent era. With an undeniable reinstatement of these elements, Leo McCarey, with the help of Stan Laurel and the gag men, came up with a story, originally titled Two Tough Tars, that would become hailed by some as the best of Laurel and Hardy’s silent shorts, but the praise didn’t stop there. Others, including George Stevens, the renowned Hollywood director, who worked as the boys’ regular cameraman, described it as “one of the funniest comedies of all time”.[i]
Although the Two Tars that we know today runs for two reels, it appears to have been initially planned as a three-reeler. A number of the trade paper reviews and even the copyright notice state Two Tars as a three-reeler. The film’s script includes an opening sequence that features the boys on a boat engaged in a spot of sea-fishing. The scene revolves around Stan’s ineptitude to catch anything, whilst Ollie can’t help but succeed, even when his line falls in the water without bait. Ultimately, the penned scene ends disastrously when the boat sinks.[ii] There is no record that any of this was filmed, but existing still photos show discarded scenes with the boys at a shoe-shine stand and with a capuchin monkey. The monkey, Josephine, was dressed in a matching sailor suit and appears in several delightful stills with the boys, but sadly no film footage exists. However, Josephine, owned by Roach employee and animal trainer, Tony Campanaro, would make it onto the big screen with Harold Lloyd in The Kid Brother and Buster Keaton in The Cameraman. She is also rumoured to appear with Charlie Chaplin in The Circus and be inside the Mickey Mouse costume in Babes in Toyland – not a bad CV!
In Two Tars, Stan and Ollie are sailors from the Battleship Oregon returning to the U.S. from service in the far east. On shore leave, the boys are out to have some fun. The gags begin thick and fast, with driver Stan almost crashing their hire car into a streetlamp and the innocent pedestrian, Sam Lufkin. Ollie berates him and takes the wheel to give Stan a demonstration of his exemplary driving. In faithful Laurel and Hardy fashion, this ends badly as Ollie immediately smashes the front of the car into the very next streetlamp. The boys’ reactions are fantastic, with Ollie glancing at us down the camera and Stan frowning in disapproval. The large glass dome sitting atop the street light then topples off and smashes into pieces over Ollie’s head, much to Stan’s amusement and his wonderful smile beams widely.
After fleeing the scene, the boys pull in at the roadside and attract the attention of a couple of ladies, Thelma and Rubie, who are struggling to operate a gumball machine outside a store. There follows some lovely, childish flirting as the boys catch the eyes of the girls, played by Thelma Hill and Rubie Blaine. The embarrassed waves and smiles are hilarious in a very immature and pathetic sense, resembling children on a playground more than the romantic flirting of grown adults. It is, however, totally in character and perfect Laurel and Hardy humour.
To show off their rugged manliness, the heroic sailors rush to the girls’ aid and set to work on the gumball machine. After first getting his finger stuck in the contraption, Ollie gives it a vigorous shake causing the glass to shatter and the gumballs to spill out over the pavement. Stan and the girls jump into the car, leaving Ollie to stuff the now liberated gumballs down his shirt. Enter the annoyed shopkeeper, Charlie Hall.
This is Hall’s most notable appearance since playing the boys’ grumpy landlord in Leave ‘Em Laughing. Here in Two Tars, he cranks the surliness up a notch, and ‘the Little Menace’ has some great bits of business, easily getting the upper hand over Ollie. The girls tell Stan to go to Ollie’s aid, and Stan trots over to join the action, telling Charlie Hall, “You’re flirtin’ with death, son!”. Hall is unmoved, however, and punches Stan in the face. Stan slips over on the gumballs and repeatedly gets to his feet, takes swing after swing at the shopkeeper, but continues to slip on the rolling candy. The girls can’t take any more embarrassment, so they wade in to sort out the altercation themselves.
Ruby rolls up her sleeves, orders the boys back into the car and physically roughs up Charlie Hall. This physicality came naturally to Ruby Blaine, who certainly knew how to handle herself, having reputedly been a professional wrestler and an actress in comedies and westerns.[iii] The newly acquainted foursome drive off, leaving a dishevelled Charlie to his smashed gumball machine, a broken table and his shop front littered with candy.
These opening sequences make up less than half the total length of the picture, as their main purpose is to set up the traditional grand finale. As mentioned earlier, Two Tars reverted to a tried and tested formula, and as such, the climax was one of wanton and mass destruction. On this occasion, the gags were derived from the assault of vehicles rather than people.
Two Tars’ scenes of carnage take place on a country road, where, at the day’s end, the newly acquainted revellers are stopped in their tracks by a massive traffic jam. Not content to sit patiently at the back of the queue and, egged on by his fellow passengers, Ollie steers onto the opposite side of the road and drives past the standing vehicles. This action inspires several other motorists to follow suit, and there is very soon two lanes of stationary traffic. Most of the cars used for the traffic jam belonged to Roach studio staff, who’d been asked to bring their vehicles in to make up the numbers. In addition, ten more cars were explicitly purchased to be damaged and destroyed as part of the story.[iv]
Edgar Kennedy, sporting an uncharacteristic moustache, is in the car directly behind the boys and accidentally shunts our heroes’ car in the back. Not to be shown up in front of the ladies, Ollie returns the gesture and reverses into Kennedy’s radiator grill. This goes on backwards and forwards until more and more motorists start getting involved.
Fruit starts being thrown, hitting people other than the intended targets and thus dragging them into the fray. Headlamps are ripped off, windscreens smashed, tyres punctured, the list is endless – and this is hilarious stuff. The genius in these scenes is that time is afforded to every confrontation. With over half the film dedicated to this tit for tat ‘reciprocal destruction’, it doesn’t need to be rushed. Every attack can be savoured, and every assault avenged – with gusto! Each assault is considered and bespoke to the victim. Sometimes it’s intended and sometimes accidental, but the recipient is drawn into the melee either way.
Two Tars is the film debut for several employees at the Roach Studios. Thomas Benton Roberts was a prop man on the lot and responsible for much of the construction on the various Roach sets, including the breakaway cars used in Two Tars. He appeared in the picture as a tomato throwing motorist and has a particularly juicy one rubbed around his face by Stan.
As well as Roberts, it was also the first Laurel and Hardy film in which Harry Bernard and Stan’s good friend and future Laurel-Hardy director Charles Rogers appeared. Both gentlemen would appear in more comedies with the boys and become popular members of the Laurel and Hardy Stock Company.
Eventually, the destruction ends as a motorcycle cop appears and demands to know who started it all. About a hundred or so fingers point to Stan and Ollie, now sitting angelically back in their car. The boys are made to wait while the policeman clears the traffic jam. Each wrecked car slowly makes its way past the boys, who are chastised and waiting for their final punishment. However, as the boys see the procession of mangled vehicles coming past them, they can’t help but giggle with delight like naughty schoolboys until the cop looks over at them, and the laughter immediately stops. Eventually, the giggles become uncontrollable, which is the last straw for the cop. The boys drive away, but the cop cannot give chase because his motorcycle has been crushed under a truck. Several motorists, however, do pursue the boys, which leads to them all racing into a railway tunnel. Seconds later, we see the cars reversing out ahead of a huge steam locomotive. Our final image of Stan and Ollie is in their Model T, which has been squashed wafer-thin by the passing loco, gingerly making their way out of the tunnel. Fade to black.
Given how successful and popular Two Tars was and remains to this day, the decision to revert to the proven ‘Laurel-Hardy formula’ is seemingly beyond reproach. But, as this was the latest of many pictures employing the same finale device, one enlightened theatre operator, Stacy Osgood, from Kenwood Theatre, Chicago, Illinois, reviewing the picture in Exhibitors Herald World, 9th March 1929, stated:
“Metro’s comedies are good at present. They have a capital staff of gag men that is proceeding on a system or theory that gets every possible laugh, but the lack of variety is going to kill their comedies slow but sure…Good looking girls and photography make them class A. But what are they going to do when the folks get as tired of their construction as they did of the old Mack Sennett’s and Our Gangs?”
Indeed, agreeing with this view almost a decade later, notable expert and commentator Randy Skretvedt described the boys’ big endings as having been “done to death” by this point in their partnership.[vi]
Despite the concern over the ongoing repetition of picture construction, Two Tars was still received with much delight. Following its theatrical release, it was considered by many to be one of Laurel and Hardy’s funniest comedies yet:
“Stan Laurel and Ol Hardy, the greatest of all comedians of the time, will also be presented on the program with “Alibi”, giving additional entertainment value to Capital patrons. These masters of fun are to be offered in “Two Tars” and funny as have been some of their successes of the past, this is the zenith of their combined efforts to date”. Shamokin News Dispatch, 8th July 1928
“Stan and Oliver – Laurel and Hardy – in one of the funniest comedies in a couple of ages…The gags are great, and the laughs mount until practically continuous. Worth booking anywhere. Be sure to get it. It’ll knock your crowd stiff”. The Film Daily, 12th August 1928
“The fourth element, comedy, is furnished to the highest degree by those popular comedians, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, in “Two Tars.” It concerns the adventures of two tough gobs, and has been acclaimed by the press as “the funniest two-reel comedy ever produced.” Joplin Globe, 7th October 1928
“This is what you call real comedy. This is in all probability one of the best ever released. Playing with Clara Bow in “Three Weekends” and it created more comment than the feature”. Baby Grand Theatre, Winter Park, Florida in Exhibitors Herald World, 4th May 1929
Two Tars remains well respected by critics, commentators, and fans alike. Film historian, Glenn Mitchell, summarised it excellently:
“The civilised exchange of violence…is a motif recurrent in their films but seldom executed with the skill, variety and careful construction demonstrated here…Some consider it their greatest work”.[vii]
Historian and author, William K. Everson, waxed even more lyrical about the picture:
“Next to Big Business, which is better only because it is simpler, Two Tars is about the funniest and most representative of all Laurel and Hardy silents”.[viii]
Equally complimentary, John McCabe, the team’s groundbreaking biographer, heaped even more praise onto the comedy:
“Two Tars has peers among short film comedies; it is not likely to have a superior”.[ix]
Controversial biographer, Fred Lawrence Guiles, makes an even more fascinating point about Two Tars, which raises the film’s status even higher in the canon. He identified this picture as the precise moment when Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy became ‘superstars’, saying that with this picture, “They had moved without fanfare into the ranks of Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon and Keaton”.[x] This is praise indeed.
Stan and Babe had gone from being jobbing actors, jostling for position in an incredibly competitive industry, to being labelled “the greatest of all comedians of the time” and their latest picture as “the funniest two-reel comedy ever produced”.
[ii] Dorman, Trevor, Two Tars 3 Reel Script in The Laurel & Hardy Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 2, September, 2019