The movie world was changing. The development of sound recording technology to accompany motion pictures had been building for some time, with Thomas Edison beginning attempts to invent a reliable method as early as 1891. On both sides of the Atlantic, many others followed suit over the years that followed. With various degrees of success, the different systems devised and experimented with included Leon Gaumont’s Chronophone system around 1905 and the German-made, Synchrascope, imported to the U.S. by Carl Laemmle in 1908.[i]
The many teething problems these new and highly experimental technologies faced resulted in the public considering them as nothing more than amusing and sometimes annoying sideshows. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, around 1926, that audiences and the industry as a whole began to sit up and take notice.
Warner Brothers were the early trailblazers to harness and utilise sound recording technology. Their steady stream of Vitaphone shorts, featuring mostly singers and comics direct from vaudeville, began appearing in the latter part of 1926.[ii] The major game-changer came the following year with Warner’s release and “aggressive marketing” of The Jazz Singer.[iii] The Jazz Singer’s impact was such that Warner Brothers went from being a relatively minor studio to one of the leading players in Hollywood almost overnight. Any studio executives still resisting the sound revolution, over concerns about the popularity and long-term prospects of the ‘talkies’, had their resolve broken due to this picture. Al Jolson’s mass appeal, combined with the patented Vitaphone sound process, convinced the public and the studios that the talkies were here to stay.
The Jazz Singer was not an ‘all-talkie’. Instead, it contained sections of spoken dialogue and Jolson’s renditions of songs such as Blue Skies and My Mammy, interspersed with silent sequences containing added sound effects and a background score. This back-and-forth, between silent and sound, not only highlighted the wonder of the spoken segments but, as author Scott Eyman expertly notes:
By producing a film that slides from sound to silence and back again, the Warner brothers will negatively emphasize silence. This sudden reversion to an abruptly passé convention is far more damaging to the traditions and values of silent cinema than any all-talkie could have been.[iv]
Despite the applause that followed The Jazz Singer’s successful release, the rest of Hollywood now had to decide not if but how to respond.
One of the most notable doubters of the sound revolution was Nick Schenck, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. M-G-M had rapidly become the biggest and most successful of all the movie studios, but they were eyeing the move away from silent pictures with doubt and some degree of suspicion.
Nick Schenck of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took the words right out of our mouth when he said that producers should be very careful in introducing sound effects on the screen. Right now the whole country is arguing pro and con over the talking movie. A straw vote in Hollywood seems to register an even break. Sound effects will be accepted – if they are legitimate, but already some are starting in to fake certain sounds. That is well where the rub will come. The combining of two mechanical devices such as the movie machine and the talking apparatus only one thing can result – mechanical entertainment! Los Angeles Evening Post, June 9, 1928
As their film distributor, the Hal Roach studios worked closely with M-G-M, and Hal Roach likely paid close attention to what his large, conspicuous neighbours were doing and saying concerning their plans for sound pictures. Not surprisingly, Roach’s and M-G-M’s movements into this new era were very similar.
An initial toe-dipping attempt had been made with the early April 1928 release of Our Gang’s Barnum and Ringling Inc, making it the first picture to be produced by the Roach studio with a synchronised music and effects track. The film’s surviving original soundtrack features “a host of unimaginative animal noises and occasional bursts of cheers and applause from the kiddie crowds”. [v] Uninspiring, perhaps, but at least it was a start.
Despite this springtime foray into the world of sound, it wasn’t until the autumn of 1928 that the Hal Roach Studios finally nailed their colours to the mast. The studio’s report to stockholders, dated August 31, 1928, announced:
The last few months has [sic] witnessed the advent of another element in the production field; that is, the talking or sound pictures. It is, of course, difficult to foretell what the eventual outcome of talking pictures will be or the eventual form they will assume. One thing is certain, however, that is that they are at the present time an element in the amusement field apparently having a definite appeal to the public, and properly handled, it promises to be a great addition to the entertainment value of pictures and a great aid to the producer in building up interest in the picture intended. The company has placed itself in a position to gain by any and all new methods and devices introduced in the field and is party to a contract with the Western Electric subsidiaries handling the sound effects prepared and manufactured by the Victor Talking Machine Company in collaboration with the Distributor and this company. Developments in the sound field are carefully watched and its entertainment and box office value will be fully availed of. [vi]
The following day, this same news was confirmed to the broader industry in Motion Picture News:
Decision has finally been made with regard to sound in Hal Roach comedies. M-G-M announces that thirty-five out of forty Roach productions on the schedule for the coming year will be synchronised…Discussing sound pictures Hal Roach said: “The art of pantomime is as old as amusement itself and there isn’t the slightest chance that dialogue ever will entirely displace pantomime on the screen. Dialogue can’t possibly take the place of pantomime in causing laughs.
There is no doubt, however, that sound synchronisation of the score will be a great help to comedy subjects. I should say that it will increase the amusement possibilities of a comedy from 10 to 20 percent to have proper musical accompaniment. Proper orchestration, to my mind, is the biggest addition to the movies by the sound effects.
Sound effects in pictures are going to find a definite niche in the market. There is no doubt about that.” Motion Picture News, September 1, 1928
After much thought and multiple research trips to New York, Roach and his executives decided to begin their sonic adventures cautiously by only adding synchronised music and sound effects to their silent pictures.
In an interview with The New York Times, Roach admitted, “It’s easy to imagine the variety of humorous and farcical effects possible for a sound comedy”.[vii] The first Laurel and Hardy picture to receive this treatment was Habeas Corpus. Filmed from mid-July to the beginning of August 1928, the picture is essentially a scare-comedy. Horror stories and tales of the macabre were popular with theatre audiences, with actors such as Lon Chaney becoming famous and arguably typecast[viii] in such roles as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).[ix] It has long been understood that scariness and silliness are compatible bedfellows. The horror-comedy genre became popular during the early 1920s, primarily through Harold Lloyd’s films such as Haunted Spooks (1920), I Do (1921) and Dr Jack (1922) and Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House (1921).[x] Stan and Babe had dabbled in the genre the previous year in Do Detectives Think? The hapless detectives give themselves the jitters by sneaking into a windy graveyard in the dead of night to recover their blown-off hats from the wrong side of the gates. It’s no exaggeration to say that Habeas Corpus borrows the essence of that sequence and extends it to fill two reels.
The boys are cast as down and outs and arrive at the door of a stereotypically ‘nutty professor’ to beg for food. The Professor, played by Richard Carle, invites them in and offers to pay them $500 to assist him with his latest experiment. They must successfully exhume and deliver a corpse from the local graveyard. Although surprised and somewhat perturbed, the boys’ desperate situation forces them to agree.
The Professor’s plans are overheard by his butler, played by Birmingham-born Charlie Rogers. Another graduate of the Fred Karno troupe and a close friend of Stan Laurel, Rogers makes his second of two back-to-back appearances here with the boys. However, the butler is not all he appears to be! It becomes evident that Rogers is undercover Detective Ledoux, and he sneaks a call to police Headquarters requesting backup. Shortly after Stan and Ollie have left the house, tailed by Ledoux, the cops arrive and arrest the Professor, who leaves the house dancing a merry dance – the film’s attempt at confirming his insanity to the audience.
Completely unaware of this development, the boys make their way to the graveyard to complete their dastardly deed. The picture’s first notable gag is as the boys try to find out which direction to take, and Stan spots a signpost and suggests they read the sign. He places his hands on the post and goes to climb it, but Ollie pushes him aside and clambers up himself. Stan assists his partner in crime by pushing Hardy’s ample posterior. Once at the top of the post, Ollie comes face-to-face with a sign that reads ‘Wet Paint’. After a couple of trademark camera looks, Ollie descends the post. Once down, Ollie turns to Stan and reveals a vast, pole-shaped stripe of white paint down the front of his clothes and sleeves and Stan’s big white hand-prints on the seat of his trousers.[xi] This same gag, minus the hand-prints, would be re-used sixteen years later in their 20th Century Fox feature film, The Big Noise (1944).
Whilst the gag is funny, it is one of those gags that is entirely nonsensical when considered rationally. Why would one need to climb a directional signpost to read it? After all, the very purpose of a signpost is for it to be readable from the road! This serves as a reminder that it doesn’t pay to think too deeply about the validity of situations in two-reel comedies. If it’s funny, then it’s funny, and that’s all that matters.
They arrive at their destination, and Ollie sends Stan into the graveyard to do the digging whilst he bravely keeps watch from the street. Detective Ledoux, wrapped in a white bedsheet, is keeping a close eye on the boys from strategic hiding positions, and a very nervy and wobbly Stan is frightened to death when Ledoux fails to stifle a sneeze. Terrified, Stan runs out to Ollie, who also jumps out of his skin. After a brief hat-swapping routine, Ollie forces Stan back inside, and he finally begins to shovel some dirt. However, he is spotted in the act by a night-watchman who begins to make his way over to Stan to intervene, but he trips over the crawling figure of Detective Ledoux, still wrapped in the bedsheet. The commotion causes Stan to again run for his life, as does the watchman, who locks the graveyard’s gates behind him.
Now the boys must find another way of entering the cemetery. This leads to a second stand-out moment of the film in which Ollie tries to assist Stan in scaling the graveyard wall. The boys get a good few minutes worth of comedy out of this one situation, and the sequence is arguably a blueprint for a similar scene in 1929’s Berth Marks, the boys’ second talkie, where Ollie attempts to help Stan climb into their train berth. This is good Laurel and Hardy slapstick and laugh-out-loud funny. However, not everyone admires the scene, with film historian Glenn Mitchell describing it as “a “particularly frustrating sequence” and “far too long”.[xii]
An excellent twist follows as Stan, back digging out the grave, is spooked again. He leaps over the wall and back onto the street in a single superhuman bounce. Frustrated at Stan’s cowardice, Ollie declares that he will complete the task himself and takes a running jump at the wall. His weight hilariously makes the wall collapse under him, and he lands in a pile of bricks inside the graveyard. Amazingly, he sustains only a minor injury to one of his feet.
Another great gag follows, whereby Ollie, still sitting on the ground, removes his shoe to tend to his damaged foot. His socks are so torn that his two biggest toes are completely visible. As Ollie keeps watch, Stan digs out the grave and unwittingly covers Ollie’s leg and foot. Ollie starts wiggling his toes under the dirt, and Stan spots the movement and mistakes the toes for a mystery hand. He pats Ollie and points out the zombie-like hand emerging from the earth, much to Ollie’s amazement. Ollie quickly grabs the shovel and smashes it down on top of his own foot. Yet again, this is another of those unrealistic gags, but it is delightful, and the boys’ terrified reactions add wonderfully to the comedy. The boys would revive this gag in their 1934 short, Oliver the Eighth, but on that occasion, rather than reaching for a spade, Ollie tells Stan to “Get that gun and shoot to kill!”.
A final noteworthy scene leads to the film’s finale. The boys finally exhume what they believe to be a corpse, but the dead body in the sack is that of the very much alive Detective Ledoux. Stan carries the body in a sack, slung over his back. As he lugs their bounty down the street, Ledoux’s legs burst out of the bottom, and he begins to walk in step right behind Stan. This gag is not a new invention but had been recycled from earlier Roach comedies, Moonlight and Noses (1925), directed by Stan Laurel and starring Clyde Cook and Max Davidson’s Dumb Daddies (1928). Still, even so, it works here and makes for an enjoyable scene.
Charlie Rogers’ Ledoux character has some fun with the grave robbers as they attempt to casually make their way back to the Professor’s home to collect their non-existent reward. The picture closes with Ollie running frantically down the street, followed by Stan and his self-propelled sack. Ollie and Ledoux fall into an enormous roadside puddle (à la Putting Pants on Philip) whilst Stan watches on. Their terror continues as Ledoux’s cloth-covered head appears from the murky depths and Stan and Ollie run for their lives. THE END.
Re-takes for Habeas Corpus wrapped at the beginning of August 1928. In October, Roach sent his Head of Film Editing, Richard Currier, to the Camden, New Jersey studios of the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was tasked with creating and recording music and sound effects tracks for Habeas Corpus and several other of Roach’s silent pictures that had been completed and shelved. This was a steep learning curve for all involved. Currier had to learn the art of sound recording from scratch. From the outset, the Victor musicians admitted their ignorance about movie-making, so they left the selection of appropriate music for each picture to Currier. Once selected, the musicians would then go away and record it, leaving Currier to create and record, mainly through trial and error, realistic sound effects. [xiii]
As one might expect, the experimental nature of the sound effects track for Habeas Corpus makes it relatively limited in its scope. It primarily consists of knocking and clicking noises and what sounds like the occasional slide whistle thrown in to represent an eerie wind blowing across the graveyard. Some of the more convincing highlights of the effects track are Stan and Charlie Rogers’ handclaps, which synchronize pretty well and the sound of the wall collapsing under Hardy’s weight, which explodes with a burst of noise.
One particular yet sadly unidentified exhibitor explicitly praised the soundtrack, reviewing it thus:
Fair comedy with some good music on record and good sound effects, making it better entertain – Neighborhood patronage in Exhibitors Herald World, November 23, 1929
Stan Laurel appears to have regarded the comedy as a success. In a letter to correspondent Bill Brown, dated December 1, 1961, Stan described the film as:
“…about a nutty professor who hired us to go to a graveyard & dig up a corpse, he was making an experiment to bring the body back to life. It was really a funny short even tho’ the idea was gruesome. – was’nt as bad as it sounds, we never accomplished our mission.!”
In the main, the 1928/1929 movie-going public and critics agreed with Stan. Reviewer George J. Reddy wrote:
Merry Proceedings, a fine splurge of laughs which scud through its length, an accelerated pace, this Hal Roach starring vehicle for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, delivers in splendid fashion. The “corpus” of the title supplies a theme that is fittingly taken advantage of with plenty of guffaws resulting. Here the word is not used as in law, but refers rather to the nefarious trade of those who steal into graveyards at night to rob the earth of the dead. Motion Picture News, January 12, 1929
Likewise, exhibitors and theatre owners were equally pleased with the service Stan and Babe were providing to their patrons:
A knockout. This saved the show for me. Had them doubled up with laughter. How do these boys keep it up? Central Theatre, Selkirk, Manitoba in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World, December 29, 1928
O, wow, I’m laughing yet! What these boys don’t do to your funny bone! Had the house in an uproar all the way through. They start laughing just as soon as they see “Laurel and Hardy” on the screen. Print and photography fair. Screenland Theatre, Nevada, Ohio in Exhibitor’s Herald World, February 23, 1929
Not their best, but you wouldn’t believe it when you hear the laughs. Our public is sold on Laurel and Hardy. Egyptian Theatre, Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania in Exhibitor’s Herald World, March 2, 1929
Proving that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, one exhibitor was less than impressed with Habeas Corpus. Although, the comments perhaps say more about small-town sensibilities than it does about the picture:
We could never see any excuse for using a cemetery as a background for a comedy. This is one place that should be held sacred and not used for laughing purposes. We noticed it put a damper on most of our folks, and know it did on us. Majestic Theatre, Weiner, Arkansas in Exhibitor’s Herald World, August 8, 1929
The one unquestionable indicator that proves whether a comedy is successful or not surely has to be laughter. Despite disapproval by the Weiner residents, the rest of the extant reviews indicate that Habeas Corpus was a tremendous success. Indeed, the following article, featured in the Los Angeles Times, suggests that the film generated more laughs in its two reels than in any other of the first forty-one pictures made by the boys at the Hal Roach Studios.
The highest total of laughs in any one Laurel-Hardy comedy was reached during a clocking of “Habeas Corpus,” the action of which took place largely in a graveyard. One hundred and twenty-eight unmistakeable cachinnations were registered by this one. One hundred and three is the total made by “Night Owls,” currently on view at the Chinese Theater.” The Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1929
[vi] Annual report of the directors to the stockholders of Hal Roach Studios, August 31, 1928, USC, Hal Roach Studios, Hollywood Museum Collection, general 1928 file, in Ward, Richard Lewis, A History of the Hal Roach Studios, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006
[xi] A somewhat inexplicable continuity error is observable in Habeas Corpus. At the very start of the film we see Stan’s hand about to knock on the professor’s door, but his hand is delicately flicked away by Hardy’s fingers. The white paint stripe from the freshly-painted post is clearly visible on Ollie’s sleeve, yet the post climbing doesn’t happen until after they leave the Professor’s house.