As the filming of Habeas Corpus was coming to a close, Hal Roach was still fretting over which way to turn, or perhaps more accurately, how far to turn, in relation to the new craze for sound pictures. He had determined to move forward and embrace the new technologies, but it was with reluctance and much scepticism. During an interview with the prominent and influential trade paper Motion Picture News, Roach’s uncertainty was more than a little evident:
“Mr. Roach…is in New York at the M-G-M offices for a series of conferences and the “talkie” situation is giving him no end of trouble…
“I’m just not sure what I am going to do,” said the short comedy producer, “but we will have to have some sound in our comedies. Just how far we will go with it I don’t know yet. I don’t see where much dialogue fits into the short comedy and I doubt if we will inject many lines, but I guess we will at least have to let the movie going public hear the voices of our comedians if it is only to have each of them read a line.”
“Sound and dialogue are all right for the feature picture. I can see where a sound effect here and a few lines of dialogue there might give considerable strength to a long picture, but I am fearful that it will slow up the short comedy in which speed is one of our main assets… Our main aim is to get in just one more laugh and the only result I can see if we make our comedians stop to talk is a general slowing up of the process”.
“It is a different thing in a short comedy sketch on the stage. There the laughs can be timed. A comedian can wait until the mirth of the audience has subsided and the longer he has to wait the funnier his stuff goes over. He can regulate his speed to suit any audience, but it is not yet clear to me how that can be done with the short screen comedy.”
“You might say you can leave certain pauses for your laughs on the screen, but that is impossible… A laugh might last a second or for minutes. What is going to happen in the midst of these laughs if the comedian bursts into dialogue. The audience is going to be afraid of missing the lines and must stop the laughter abruptly. If this is not done some of the patrons are going to be annoyed and once annoyed it is going to be a more difficult matter to wring laughs out of them …”
“Those are some of the things we are going to have to overcome when we turn to sound in our short comedies. Of course we will find ways and means of doing it, but it is going to take a lot of patience and a lot of thought. We really had reached a point where the short comedy had arrived and our sales are about thirty per cent in advance of what they have been in the past at this time of year. We will have to use sound, of course, but I wish it had been delayed a while longer at least… However, you can be sure of this; we will give them the best comedies to be had, whether we employ sound or not.” Motion Picture News, August 4, 1928
Despite his apparent uncertainty, the man’s usual bullish character emerges in the piece’s final paragraph. Mr Roach may have been entering unchartered territory and feeling something akin to a fish out of water – a sensation possibly unfamiliar to him, having been confidently at the top of his game for many years. However, his determination to be the best was still what drove him on. He would not allow himself to be cowed by uncertainty or new technology. Hal Roach embraced change and was forever looking forward to the next challenge. If he wasn’t an expert in a particular field and needed to be, he either became one or employed one. This attitude and approach and the example he set to all those around him ensured that the Hal Roach Studios would not falter nor be left behind in the wake of the sound revolution. Unaccustomed as they may have been, they adapted, they learned, and they excelled.
For the Laurel and Hardy unit, Habeas Corpus was a very competent first attempt at sound synchronisation. The picture’s ghoulish nature lent itself perfectly to a suitably macabre and characterful soundtrack, and for the few thousand theatres equipped to play the score in 1928, it went down a storm. For the boys’ follow-up comedy, the studio would employ similar tactics, carefully selecting music tracks from popular and recognisable tunes of the day to fit perfectly with the theme of the on-screen action. Not only was the music suitable, but for those in the audience who knew the songs, the music would become laughter-provoking in its own right.
In the same mould as Their Purple Moment and Should Married Men Go Home?, We Faw Down returned to the theme of Stan and Ollie attempting to escape from their wives to enjoy a bit of playtime. Just as Laurel and Hardy’s 1927 silent short Hats Off! was the genesis of their 1932 talkie The Music Box, We Faw Down has the bragging rights of being the inspiration for one of the boys’ best-loved feature films, Sons of the Desert.
Film historian Glenn Mitchell asserts that the original idea for the picture may have been supplied by Babe Hardy, who had overheard his laundress telling a similar story as gossip. However, William K. Everson asserts that the plot line wasn’t an original concept of the Roach team. Everson claims that a Mack Sennett comedy, Ambrose’s First Falsehood, released in 1914, starring Mack Swain and featuring Edgar Kennedy and Charles Parrott (aka Charley Chase), has an uncannily similar storyline and likely served as the source of the material.  Swain leaves his devoted wife, informing her that he is catching a train to San Fransisco. In reality, his intended destination is Kennedy’s bar, along with his friend Charles Parrott for company. Later his wife reads a newspaper report that the San Fransisco train she believed her husband to be on had crashed, killing all the passengers.
If Kennedy and Parrott’s connections weren’t proof enough that the story idea could have been generated at the Sennett studio, the film’s director was none other than F. Richard Jones. Jones left Sennett in 1921 to become the production supervisor at the Hal Roach Studios. He worked very closely with Stan Laurel and greatly influenced him, coaching Stan on the art of film direction. Jones’s story ideas may still have been echoing around the Lot of Fun long after his departure in 1927.
In We Faw Down, we find Stan and Ollie desperate to escape their incredibly stern wives, played by Bess Flowers and Vivien Oakland. This was Flowers’ first and arguably most notable appearance with the boys; although she does turn up in several later films, but blink, and you’ll miss her. The prize for sternest wife in this picture easily goes to Mrs Hardy, played by Vivien Oakland. Oakland first joined the boys on screen playing Stan’s wife, Mrs Ricketts, in 1927’s Love ‘Em and Weep. Although she is remembered more for later roles in films such as Scram and Way Out West, she cuts a formidable and frightening figure here, and her frosty glares at Ollie are enough to freeze water.
The boys are scheming a way out of the house for an afternoon of poker at their men’s club. There are some wonderfully contrasting facial expressions in the first few shots, from the unamused and suspecting wives in one room and the plotting husbands in another.
After pretending they’ve received a telephone call from “their boss”, a gag that would reappear in Their First Mistake, they inform their wives that they’ve been requested to attend a work meeting at the Orpheum Theatre. Stan and Babe nervously excuse themselves, engaging in a quick hat mix-up to the background score of “Where Did You Get That Hat?” They make their way out of the door, hilariously tripping over a small box hedge as they go. Never have two men looked more suspicious!
In town, the boys become innocently yet swiftly embroiled with a couple of women, played by Vera White and Kay Deslys. Deslys plays the girlfriend of ‘One-Round Kelly’, a boxer with a face that could stop a clock. Her hat blows off her head and lands under a parked car, just as our heroes walk past. Being the gentlemen they are, Stan and Ollie attempt to retrieve the hat, falling flat on their faces in the gutter and getting soaked by a passing street sweeper. Feeling sorry for them, the girls invite them back to their place to dry their clothes.
We cut to the inside of the girls’ apartment, and Stan, Ollie and their two new associates are sitting around the table drinking. The boys are wearing dressing gowns, and everybody is getting tipsy. Kay Deslys takes a shine to Stan and starts playfully toying with him. First, she scratches his head, ruffles his hair, and then presses his nose, causing his eyebrow to rise in automatic response. Next, she prods him in the throat, which bizarrely makes his tongue shoot out. This causes Deslys much hilarity, and she now can’t stop scratching, pressing and poking, which upsets Stan more and more. Ollie encourages him, saying he should be ‘bohemian’ and “make whoopee”. Stan finally gives in and tries to enjoy himself, but his naive idea of making whoopee is to shove Deslys physically off her chair multiple times. During this sequence, Richard Currier’s sound effects track comes into its own. A sound of scratching accompanies Deslys’s assaults on Stan’s head, followed by clockwork noises whenever Stan’s nose is pressed or his eyebrows rise. Perhaps the most important, or at least noteworthy effect, however, is the added laughter. The sound of a woman and man laughing accompanies Kay Deslys’ and Ollie’s laughter. These are the first human voices ever heard in a Laurel and Hardy picture, and although they may not belong to the actors themselves, the synchronised laughter is highly effective and must have been a wonder to the 1928 audience. So effective are these sequences that it’s easy to become lost in the action and forget it is a silent picture. One can imagine the success of this scene providing much-needed assurance and inspiration to the Roach technical team and Hal Roach himself as to what could be possible with future sound synchronisation in their comedies.
Meanwhile, as the husbands are hard at play, a fatal disaster occurs, unbeknown to the boys. The Orpheum Theatre, the destination used in their cover story, burns down, and the film cuts to some beautiful footage of a vintage, horse-drawn fire engine, charging hell for leather down the street, apparently on its way to the burning theatre. This event, naturally, makes the newspaper headlines, and the newspaper makes its way into the hands of the waiting wives! Frantic, they run from the house, hoping their husbands are safe.
Back at the apartment, Deslys’s boyfriend, nick-named ‘One-Round Kelly’ and played by the terrifying-looking George Kotsonaros, walks in and discovers the two undressed men frolicking around with his girls! He becomes immediately jealous and pulls out an enormous knife. The boys panic and lock themselves in an adjoining room. They quickly start to pull their clothes on and, still in a state of undress, they scramble out of the first-floor window. As bad luck would have it, their wives just happen to be passing by at that precise moment, and they witness the half-dressed escapees dropping from the window, assisted by a strange woman. Rather than confronting them there and then, the wives run home and wait for the dirty rats to return.
Following their brush with death, Stan and Ollie return home. “Don’t forget! – We went to the Orpheum,” Ollie reminds Stan, followed by another synchronised laugh. The boys are utterly unaware that their cover story has already been blown. Not only had the Orpheum burned down, but worse still, the worried wives had quite literally spotted them with their trousers down. Once inside, Ollie launches into a description of how great the show was at the Orpheum. Of course, the wives aren’t buying it, and Ollie quickly realises there’s a problem. The boys try to front it out and stick to their stories, with Ollie attempting to appear incensed that his honesty could be called into question.
Intent on putting her husband through the wringer and with murderous looks, Mrs Hardy forces him to tell them about their afternoon’s entertainment. Thoroughly committed to his story, Ollie begins to re-enact the fictitious show. Stan positions himself behind the ladies, out of their line of vision, and grabs the newspaper. He finds the relevant advert for the Orpheum show and tries to mime the various acts on the bill to Ollie in a game of high-stakes charades. There are some funny moments here as Ollie misinterprets Stan’s mimes; the Russian and Hawaiian dancing is particularly amusing!
Eventually, Stan spots an article detailing the Orpheum’s fate, and George Stevens’ camera focuses on Stan’s reactions. Here we see his glorious double-take at the headline and his blank looks as he struggles to process and believe what he’s reading. It turns to distress, and he begins to cry, but then just as quickly stops to re-read the headline and try to work it out all over again. This is arguably another example of director Leo McCarey’s influence at work. Just as in Their Purple Moment, when Stan discovers his cash has been swapped for cigar coupons, the film’s pace is slowed to a crawl to allow the audience to savour these wonderful reactions. It’s a technique that would be used and relied upon repeatedly in countless films, quickly becoming one of Stan’s trademark routines. Finally, Stan holds the newspaper up for Ollie to read the headline, and the game is up.
As Ollie tries to find a way to alter his story and smooth things over, the preposterous nature of the whole scene is too much for Stan to bear, and he is unable to stop himself from laughing hysterically (complete with more synchronised laughter). Ollie tries to silence him, understanding how inappropriate laughter and frivolity would be at that moment, but the laughter is infectious, and Ollie begins to laugh too. The final straw comes as the doorbell rings and reveals one of the girls from the apartment returning Ollie’s waistcoat, saying – “Here’s your vest, Big Boy –“
They are immediately chased out of the door by a furious Mrs Hardy (Oakland), brandishing a shotgun. The boys flee through an alleyway between two apartment buildings, with the wives in hot pursuit. As Mrs Hardy empties both gun barrels, about a dozen half-dressed, presumably adulterous men leap out of first and second-floor windows and run for their lives. This finale gag is terrific and much better than its re-creation ten years later for the finale of the feature-length, Block-Heads.
The scene, shot on location at 2910 W.8th Street in Los Angeles, was recalled with great affection and amusement by director Leo McCarey.
One of the funniest things that could ever happen – it’s the funniest thing that happened in my entire life, and I don’t see how anything could happen any funnier in anybody’s life, happened when all the men jumped out of the windows.
There must have been five thousand people gathered around to watch us shoot…Before I shot the scene – I didn’t want anybody to get hurt, and we had stunt men jumping from the second floor – through a megaphone, I explained to everybody we had to get it right the first time. There would be only one take on account of the danger of injury. Everybody listened attentively and I said, “When you jump out of the windows in various states of undress, you run away from the camera and disappear in the alley in back.” Everybody said they understood. So came the big moment. I started the camera and called Stan and Babe. They came running in, the wives followed fifteen or twenty paces back and as they were going down between the buildings, the wives fired at them, the men all jumped out the window, everything’s going great and one foul-up jumped out the window, pulling on his pants, came running toward the camera and disappeared on the street side right next to the camera. And I bawled him out. I said, “What the hell do you mean by spoiling this scene? Didn’t you hear what I said?” The fellow said, “Hell, no. I’m not in this picture!”
Once photography and editing on We Faw Down had concluded, the film was still about ten minutes too long. To avoid negatively impacting the storyline, the only change the studio could make was to cut several sequences completely. The footage identified came after Stan and Ollie escaped from the girls’ apartment. The boys realise that they’d inadvertently put on each other’s trousers in their hurry to escape. The scrapped sequences consisted of them trying and failing to find a private place to swap trousers. The comedy derived from these situations was so funny, however, that it was not allowed to go to waste. Instead, they built a whole new film around it. The scrapped footage from We Faw Down became part of the first reel of their follow-up picture, Liberty. 
Arguably removing the trouser-swapping scenes took away the funniest and most slapstick gags of the entire picture and what’s left, while pleasant enough, lacks pace. Film historian William K. Everson described the picture as “Rather draggy and pedestrian”, and it’s hard to argue with that synopsis. In agreement, Randy Skretvedt stated that it is so slowly paced that the film’s musical score provides the only life. Yet, this is still a Laurel and Hardy comedy, and any true fan will find plenty to love about it.
Again, one needs to remember the context. Just as we judge Stan and Babe’s films against all the rest of their celebrated canon, contemporary audiences evidently compared the boys’ latest offerings against all that had come before. The following article, published before We Faw Down’s release, provides an interesting example and discusses the difference between the new picture and the one it followed:
“We’ve just seen a new Laurel-Hardy production entitled We Faw Down. And it has started a most interesting argument – one in which you will be interested.
The question is: Will it get more laughs from theatre audiences than result from showing Two Tars, its predecessor on the release schedule? We told you, at the time we first saw it, that Two Tars was the best two-reel comedy ever made. The production department now tells us that We Faw Down, in repeated preview tests in theatres, has scored more laughs than Two Tars.
The question is especially interesting from a production point of view. Most comedies are dependent for effects upon mechanical gags. In this sort of production, the differences in results are largely differences in the machinery which is provided for the comedians to work with. Two Tars is a perfect example of this type of production. Automobiles, and what happens to them under a variety of circumstances, furnish the basis of the fun. And the picture, as you should know by this time, is a scream.
We Faw Down is entirely lacking in mechanics. The players have absolutely nothing with which to work, except what they themselves create. Their actions and reactions under varying circumstances – in the main, their facial expressions – are the sole origin of laughs. Obviously, it takes real comedians to put over this sort of production… Was there ever a more sensational rise to stardom than that of America’s premier team of short feature comedians – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy… Class does tell.” The Film Daily, October 5, 1928
Not surprisingly, following its late December release, We Faw Down was met with very mixed reviews. In the red corner, these reviewers were very positive about the film:
“Comics de luxe, Laurel and Hardy add another funfest to their long list of laugh inducers. Clever in themselves, this new release sends the guffaw barometer up and up until a high point of hilarity is reached. A silent comedy originally, music and sound have been added. Better with sound, but still a whiz without it.” The Film Daily, November 11, 1928
“Here is one of the funniest short comedies ever heard or seen on the screen. It is a Hal Roach offering by M-G-M featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and it is done in sound but no dialogue. Only the laughter of the comedians is recorded [sic]. The action is hilarious and the sound effects ingeniously arranged…” Motion Picture News, December 1, 1928
“Genuinely Funny. What a funny team Laurel and Hardy continue to be… A synchronized score that is a pip goes with this, embellished with sound effects that enhance the comedy values. Nevertheless excellent in both sound and silent version. Leo McCarey directed and socked the bell midships.” The Film Daily, December 12, 1928
“The best and funniest comedy I have ever seen. If your crowd fails to laugh and go wild over this one, you might as well quit showing comedies. Many thought it worth the whole price of admission alone.” Star Theatre, Wendell, North Carolina in Exhibitors Herald World, September 21, 1929
Providing balance, over in the blue corner, the following exhibitors were less than impressed:
“We Faw Down: So does the comedy.” Texas Theatre, Grand Prairie, Texas in Exhibitors Herald World, March 2, 1929
“I think we expect too much from this great Laurel-Hardy team. This one just so-so.” Auditorium Theatre, Laurel, Nebraska in Exhibitors Herald World, March 30, 1929
“Not so good as some of the others. Not as much slapstick. However, it is good.” Sun Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri in Exhibitors Herald World, April 13, 1929
“According to reports I expected much of this, but found it a very poor comedy for this pair.” Star Theatre, Moscow Mills, Missouri in Exhibitors Herald World, June 1, 1929
Clearly, opinions on We Faw Down were very divided. On this point, it’s interesting to note that the picture marked the first time supervising director Leo McCarey officially took the directorial credits on a Laurel-Hardy picture. His fingerprints are all over many of the boys’ early comedies and are perhaps most apparent in the movies where the pacing is notably slower. McCarey had been hugely influential in Laurel and Hardy’s teaming and development, yet he is also prominently associated with some of the most divisive films in the team’s silent era. For example, he claimed to have taken sole responsibility for directing the controversial ‘crotch-measuring’ scene in Putting Pants on Philip, as no other crew member would do it, and he also stepped into the breach to direct the re-takes on the highly divisive short, Early to Bed. It seems McCarey did not shy away from being involved with the good, the bad or the ugly.
To listen to the Blogcast episode where I discuss this short with silent comedy expert Chris Seguin, click HERE
References – Click my affilitate links to purchase copies of the recommended texts