Shortly after filming wrapped on We Faw Down, Leo McCarey made news by signing James Horne to “a long-term contract to direct Hal Roach comedies.”[i] This was a significant recruitment for the studio, especially concerning Stan and Babe, as Horne would go on to direct some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comedies, such as Big Business and Way Out West[ii]. He was immediately involved as an uncredited director in Laurel and Hardy’s next picture, Liberty.
With a good amount of quality material filmed and subsequently discarded from We Faw Down, Stan, Leo McCarey, and their team of writers at the studio already had a solid start to their next project. The scenes of Stan and Ollie wearing each other’s trousers and attempting to swap back were edited out of the previous comedy purely because of the film’s length, but they were too good to remain on the cutting room floor. Their challenge, then, was to construct a story around them. Why were the boys wearing the wrong trousers, and what happened next? What resulted became one of Stan and Babe’s best silent comedies and one that is unique in their canon.
The plot of Liberty is very simple. Stan and Ollie have escaped prison, and, still in their prison stripes, they are fleeing from their jailors. The boys jump into the back of a pre-arranged getaway car, and they hastily discard their conspicuous prison garb and begin to change into their trademark suits and derbies. It’s not long before a police motorbike is hot on their tails, and the boys have to exit from their vehicle quickly. Both men leap from the moving vehicle[iii], and they pretend to admire a parked car until the motorbike cop tears past and is out of sight. As they emerge from behind the car and step onto the pavement, they soon realise they’re wearing each others’ trousers. That is all the plot required to make a hilarious two-reel comedy, with the remainder of the picture taken up with the boys attempting to swap trousers.
Each time the boys attempt to make the switch discretely, they are discovered by an unsuspecting passer-by. They try to hide behind a stack of boxes, only for it to suddenly descend below street level on a hydraulic lift. Stan and Ollie are left exposed, trousers around their ankles and watched with much suspicion by a cop. They give the cop the slip by trying somewhere more private – the back of a parked taxi cab. Typically, however, a young couple attempts to climb in and the boys are again foiled. They must embarrassingly climb out of the cab, buttoning up their trousers and looking very coy. Interestingly, the young female is played by Jean Harlow in only her fourth film role and her first with Stan and Babe.[iv]
The next place the boys try is behind a fish shop. They squeeze in between some crates containing fish and crustaceans, and Ollie unwittingly knocks a live crab into the seat of Stan’s pants. Just then, shopworker Harry Bernard appears, and the boys have to quickly hoist up their trousers and move along, leaving Harry wondering about what they were doing.
Another noteworthy moment in the film is the return of James Finlayson. After the success of Hats Off!, Finlayson’s last movie with Stan and Babe, James understood that his status in the team would be reduced from being an equal third of a Laurel, Hardy and Finlayson trio to that of an occasional supporting player. Understandably, he decided to move away from the Roach studios to seek work in feature films at other studios, such as First National and Fox. A little over a year later, James was back on the Roach Lot and secured his place in film history as one of Laurel and Hardy’s best adversaries.
His brief appearance in Liberty casts him as a shopkeeper whose shop front is besieged by Stan and Ollie. The nipping crab in Stan’s pants makes him jump so hard that he demolishes Finlayson’s display of records, knocking them over and smashing them to pieces on the pavement. Finlayson’s reactions and over-the-top squints are typically hilarious. Indeed, nobody does it better.
Laurel and Hardy’s films are renowned for their innocence, but the subtle yet cheeky adult themes underlying these sequences are wonderfully handled. The comedy here is based on everybody who catches the boys in compromising positions, assuming they are gay and trying to engage in sexual acts. However, as film historian Simon Louvish notes:
The cleverness of Liberty is that Stan and Ollie’s perfect innocence offers a childlike simplicity in their continual embarrassment at being caught, literally, with their trousers down.”[v]
In addition, much of the humour in this picture, as in most Laurel and Hardy movies, is in reactions. Here we can savour Stan and Ollie’s embarrassed expressions at being discovered, combined with the supporting cast’s shock, bemusement and disgust. Especially good is how the burly builders look over our boys with much suspicion as they exit the construction site elevator.
From here, Liberty seamlessly develops from farce into thrill comedy, as Stan and Ollie find themselves tottering along the girders of an unfinished skyscraper, hundreds of feet in the air, with the crab, as mentioned earlier, still nipping! ‘Thrill Comedy’, like ‘Horror Comedy’, was an established and popular movie genre. The trope of someone clambering up on a high building dates back to the early days of cinema. Eventually, most of the silent movie clowns attempted it, including Chaplin, Keaton and Harry Langdon. However, it is Harold Lloyd that is indelibly connected to this type of picture. Out of the two hundred or so movies that Lloyd made, only five of them were high and dizzy thrill comedies, and yet it is for these that he is most remembered. The image of Harold dangling from the hands of a giant clock, from his Hal Roach-produced feature, Safety Last! (1923) is now one of the most iconic movie images in the world.
Lloyd was a master filmmaker and understood the singular effect that thrill comedies had on the movie-going public.
“…the circumstances that brought about the danger increased the comic irony, which added to the nervous laughter. The recipe for thrill pictures is a laugh, a scream and a laugh. Combine screams of apprehension with stomach laughs of comedy, and it’s hard to fail.”[vi]
Indeed, such was the shock element of these types of pictures to contemporary audiences, that they were reported as a risk to audiences’ health, as the following caption accompanying a newspaper photo illustrates:
Crowds at the Kinema theater yesterday watching the ambulance take away one of the patrons who was overcome with the thrills of the Harold Lloyd comedy, “Safety Last.” Ambulance calls were sent in several times yesterday, the first day of the run of the picture, to care for spectators who suffered from nervous shock on seeing the hairbreadth escapes of the famous film comedian. The Salt Lake Tribune, April 8th, 1923
The practical experience and knowledge the Roach studios team gained through making the Lloyd thrill comedies must have been incredibly valuable.
In the film, Look Out Below (1919), there are several gags where Harold, Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard are tottering around on girders in scenes very similar to those in Liberty. Further, the 1927 Our Gang short, The Old Wallop, also used sky-high girders as the location for some of its comedic scenes, with the Gang attempting to rescue Farina, who had accidentally been carried up on top of the construction site.[vii] So, by the time the Laurel and Hardy unit decided to go high and dizzy, it would not have been a big challenge for the in-house team.
The location selected for Liberty’s lofty finale was the same building used for the Our Gang short a year earlier, The Western Costume Building at 939 South Broadway, Los Angeles. To achieve the illusion of being high up on girders, the Roach construction crew had to build a 24-foot x 24-foot set[viii], essentially a giant climbing frame, atop the building. In an interview with historian Randy Skretvedt, crew member Thomas Benton Roberts revealed:
“We had three stories of supposedly steel structure up on the top of the Western Costume building; actually it was all made out of wood. The roof of the building was 150 feet, and we were working three stories above that. Each time we changed the set-up for a shot, we’d have to move the camera platform around, and try to miss the flagpole on the corner of the building.”[ix]
This thrill sequence is fabulously constructed, littered with excellent gags and bravely executed by actors and crew alike. In 1954, during the filming of This is Your Life, a programme dedicated to Stan and Babe’s career, director Leo McCarey recounted a story from the production of Liberty.
“I remember once when Oliver got in trouble without any help from Stan. We were shooting a picture up on a…skyscraper, and they were up about forty feet from the ground, and Stan looked down, standing up on this girder, and he got quite panicky. Babe tried to quieten him, and he said, “Look, you don’t have to worry. There’s a safety platform about fifteen feet under the scaffolding”. So, Stan looked down, and he said, “Even the safety platform doesn’t look safe to me!” Babe tried to quieten him, and he says, “Look, to show you that it’s perfectly alright…I’ll show you!”, and he jumped off. Well – it wasn’t safe! The platform slowed him down a little, and he fell twenty and then twenty more feet to the ground.”
Adding validity to the story, Thomas Benton Roberts recounted the same story during the aforementioned interview with Randy Skretvedt, adding:
“The studio had sent some sugar pine down to make a safety platform for them. I had complained about that, but I wasn’t the head stand-by on the company, so I could only carry out orders. When Babe jumped down, the sugar pine, of course, broke. But I had a safety net below that—and that saved him.” Babe only fell about 20 feet, instead of 200; he only suffered minor bruises, and quickly got back to work”.
Further evidence is provided by the following contemporary article reported in Variety:
High, Dizzy and Sick – When Stan Laurel stands on a girder with nothing much under him and is told to look frightened he simply looks natural. So much does he “feel his part” that nausea succeeds dizziness.
Laurel working high up above Los Angeles streets with Babe Hardy was told he was in no danger because of a safety platform of 1 ½-inch pine below him. Laurel’s skepticism [sic] was confirmed when his 280-pound teammate slipped from a beam and fell to the safety platform, which failed to do all of its appointed duty.
Hardy kept on going south right to his elbows, which fortunately held. Hardy was considerably bruised, but Laurel was really ill. Variety, October 17th, 1929
Several extant production stills show scenes that were likely filmed but not included in the final release. These show Stan and Ollie clambering around the girders with supporting actor Tom Kennedy. Although audiences never saw Kennedy’s efforts on the girders, he does make an appearance at the start of the picture as the shotgun-wielding cop chasing the boys through the trees.
For reasons unknown, on November 13th, director James Horne was sent to the top of the Western Costume building along with Stan, Babe and all the crew to shoot six days’ worth of re-takes, plus a final day of re-takes at the County Hospital. Filming was eventually completed on November 19th.[x]
Liberty was the third consecutive Laurel and Hardy film to be released with a synchronised music and effects track. The Victor Talking Machine Company again recorded the orchestral score in New York, with direction by Joseph Pasternack. As in the boys’ previous two films, the musical score helps the film along tremendously. The titles of the popular tunes used, for instance, Wob-a-ly Walk, I’m Flying High, and I’m Sitting on Top of the World,[xi] add another layer of comedy value for any musically informed viewer.
Unsurprisingly, following its release, Liberty was afforded mostly excellent reviews:
This comedy is a classic. Silver Family Theatre, Greenville, Michigan in Exhibitors Herald World, March 2nd, 1929
Boy, oh, boy, what a comedy! You remember how “Safety Last” left them gasping? This will do the same. Be sure and feature it. It’s chock full of laughs. Central Theatre, Selkirk, Manitoba in Exhibitors Herald World, April 4th, 1929
Usual Laurel-Hardy laugh riot. These boys don’t need to do anything but appear on our screens to set off the uproar. By far the best all-round comedy subjects we are using. Screenland Theatre, Nevada, Ohio in Exhibitors Herald World, May 4th, 1929
They get better, this one is a scream and I know it pleased for I had an uproar all through this comedy. Adair Theatre, Adair, Idaho in Exhibitors Herald World, May 4th, 1929
When these two fail to give them a laugh, they must be sick. They are great. I have used seven of them so far this season and have yet to get hold of a bad one. Prints excellent. Star Theatre, Wendell, North Caroline in Exhibitors Herald World, November 11th, 1929
For the sake of balance and proving that you can’t win them all:
“Liberty” Not so hot. Fun on top of a framework, and they lost their pants. Can’t compare with “Two Tars”. Kind of funny in the last reel. Princess Theatre, Lincoln, Kansas in Exhibitors Herald World, November 16th, 1929
Liberty is an excellent comedy, and many notable commentators, including William K. Everson, Charles Barr and Randy Skretvedt, have sung its praises over the years. However, despite the film’s apparent success and unlike Harold Lloyd, Stan and Babe never ventured into the ‘thrill comedy’ genre again.[xii]
This blog has been entered into the Silent Film Movie Day Blogathon 2022
[i] Film Daily, The, Short Range Shots From the Hal Roach Studios, September 29, 1928
[ii] James Horne even went on to appear in one of the boys’ films, taking the role of Abdul Kasim K’Horne, Chief of the Riff-Raff.
[iii] The cameras must have been undercranked here, as the speed of the vehicle would have made the stunt dangerous for the actors. The resulting action is wonderful.
[xii] Apart from a one-off tussle on a mountain-side rope bridge involving a heavy piano and a gorilla! See Swiss Miss for details.
- Listen to my podcast discussion about Liberty, with L&H expert, Randy Skretvedt and silent film locations expert, John Bengtson HERE