As the Victor trucks, laden with sound recording equipment, trundled steadily westward, heading for Culver City, the production units on the Lot of Fun settled back to business as usual. For the Laurel and Hardy unit, following the thrills of Liberty was always going to be a tall order, with its dramatic location and hair-raising action; however, Leo McCarey, in the director’s chair for the third time in a row, pulled it off with some style. Filmed at the end of November 1928, Wrong Again was the boys’ second release of 1929.
The Laurel and Hardy comedies were growing in popularity, and Stan and Babe were enjoying the most successful time of their careers to date. However, away from the studio, the boys’ personal lives were quite contrasting. Ollie’s marriage with Myrtle had continued to become ever more strained due to her ongoing problems with alcohol. Babe hated seeing his wife this way and consequently began spending more and more time away from the marital home, choosing to spend his time (and money) at the race track, gambling on the horses, or pursuing his favourite pastime of golf. In just a few months, Myrtle would file for divorce.
Conversely, for Stan, this was a seemingly golden period. He’d recently moved into a new ‘colonial-style’ home at 718 North Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills,[i] with his wife Lois and their one-year-old daughter. Increasing their family dynamic further and following Stan’s belief that every child should have a dog[ii], they adopted a beautiful St. Bernard named Lady. Lady often accompanied Stan to work and even appeared in several official publicity stills.
As different as their private lives may have been at this point in time, they both left any troubles at the studio gate. Their workplace became both their refuge and their playground. On November 21st 1928, Stan and Babe began filming Wrong Again. The film became one of director Leo McCarey’s “big favourites” of all the Laurel and Hardy films, and he also claimed responsibility for the story idea:
“I had my tonsils removed and I was unable to go to the studio. I couldn’t talk, so I was sitting in the living room and we had a large facsimile of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy hanging there. I’m sitting in front of it…trying to get an idea for Laurel and Hardy… Well, the phone rang and it was the studio; they said, “The gang is sitting around here, and they’ve come up with nothing, and Stan suggested we call you and see if you’ve got anything.” So I started ad-libbing.
I said, “Yes, I’ve got an idea. It opens on a millionaire who owns this painting, Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. It is stolen and he offers a handsome reward, and there’s a big article in the paper. We cut to the racetrack and Laurel and Hardy are two race touts reading this article. They remark about the sizeable reward and say how they can use it. Just then a horse goes by and on its blanket it says ‘Blue Boy’, so they look at each other and give a nod, and the next thing you know, here comes those two fellows up to the millionaire’s home with a horse.” This is just ad-libbing. “Well, they take the horse up to the door and it’s covered by a portico and the millionaire sticks his head out of the upstairs window. He was taking a shower. They say they’ve got ‘Blue Boy,’ and he’s overjoyed – he says, “Bring it in,” and he throws the key down. He says, “I keep it in the living room.” Then there’s some byplay about millionaires being eccentric. He’s got all kinds of money and it’s his house and it’s his horse and he can do what he wants about it. All they want is the reward. So, with a shrug of the shoulders, they take the horse into the house.” [iii]
With only a few tweaks, the plotline that McCarey recounted was pretty much exactly how the comedy ultimately played out. Rather than playing the roles of ‘two race touts’ at the racetrack, Stan and Ollie are stable hands, and we first meet them mucking out one of the stables. Rather than creating a set on the back lot, the crew went out on location to The Uplifters Club’s sports complex in Santa Monica[iv]. The gags come thick and fast from the outset of the picture, and first, we see Ollie showering a well-dressed gent with dirty hay from the floor of the horse’s stable. He acts very coy and embarrassed when he discovers his mistake with wonderful childlike innocence.
The boys quickly get into a great bit of business with a bucket that Stan is trying to fill up with water from a hose pipe, but he only succeeds in firing water up his own backside. Ollie grabs the bucket and takes over, only to discover the bucket has no bottom. He throws the useless item across the stable yard in a fit of peak. The flying bucket duly hits a small carriage and knocks its wheel off, almost dislodging the occupant. It’s a delightfully funny, slapstick start to the film.
As per McCarey’s version, Stan and Ollie mistakenly think that they’ve discovered the stolen ‘Blue Boy’, but rather than the stolen painting[v], their Blue Boy is the racehorse whose stable they’d just mucked out. They confidently arrive at the millionaire’s residence, expecting to collect a sizeable reward. The property used for the exterior scenes of the mansion was built in 1913 for William Wrigley, founder of the famous Wrigley’s brand of chewing gum and is still standing today at 3344 Country Club Park.[vi] The Wrigleys had moved out by the time Wrong Again was filmed. According to Leo McCarey, the owner at the time of the shoot was Mrs Borden of Borden’s Malted Milk.
“She was sitting by the camera, enjoying every minute; she said, “Why do they have to stop the scene when the horse comes up to the door?” I said, “Well, we duplicate the interior of the house at the studio, because we can’t take the horse into your home.” She says, “Why not? I wish Daddy was here. He’d get the biggest kick out of it. Go ahead. Take the horse into the house.” Well, we couldn’t take her up on it.[vii]
Following some dialogue at crossed purposes with Ollie and the millionaire, played by Dell Henderson, the boys follow their instructions and lead the horse into a very grand living room. Born in Ontario, Canada, Dell Henderson was a prolific film actor. Beginning his career in the theatre, he eventually traded the stage for the screen, starring in Mack Sennett shorts as early as 1912, and he even directed films starring the likes of Syd Chaplin and Chester Conklin. His career filmography is extensive and includes roles in two other Laurel and Hardy pictures, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and Our Relations.[viii]
Interestingly, and perhaps illustrating the natural development of the team’s comedies, there is a surprisingly large amount of dialogue in the picture, especially considering that it was made as a silent film. The outside sequences between both Henderson and Hardy and Laurel and Hardy are excellent examples of this. Ollie relates their instructions to take Blue Boy into the house, and Stan’s disbelief and attempts to process the facts are wonderful. Equally so are some relatively extensive yet lovely conversations between the team inside the house, when the boys are waiting for the owner to come downstairs and Ollie explains to Stan, “These millionaires are peculiar – They think just the opposite to other people”. Once Stan reluctantly grasps this concept, he can accept anything unusual that happens for the remainder of the visit. This is a recurring theme throughout the picture and gave it the working title, Just the Reverse. According to Hal Roach, the hand twist gesture that Ollie uses to signify to Stan that the millionaire’s thinking is the opposite – or ‘just the reverse’ of theirs came from an in-joke within the studio. When the writers were trying to create a comic situation, they would think about the dramatic angle and then give it a little twist to make it funny. The hand twist was their way of communicating what needed to be done.[ix]
Wrong Again could be considered another key moment in the team’s development, certainly regarding the boys’ characters. There are some lovely moments which help to deepen our understanding of Stan and Ollie as individuals and also their relationship dynamic, with Ollie clearly demonstrating his almost fatherly role, helping Stan come to terms with the strangeness of the situation. Ollie’s gentlemanly nature is also evident after he trips over a lifesize statue of the nude Roman goddess Venus. The figure breaks into three pieces, and as Ollie attempts to reassemble it, he cannot bring himself to look at or touch the statue’s bottom. Instead, he removes his coat, averts his eyes, wraps the coat around the posterior, and replaces it as best he can. He doesn’t realise that he has incorrectly reassembled the mid-section, so Venus’s bottom is facing forwards directly underneath her naval. Later, when Stan spots the misassembled figure, he is visibly confused and troubled, and the camera remains on him as he struggles to process what he’s seeing. This is clearly another McCarey-influenced sequence, allowing almost a whole minute for Stan to go through a range of thoughts and reactions to the freakish figurine.
The misunderstanding between Henderson and the boys becomes even more ridiculous when the millionaire shouts down his next instruction: to place Blue Boy on top of the piano. The are some great comedy moments as the boys attempt to get the horse onto the piano. Once the horse is standing atop the instrument, the boys knock the piano’s front support leg away, leaving them both hanging on to it to prevent a violent crash and a possible injury to the animal. Typically and hilariously, Ollie ends up on all fours, supporting the weight of both the piano and the horse on his back. This is a technically brilliant gag, and the mechanics of it can only be imagined. [x] However they achieved it, the overall effect is terrific, with the whole thing being ridiculous and hilarious in equal measure.
The film’s finale sees the real Blue Boy arrive, and the boys must admit to having “made a slight mistake”. Stan and Ollie see the funny side, falling into fits of giggles, but the millionaire, who is far from amused, chases the boys and the horse down the street with his loaded shotgun in hand. Charlie Hall can also be spotted in the final scene, making a cameo as an extra in the group of nosy neighbours. Hall appeared in more Laurel and Hardy films than any other actor, popping up in forty-seven in total.
Wrong Again has enjoyed an excellent reputation, with several experts and film historians praising it strongly. Leonard Maltin identified it as a favourite, and both Simon Louvish and Glenn Mitchell described it as a masterpiece, while Charles Barr and Kyp Harness thought it one of the best of all the boys’ silent films.
On its theatrical release, contemporary audiences also received the picture very warmly indeed:
Another very funny comedy by the two real funny comedians. Silver Family Theatre, Greenville, Michigan in Exhibitors Herald World, April 13, 1929
These Laurel-and-Hardy’s are the best comedies you can buy. They always get the laughs. Liberty Theatre, Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada in Exhibitors Herald World, April 27, 1929
Wrong again? Just the reverse! The boys bring down the house as usual. Screenland Theatre, Nevada, Ohio Exhibitors Herald World, May 11, 1929
As 1928 drew to a close, so too did the age of the silent picture. Just as filming on Wrong Again got underway, a new and significant figure arrived on the scene whose impact on not only Laurel and Hardy but on the Hal Roach Studios more widely could never be overstated. As part of the team of engineers from the Victor Talking Machine Company, sent from Camden, New Jersey to Culver City, tasked with effecting converting the studio to one able to make talking pictures, Elmer R Raguse arrived on the scene.
HOLLYWOOD, Nov 27 – Installation of sound equipment at the Hal Roach studio is expected to be completed in time for the start of production by the first of the year, following arrival last week of Elmer R. Raguse, expert from the Victor recording laboratories at Camden, N.J. to supervise preparation of stages. No sound stages will be erected but those now in operation will be soundproofed.
Richard Currier, film editor for Hal Roach, accompanied Raguse. Installation will be directed by W.W. Clark of Victor. Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, December 12, 1928
Little did anybody realise just how much of an impact Raguse was to have at the Lot of Fun. Hal Roach quickly understood how valuable a man like Elmer would be in this strange, unchartered world of the talkies. Before long, Elmer Raguse was placed on the payroll, taking up the post of chief sound engineer at the Hal Roach Studios.
***The full version of this essay can be found in my upcoming book, Laurel & Hardy: Silents
[v] The prop Blue Boy painting can also be seen hanging just inside Ollie’s grand doorway in Early to Bed.
[x] One can only guess that there was a metal girder running through the body of the piano that was attached to a hefty counterweight, situated behind the wall, acting as a sort of see-saw, that takes the weight and lowers and raises the piano according to Ollie’s actions. The positioning of the piano would support this theory.