I’m currently blogging about the silent comedy films shown at Silent Laughter Saturday, an all day festival of hilarity at London’s Cinema Museum.
L & H expert David Wyatt introduced some tasty rarities. While THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY has been the talk of the town, other discoveries continue. First up was a ‘new’ version of ‘DUCK SOUP’. This is a pivotal film in the L & H story. Based on a sketch by Stan’s dad, it was later remade into the mature L & H film ‘ANOTHER FINE MESS’. As two bums on the run who hide in a mansion, and pose as the owner and his maid, it brings us remarkably close to the eventual L and H characters, even though it was incredibly early in their partnership. Compared to ‘BATTLE’, today’s version of DUCK SOUP featured only very small bits of new footage, but nonetheless managed to seem like a totally new film. The versions we’ve been accustomed to are incredibly choppy versions in dismal quality. Sourced from Belgium, the titles have been translated into French from the original English, then sloppily translated back into English, apparently by someone who speaks neither language. Thus, Stan’s exclamation ‘I’ve been robbed!’ becomes the incredibly unwieldy, ‘In effect, I have the feeling i have been disrobed!’. These sort of titles go a long way to killing the comedy, so it was great to have the much simpler English text. We also learned that one of these titles is the source of the seemingly random title: “Duck Soup, Hives! the whole house to ourselves!”. Well, I guess it’s still quite a random title. The second improvement was the print quality, light years beyond anything we’ve seen before, and also far less mauled about. I’ve always thought DUCK SOUP far too full of frenetic slapstick, but this version’s less edited, spliced shots offer fuller, more natural versions of the gags bringing the film closer to typical Hal Roach pacing. This helped me notice one subtle gag that I’d always missed before; as Stan and Babe commandeer a bicycle to help their escape, Stan chooses to ride on the handlebars of Babe’s bike, even though there’s one right next to it that he could have used! typical Laurel logic, already in place.
The biggest surprise is the existence of a much fuller version of the scene in which Madeline Hurlock asks ‘Agnes’ the maid (actually Stan in drag) to run her a bath and give her a massage. Stan’s crying panic escalates as he sees her apparently naked through the keyhole of the bathroom door (modestly photographed, of course). Seen from the shoulders up, Madeline approaches the door. In panic, Stan thrusts his head under the bath water, making frantic “Go away!” Gestures with his hand. Finally giving in, he emerges, makes a “What’s the use?” face to the camera and turns to face Madeline. To his relief, he finds she has now covered herself in a dressing gown.
This scene was far too risqué for many audiences, as evidenced by a small town censorship reel, featuring many scenes deemed unsuitable for public consumption. These scenes included a slightly longer edit of the bathroom scene, including one extra title. A characteristically American H.M. walkerism, “MY GAWD, she’s raw! Seemed rather incongruous coming from the British Laurel’s lips.
Following this, DW introduced another great historian, David Robinson. Mr Robinson was one of the few to appreciate Laurel and Hardy’s significance early on, capitalising on their visit to the UK in 1953-4 to gain an interview. The subsequent Sight and Sound article, ‘The Lighter People’ was the first real critical attention paid to L & H. David gave us some insight into the context of the time. L & H were forgotten by critics and writing about them was tantamount to “errant populism”; a number of Shakespeare references were deemed necessary to make the article seem more highbrow!
He then recalled his visit to the theatre. Of the act, BIRDS OF A FEATHER, he claimed to remember almost nothing, except their beautifully timed entrance through two doors, continually missing each other through a set of saloon doors:
“The audience went wild, which they obviously appreciated.”
Backstage, the young reporter was introduced to the comedians. Eyewitness accounts like these are becoming ever more rare, so these reminiscences were especially precious. He recalled them both as “incredibly kind, gracious people”, who were both wrapped up in matching blue dressing gowns.
“They were both the opposite of their screen characters,” he continued, “Oliver was very serious, but Stanley talked and giggled all the time.”
However, he did note one amusing similarity to the films…
“I know they got a great of happiness from their last marriages, but nonetheless the wives acted just like the wives in the films!” Mr Robinson recalled them forever fussing and scurrying about until Oliver had finally had enough:
“”Can’t you see I’m talking to the gentleman?” he said grandly, which was a rather wonderful thing to have said to you as a 23 year old.”
As the interview began, Our young reporter realised to his embarrassment that he had come equipped with pad, but no pencil. Graciously, and hiding his amusement, Babe came to the rescue with a pencil from deep within his dressing gown pocket. It was Stan, however, who led the interview, providing a precious series of reminiscences. Alas, the young David Robinson had no tape recorder, but we should be eternally grateful that he did manage to record such precious words when no-one else was bothering. It was absolutely fascinating to hear him speak first hand about his experience… Another moment when you wish to go back in time!
Rounding off this programme was a film that has been seen before, but only very occasionally. Stan Laurel’s ‘WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD’ was later fondly recalled by its creator, but was frustratingly elusive for decades. Happily, it turned up a few years ago at the Library of Congress, or at least the second reel did.
One of the first parodies of the kind he came to specialise in, ‘WHEN KNIGHTS…’ is a loose Robin Hood spoof that also references ‘WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER’ (1922). Stan is Lord Helpus, a Slippery Knight, who sets out to rescue a Maid Marian type from the clutches of Prince John. It’s easy to see why Laurel had such fondness for this film. It taps into a superb vein of pantomime silliness inherited from the music hall tradition Stan loved so much. For instance, Laurel ‘rides’ a pantomime horse, actually a costume with fake legs dangling over the side. Stan does this superbly, giving the horse a character all of its own. There’s one especially funny moment as he feeds it from a water trough, and the horse drains the whole thing.
Things get even more ridiculous as he is chased by a whole army of knights on pantomime horses, not to mention more than a little reminiscent of the much later ‘MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL’.
Arriving at the castle walls, Stan tries to climb up some ivy, but finds that it only goes a few metres high. Not to be outdone, he finds a watering can, which instantly makes the ivy grow and shoots him up the castle walls. This is followed by a very funny fight scene, with a clever gag where, by trick photography. Stan seems to dart around the room to confound his opponent. There are some other clever, Keatonesque gags here too. Eventually, the king returns and Stan is pardoned. The final scene is the wedding, which turns into a ragtime dance before the king protests: “Stop! Woulds’t put my kingdom on the bum!”
This is a great little short film, or at least half of it. Hopefully one day this can be released to DVD, as it ranks with DR PYCKLE AND MR PRYDE as one of Stan’s best parodies.
Laurel and Hardy still command so much love that any new scrap of footage is eagerly devoured by the faithful. We’ve been spoiled with all the recent discoveries, and this programme was another reminder of this. Truly, it’s a good time to be a silent comedy fan.