Watch the complete short in the link above.
Our epic discussion of Laurel and Hardy films begins, and I have been looking forward to this for months! As cool as The Marx Brothers are, their 13 films only gave us a few months worth of discussion. Laurel and Hardy will last us well over a year, and I've proven with the Stooges I'm in this for the long haul, so if we don't get through these Laurel and Hardy films, something has either happened to this board or to me. Nothing else will stop me, so let's rock 'n' roll.
The beginnings of Laurel and Hardy are not very tidy. A couple of weeks ago, I did a thread of mini reviews highlighting films both actors appear in that don't qualify as films where they are a team. Hal Roach Studios had this "All-Star" series where a bunch of contracted players played in the same shorts. They play more like ensemble vehicles than star vehicles for anyone. Laurel and Hardy, as separate actors, appeared in a lot of these films together. The film we're discussing this week, DUCK SOUP, if you go chronologically in that thread I created, would actually be the third film on that list! Yeah, they actually teamed up that early, but it was a fluke.
Stan Laurel's father had a stage play this film was based off of, and the two lead comedy team roles, by pure coincidence, were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The next several films they both appeared in after this they were not a team. Consider DUCK SOUP a happy accident. What's crazier about this film's history is it was a lost film until 1974. Nobody had any idea this was an actual Laurel and Hardy film until then.
As you can see in the picture above, they were not dressed like the Laurel and Hardy we know and love this early on, but make no mistake, they're a team. They dress like a couple of hobos, but they have some interactions that would prove to be very Laurel and Hardy like. There's a bit earlier where Stan is laughing hysterically only for Ollie to raise a finger and calm him in a gentlemanly manner. Also, the part where both turn around while sitting on the bench and see the fire ranger have them display very familiar expressions, especially Ollie's shy/embarrassed reaction.
The film itself would later be remade in 1930 as ANOTHER FINE MESS. Overall, I do prefer the talking version better. What works best, other than the glimpses of early team characterizations mentioned above, is the outdoor bicycle chase scene. Those wild chases through city streets are always a fun thing to watch in silent comedies, and this is no exception.
The main problem with DUCK SOUP is this kind of situational comedy works better in talkies than silents. Take the Plumtree's who are trying to rent the house. In this film, they are a bunch of faceless characters who move the plot along by title cards. In the talking version, they are completely fleshed out characters played by Charles Gerard and Thelma Todd who are as important to the comedy as Stan and Ollie themselves. Talking dialogue and slowly building the situation works best here. All that great couch dialogue with Stan and Thelma Todd we all love is reduced here to one soulless title card about how many rooms exist in the house. Ollie showing Mr. Plumtree the billiard room also works better with the leisurely pacing of the talkie as opposed to this silent version. Hey, at least this short ends well, the sight of Stan and Ollie flailing around on the fire hose is perfect for a silent comedy like this.
Overall, not a bad film, as the early chase is fun and we get embryonic glimpses of Stan and Ollie's characters coming along. Far away from masterpieces that will happen in the future, but I'm glad this important film was discovered in '74. Check your great grandmother's attic, maybe a print of HATS OFF will be there, or some extra BATTLE OF THE CENTURY stuff. Stooge fans, we're spoiled.