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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Another Fine Mess

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

Here is another rather unique entry in this series. The stars of Another Fine Mess certainly are very deserving of their place among the greats of cinema. What makes it a little different from most of what we’ve seen so far though, is that this comedy is a short subject, lasting just over twenty-eight minutes. That the gags and beats in it are relatively well conceived and executed is not just due to the established proficiency of Laurel and Hardy themselves, but must also be attributed to the fact that the story and script had been tried out elsewhere a couple of times. First, it appeared as the stage play “Home From the Honeymoon,” and then a silent version was attempted by Laurel and Hardy themselves in their Duck Soup just three years earlier (Leo McCarey, who worked with the pair extensively while at Hal Roach productions would later use “Duck Soup” again as a title for a Marx Brothers movie). It should also be mentioned that the story was written by Stan Laurel’s own Father, Arthur J Jefferson.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are one of the most famous comedy teams in the history of cinema, inextricably associated with one another in the minds of all movie fans. The pair made over 100 movies together between 1921 and 1951. Consider the amount of history that covers. The American economy went from boom to bust to boom again over those thirty years. Obviously, this also meant that they had successfully made the transition from silent films to talkies.

The title of this particular film has apparently had quite a lot to do with the general misconception that Oliver Hardy’s signature catchphrase was “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” when in fact the line was consistently “…here’s another nice mess…”

Stan Laurel had a background made for comedy, both as the son of a man who ran his own comedy troupe in Britain and as understudy to the great Charlie Chaplin while on tour two different times in America. Meanwhile, Oliver Hardy was the son of an attorney in a town in Georgia, where he gained a love for silent era film comedy as the manager of a movie theater before moving to Florida to pursue a career in comedy performance. The pair first met on the set of the 1921 comedy The Lucky Dog, but each thought little of it at the time and did not reunite until both were signed by Hal Roach studios in 1926. As they continued to appear in a series of comedic films among peers, their roles consistently increased and their managing director Leo McCarey suggested that they be presented together as a team.

The style of comedy at the time typically adhered to the “Faster/Funnier” mold, with the actions of characters taking on an unnaturally frenetic pace. It was McCarey who assisted Laurel and Hardy in slowing down their performances to create a more naturalistic effect. Despite the fact that their comedy must still be considered broad and cartoony in the grand scheme of things, audiences of the time were left, through their contrast with other acts, with the impression that these characters were much more realistic than much of what they were used to seeing on screen.

The resulting run of very popular comedy shorts made the duo wildly famous across the world, and by 1928 both men had developed the characters they would become legendary through, with the credits simply listing them by their first names. Laurel and Hardy were now unified figures with consistent attributes carried from film to film, bringing comic mayhem with them wherever they found themselves. They were typically variations on the tramp figure as made legendary by Chaplin, with both men in their signature bowler hats, contrastingly fitting suit coats, and hairstyles. While Stan Laurel’s relatively lanky frame was emphasized with baggy clothes and plenty of messy hair on top, Oliver Hardy’s more portly form was stuffed into a small coat with a straining button and his dark hair plastered down on his forehead into spit curls.

Another piece of the Laurel and Hardy films that became iconic was their unofficial theme song “The Cuckoo Song” as written by Roach studios musical director Marvin Hatley. Whether or not modern audiences associate it specifically with Laurel and Hardy, my impression is that it would be universally identified as being from comedy films of the early Hollywood era.

Stan Laurel was, perhaps unexpectedly, the driving force behind the duo creatively, always challenging the writers for a better gag and pushing their projects in the direction he wanted them to go. No matter whose name was in the credits as the director, there was no question that if Laurel wasn’t on board with an idea, it likely wasn’t going to get onto film. It’s an approach that has been endorsed by other film actors like Michael Caine. If you never give them an optional take, then they can’t use it. For his part, Oliver Hardy was of the opinion that he had won his paycheck well enough through all of the physical abuse he took in the name of his craft.

Over the course of a decade, the comic duo appeared in about eighty different comedy shorts, called “two reels” in the business. There was a time when short subject films, along with news reels and cartoons were part of a typical day at the movie theater prior to the main feature, and this is where Laurel and Hardy made their name. One mark of their success, was an Academy Award win for Best Live Action Short Subject, Comedy for their film The Music Box in 1932.

I’m interested to know how many readers have had any experience with full program movie packages. As a kid, both when living on a Navy base in Japan and as a part of a summer program for children in the late 1970s in Virginia Beach, I went to movie theaters on a weekly basis. We would see multiple cartoon shorts, comedy shorts, or serialized action shorts, travelogues, football highlight reels, and then a full-length feature film. It was the length of these programs that reinforced my love for Necco candy wafers well into my adulthood, because they tended to last longer than most other types of movie treat.

By the mid 1930s, the distribution of films was changing, with studios enforcing their own mixed programs and two reel shorts gradually dying out in popularity. Hal Roach made the decision to move his biggest stars exclusively into full length features (you’ll notice that this decision comes at around the same time Disney also got into the feature films business), and the pair made feature films almost exclusively from 1936 on. They weren’t particularly happy about it, though. Having built their characters and the form their adventures took around a twenty to thirty minute format, Laurel and Hardy generally felt that they were less suitable for longer form storytelling, with the characters being stretched thin and the situations spaced out beyond their natural comic potentials.

This new working condition appears to have put stress on Laurel’s relationship with Hal Roach, and the two men clashed over the content of the pair’s early feature Babes in Toyland. Roach declared that he never wanted to work with Laurel again, but the duo didn’t split with Roach films for another six years. They continued to be popular with audiences, despite their inconsistent production relationships beyond then. They were produced or distributed over the following seven years by RKO, United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and 20th Century Fox.

Finally, poor health, including a stroke in Laurel and general difficulties associated with Hardy’s increasing weight began to slow the pair down. The men had both achieved their success late in life, but the wild popularity they enjoyed over the course of about fifteen core years has left them with a powerful legacy and they are still icons in the history of comedy. In his final years of life, after Oliver Hardy’s passing, Stan Laurel lived a humble life. When admiring comics sought him out, they were surprised to find him in the phone book. In 1960 he was presented with an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to the art form.

Take a look at Another Fine Mess right here and share your thoughts about the legacy of one of comedy’s most legendary teams.

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Posted on August 25, 2017, in Awards, comedy, Movies, Music, Nostalgia, Oscars and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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