THE FLYING DEUCES(1939)
Written April-May, 1939. Filmed July-August, 1939. Released by RKO-Radio Pictures, October, 1939. Produced by Boris Morros. Directed by Edward Sutherland. 69 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Jean Parker, Charles Middleton, Reginald Gardiner, James Finlayson. STORY: Stan and Ollie are vacationing in Paris, where Ollie falls in love with a beautiful inkeeper's daughter. When he discovers she is already married, he is heartbroken and decides to end it all by jumping into the river -- with Stan in tow, of course. A French Foreign Legion officer talks The Boys out of suicide and into joining the Legion. They enlist, wreak havoc midst training camp, and are arrested for desertion. They escape by stealing an airplane, which they crash-land. Ollie is killed in the crash, but reappears, reincarnated as a horse. Horse or human, Stan is just happy to have his old friend back.
Stan's laundry list of personal and marital problems, and despite the
fact that his relationship with Roach had degenerated to the point of
lawsuits, things were stable enough in the spring of 1939 for Roach to
sign L&H to a new, one-year contract. They were to make four
"featurettes" (four-reelers) during this period.
Principal photography had been completed on their first new film for Roach (A Chump at Oxford), when L&H received an offer from independent producer Boris Morros to make a film for RKO. Roach agreed to lend out the comics, and the result was the only film from Laurel and Hardy's vintage days to have been produced by someone other than Hal Roach.
After ditching the poor script RKO provided for them, Laurel and the
writers (now including silent screen legend Harry Langdon) went back to
Beau Hunks and expanded that disappointing four-reeler by another three
reels. They lost some really funny gags in the process - no
Jeannie-Weannie, no Mr. Levity knocking on the phone - but they did
manage to make a feature that hangs together and plays well. The
similarity to Beau Hunks extends to the casting of Charles Middleton in
the same role as Commandant. James Finlayson and Rychard Cramer
were also bussed in to RKO, so that THE FLYING DEUCES has the feeling
of a Roach picture, even if it isn't.
The film is a giggler more than a howler, and has fewer memorable gags and routines and than most L&H features. Most of the best moments belong to Stan. In trying to help Ollie forget his love for Georgette, Stan naturally can't stop talking about all her good points ("...gorgeous hair... ruby lips..."). Later, in their jail cell, Stan does a quick take-off of Harpo Marx, using bedsprings as a makeshift instrument and playing a very Harpoesque rendition of "The World is Waiting for The Sunrise". Over the years, I have read some dubious and unverified claims that (a) Harpo himself tutored Stan on how to mime playing the harp and (b) Harpo provided the music himself. These are nice thoughts, but that's all they are - nice thoughts.
Ollie is delightful, especially in the early going, when he is still in the throws of a schoolboy crush on Georgette. How a nearly 300 pound man in his late forties can still bound up a set of stairs with the same energy as a seven year old boy who has just recieved his first kiss is one of those unexplainable things that defines the comic genius of Oliver Norvelle Hardy. Later in the film Ollie gets a chance to sing a chorus of "Shine On, Harvest Moon" before joining Stan in a dance routine, in a quick and pleasant scene that harkens back to, but is clearly not intended to surpass, similar musical scenes from WAY OUT WEST.
When Ollie decides to commit suicide over Georgette, we get one of those self-reflective scenes that are always fascinating to hardcore fans. Ollie plans to jump into the river, with a rock tied to him to weigh him down. He also plans to take Stan with him, an idea that Stan is not all that keen on. However, Ollie reasons that if Stan goes on living without Ollie, "people will stare at you, wondering what you are, and I won't be there to tell them." Stan is convinced of his own selfishness, but keeps making excuses to delay jumping into the river. Finally they are saved by Reginald Gardner, who only has to mention joining the Foreign Legion once for both Laurel and Hardy to enthusiastically agree to this alternative to self-destruction. Stan picks up the rock, now longer needed, and tosses it into the river - but of course Ollie has not yet had the chance to unhook himself from it, and follows the rock head first into the water. This whole scene is a little strange, like the hanging scene from FRA DIAVOLO - the specter of imminent death is so out of place in Laurel and Hardy's world - but it is played somewhat in the satirically melodramatic style of certain scenes in Their First Mistake and Tit for Tat, letting us know that we are not supposed to take a moment of it seriously.
The runaway plane business at the end is nicely edited together from stock footage, process shots and close-ups of Laurel and Hardy looking scared in the cockpit, but it is a "what the hell" chase ending, one that doesn't really arise naturally out of the story but simply acts as a handy, slam-bang way to end the film. However, it does lead to an ending gag that is one of the nicest in any Laurel and Hardy film, a gag that provides the best excuse for the existence of THE FLYING DEUCES. Twice in the film, Stan and Ollie have talked about the theory of reincarnation, with Ollie professing the desire to come back as a horse. (Stan would prefer to come back as himself, somebody he always got along with.) After they crash their plane, Stan is relatively unharmed, but Ollie, alas, does not make it. We see his transparent ghost floating up to the sky, and as harp music plays, he waves a solemn good-bye to his lifelong friend. Cut to some time later, as we see Stan trundling down a country rode in Chaplinesque hobo attire. He hears Ollie whistle and call his name, and discovers that Ollie has indeed come back to Earth as a horse - albeit one with a derby hat, bangs and a mustache. What is sweetly funny about this scene is how neither has changed. Ollie is still quick to grumble "Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into", as if spending his new life as a beast of burden were just another brick on the head or fall into a mud puddle. Stan, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care one bit that his friend is no longer human. He's just pleased as punch to have Ollie back in any form, and we fade out with Stan hugging a rather annoyed Ollie-horse.
DEUCES is somewhat equivalent to The Marx Brothers 1945 film A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA. Not only do both movies feature a runaway plane ending, but both were made at a time when nobody really expected either team to make a movie at all - BLOCK-HEADS was thought to be Laurel and Hardy's farewell feature, as was the Brothers 1941 THE BIG STORE. That THE FLYING DEUCES is any good at all is practically beside the point. Since Hal Roach didn't seem to have any immediate plans for his team, and producer Boris Morros (I love that name) was eager to make an independent L&H film, it is hard to complain about a movie that is basically was a freebie for the fans. But in this case, it is equally difficult to generate much excitement over it. Sometimes a film is enjoyable simply because its stars are called on to do nothing but be themselves. Like Sir Sean Connery's James Bond comeback film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, THE FLYING DEUCES features stars playing beloved characters going through familiar business, handicapped by poor photography, an unfamiliar studio and an uninspired script. But it is still Laurel and Hardy being Laurel and Hardy, and, although it may not be a top-notch comedy, it makes a fine film for a lazy Saturday afternoon.
JL: THE FLYING DEUCES is the epitome of the term "average Laurel & Hardy film." It's different from other hit-and-miss efforts such as PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES, in that nothing in FLYING DEUCES is done poorly, nor is there a sappy romantic subplot to suffer through. It's a Laurel & Hardy film in structure, tone, and appearance, but it rarely rises above the level of "mildly amusing."
This is not to say there aren't some great gags, but unlike the team's best work of the late '30s, the comic highlights of FLYING DEUCES come in the form of a line here, a bit of business there. Stan getting the smelling salts stuck on Ollie's nose is funny stuff, but it's a moment that would have been but one of many classic bits in WAY OUT WEST or BLOCK-HEADS. L&H's most memorable scenes in their best films have the laughs coming at a fast and furious pace, necessitating multiple viewings to catch the gags you missed from laughing the first time around. In FLYING DEUCES, the best laughs come one at a time, with about a ten-minute interval between each.
As John B. points out, the film is a partial remake of Beau Hunks, a better film than FLYING DEUCES, but one that wasn't worth remaking in the first place. Beau Hunks at least benefits from a fairly solid first half, but little of this material is reworked for the later film. The only scene in DEUCES with a direct parallel in Hunks is the one in which the Boys demand their discharge from tough commanding officer Charles Middleton, a scene that had its genesis in the team's silent short Bacon Grabbers. In the silent, L&H befuddle themselves with a hat-switching routine and are incapable of exiting a room without first walking out the wrong door (to a closet or bathroom) a few times. In Beau Hunks, they perform the same business and embellish it with added gags. In FLYING DEUCES, all gags disappear and are replaced with straight lines.
It's a scene that illustrates my main problems with this film, in that it relies on too many contrived, "zany" situations, and the writers apparently thought contrived, zany situations were adequate substitutes for gags. Ollie, totally out of character, barges in on Middleton with a "What's the big idea?" attitude, as if his naive arrogance in the face of the stern commanding officer is enough for bofffo laffs. They were equally naive in Beau Hunks, but kept in character by having the sense to be polite about it all. The rest of the film follows the same pattern: Ollie compels Stan to jump in the river with him; the Boys have a mountain of laundry to do that's taller than K2; the boys try to walk out of the camp while the soldiers are oblivious; and so forth. These are amusing situations with the potential to be funny scenes, but all we can do is smile at the situations as we wait for the belly laughs that never come.
And yet these situations have Stan Laurel's hand all over them. Stan was initially presented with a script that was very unusable and not at all in keeping with L&H's brand of comedy. He and his team of writers did what they could in a limited time to rework the script, and successfully changed it into a Laurel & Hardy film. But the lack of time may also explain why the rewrites seemed to stop at the point when they got the characters and situations right. The breaking-into-the-saloon scene in WAY OUT WEST is loaded with at least two dozen hilarious gags. The breaking-out-of-jail scene in FLYING DEUCES has the same potential, but the highlights are reduced to Stan's asking of Ollie, "Well, are we allowed to do that?" and Stan's inability to keep his lit candle away from Ollie's backside.
THE FLYING DEUCES is a better film than a handful of the Roach features, and it's nice to know they were capable of maintaining their style for another producer at another studio. It's not a bad film at all when one considers that it was a rush job, done on the cheap. But with the team's best work, you don't have to take excuses into consideration.