A HAUNTING WE WILL GO(1942)
Written January-March 1942. Filmed March-April 1942. Produced by Sol M. Wurtzel (20th Century Fox). Directed by Alfred L. Werker.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Dante the Magician (Harry A. Jansen), Elisha Cook Jr.
STORY: Laurel and Hardy take a job transporting a coffin to Ohio, unaware that it contains one of Fox Studios' ubiquitous gangsters, who thinks this is the only way to travel. The coffin gets mixed up with a prop coffin belonging to Dante the Magician, who hires the Boys for his act. Eventually it all gets sorted out to everyone's satisfaction, except for the guy in the coffin who gets shot to death somewhere along the line.
From 1940 to 1942, when the Boys were working on their first two movies at Fox, they found time to make several stage appearances and join a couple of tours, including the amazing Hollywood Victory Caravan. These years could be considered the beginning of their eventual career shift from movie stars to live performers.
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Halfway through A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO, Dante the Magician hires Laurel
and Hardy as his assistants, figuring the Boys "could provide some
laughs in the show." Sad to say, predicting the
not one of Dante's magical talents.
The most tedious feature the Boys ever made, A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO is proof that the popular slogan "Movies Are Your Best Entertainment" is not meant to be an all-encompassing statement. About a half hour into this mistitled, misguided movie, you will find an actual Laurel and Hardy-style gag. Backstage at a rehearsal of a magic show, Stan accidentally hits Ollie on the head with a sandbag. Through Ollie's own stupidity, he manages to get himself hit on the head again a second later. Then he looks at the camera and registers annoyance, just like the old days. Look quick for this scene, because it is just about the only time the real Laurel and Hardy show up in the whole movie.
This movie is less about Laurel and Hardy and more about a gaggle of gangsters, one of them played by character actor Elisha Cook, Jr., who had been in the superb THE MALTESE FALCON for Warner Brothers the previous year. The tough lowlifes at Roach, such as Walter Long or Leo Willis, were always effective at intimidating Laurel and Hardy. But in this film, the Boys have nothing to fear - these thugs with dirty mugs are about as menacing as Hilary Duff selling chocolate chip cookies for the Save the Kittens foundation. And they're stupid to boot. Three of the gangsters endlessly confront Laurel and Hardy and threaten them with violence, yet time and again walk away with nothing. Having thoroughly convinced the Boys that they are just college students up to some prank, one of them suddenly pulls a gun. A little while later, the gangsters scowlingly vow not to let each other out of their sights, yet seconds later, one of them says "We better split up" and so they do without a second thought. Not long after that, Laurel and Hardy are trapped on stage, with gangsters in the wings, holdings guns. But when the Boys exit the stage, there are no gangsters to be found anywhere. They just wandered away. Elisha Cook, Jr. has even made a special trip up a flight of spiral stairs, apparently looking for Laurel and Hardy, whom he had just had trapped on stage not two minutes before! Never has Attention Deficit Syndrome in Gangsters been displayed so vividly in a motion picture.
Dante the Magician, a well-respected artist who gets co-billing with Laurel and Hardy, looks like he's enjoying himself when he's around the Boys. But it must be asked: if you have a world-class magician and history's greatest comedy team as your stars, why are you eating up so much footage following the mindless frivolities of a bunch of brain-dead hooligans?
What could be a decent comedy setup - Stan and Ollie as Dante's assistants - never gets developed much beyond saddling Stan and Ollie with turbans and balloon pants, as if funny costumes were an adequate substitute for real comedy. Despite Dante's prodigious talents, there is very little real magic on display here. He amuses some children on a train with a couple of table top tricks, and later does a levitation routine that appears to be filmed without any trick photography. But once he starts his act on a huge, ornately decorated set, Dante is mostly confined to his own circle of Hell, allowed only a few brief cutaways where he barely gets a chance to perform some simple closeup stuff before the camera inevitably pans to other infinitely less-appealing characters. Most of the other "magic" in this film comes from editing and special effects, rendering the casting of someone of Dante's stature completely meaningless. The only scene of this kind worth watching occurs when Stan keeps entering one prop phone booth and emerging from another. Well-played by the Boys, it is a solid minute of good fun, especially when Ollie opens one booth only to confront himself popping out to say "Can't I have a little privacy?". But Stan and Ollie helping Dante with the "Indian rope trick" barely passes as a comedy scene, and the film's final gag, where Stan appears out of a prop egg, reduced in size, only serves as a visual reminder of how much the real Stan Laurel had been reduced in stature since leaving Hal Roach.
A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO is always at odds with itself - it wants to be a gangsteriffic mystery and a magical Laurel and Hardy comedy at the same time. But the gangster story is dull, and, in its desperate effort to work the Boys into the story, too illogically plotted (seriously, is traveling in a coffin really the best way to move about incognito?). And yet, once the Boys have entered the story, they not only have to work against a script which contains few genuine gags but also against the kind of slow-moving, depressingly macabre atmosphere that provides the least fertile soil on which to grow good Laurel and Hardy comedy.
If Bob Dylan was right when he sang "There's no success like failure", then HAUNTING is a resounding success. But I doubt that's what Bobby D. meant.
Botton line: watch THE MALTESE FALCON. Sim Sala Bim!
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