PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES(1931)
Written April, 1932. Filmed May-June, 1932. Released by MGM, September, 1932. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by George Marshall and Raymond McCarey. 68 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Donald Dillaway, Jacquie Lyn, George Marshall, James Finlayson, Rychard Cramer, Charles Middleton, Tom Kennedy, Frank Brownlee, Billy Gilbert, Grady Sutton.
STORY: It is 1917, and America has just entered World War I. Stan and Ollie are drafted and create havoc in training camp. They befriend another doughboy, Eddie Smith, who is killed in action. Eddie leaves behind a young daughter, now an orphan. Upon their discharge, Stan and Ollie devote their time to finding the girl's grandparents, with the family name of Smith as their only lead to their whereabouts.
marked the first time this film was shown in its original uncut form
since its release in 1932. Scenes with Rychard Cramer as a
child-and-wife-beating cretin were deemed so unpleasant, they were
edited from all re-release prints.
Stan's daughter, Lois, was originally slated to play the little girl in PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES, but it was felt she looked too old by the time filming rolled around.
In their short films, Laurel and Hardy could simply set up a single
situation and milk it dry for twenty minutes. But now that they
were embarking on their first feature that was intended to be a feature
(unlike PARDON US), they had to find a new approach. PARDON US
simply grew out of a two-reel film, and it showed. Their next
feature had to be different - it had to have a story, and one that
Laurel and Hardy could carry for a full hour or more. The
resulting film, PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES, is one of their sweetest films,
but not one of their best.
The film begins well with Stan and Ollie being recruited against their will into the Army. The scenes that follow, with The Boys going through basic training, are among the funniest in the film and one of the few times that comedy has a chance to flourish before the creaky plot sets in and takes over. Like schoolroom sketches, army sketches were a staple of comedy, always good for some solid laughs in the hands of the right comedians. As would be expected, Stan and Ollie don't know their left from their right, and their disruptive antics annoy their tough sergeant no end. Ollie's smiles and little hand waves coupled with Stan's moronic beam only exacerbate the situation, and it isn't long before they wind up with K.P. duty.
There's more fun when they mistakenly deliver three barrels of rotting food and garbage to the General, played by none other than James Finlayson with a white mustache. As The Boys bring the barrels into the house, General Fin begins to smell something rotten but he can't quite figure out what it is. He even looks at his butler suspiciously, before he discovers Stan and Ollie happily depositing the garbage in his living room.
But by that time we have already met Eddie Smith, and when the plot sets in, any prospect for more unhampered comedy like this is lost. Eddie doesn't seem like a bad guy if we got to know him, but we never get the chance. I suppose Stan and Ollie's declarations of "I like him" and "Gee, he's a swell guy" is our cue that we should warm up to him too, but he's dead before he can generate any interest, leaving his baby daughter behind for Stan and Ollie to worry about for the rest of the movie.
After previews, a scene featuring Rychard Cramer as the wife-beating ogre "Uncle Jack" was cut from the film (but restored in the '90s). The Boys come to take the little girl away from him, now the little girl's guardian. While the scene displays The Boys' basic decency, it is painful to watch, especially when Stan and Ollie overcome Uncle Jack and his hoodlum friends by pouring boiling water and steaming hot coffee on them. Cramer would go on to be one of The Boys' most memorable antagonists in SAPS AT SEA, but his portrayal of a violent lowlife here is almost too good - certainly it is too realistic for a Laurel and Hardy film. We never want to hate a Laurel and Hardy villain - even evil Silas Barnaby from BABES IN TOYLAND stays somewhat likable due to the hilariously over-the-top portrayal by Henry Brandon. A Walter Long or Billy Gilbert, who could have tempered the part of Uncle Jack with a little humor, might have been a better choice.
The film bogs down in The Boys' attempts to locate Eddie's father by contacting every Smith in town. A major setpiece of PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES is a wedding interrupted by The Boys, who have come to tell the groom that they have his baby. Considering the groom is played by Grady Sutton and the father of the bride is played by Billy Gilbert, it's a shame the scene isn't as funny as it could have been.
A highlight of the film is a low-key scene in which The Boys do their best to make a comfortable home for the girl. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy loved kids in real life, and there is a tenderness in these scenes that is quite touching. While Ollie takes care of the ironing, Stan listens to the girl tell a bedtime story, and naturally falls asleep halfway through it. Stan's reactions in this scene, which is the funniest in the film, are priceless. Jacquie Lyn, as the little girl, is good, though we will never know if she would have been in the same league as other Roach finds such as Spanky McFarland or Darla Hood. Still, it would be difficult not to like a kid that does such cute impressions of Stan (the head scratch) and Ollie (the finger wave).
This scene also has the cramped,
claustrophobic look of some of Laurel and Hardy's short films like They
Go Boom, and has a lot in common with the later short Their First
Mistake, also directed by George Marshall. Marshall himself plays
the army cook who swears vengeance on The Boys early in the film and
delivers said vengeance in the wrap-up gag. The director injected
himself into the film when the actor hired for the part didn't show
up. Of all the villains featured in PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES (and
there are plenty), he comes off the best It's too bad this was
his only appearance with Laurel and Hardy, not counting a cameo in
Their First Mistake.
In a film overwhelmed by plot, it is fascinating to see how many laughs Stan and Ollie can provide just by facial reactions and line readings alone. Except for the obvious straight scenes with Eddie (which The Boys handle nicely), they manage to squeeze some humor into almost every line and look. Even a straight line like "Tell the general we've got the stuff," is made funny by the way Ollie says it and the look on his face as he does. Similarly, in the scene where Eddie is captured by the Germans, Stan makes us laugh with the always inappropriately-timed "Good-bye, Ollie!" And when a German shell causes a chunk of the bunker roof to knock Ollie's frying pan out of his hand, he takes a split second to send us a hilariously annoyed look that says "Well, there goes my breakfast" before reacting to the explosion itself. In a film like PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES, the little moments that make us laugh go a long way in making up for the larger moments that don't.
Laurel and Hardy had tried making a mountain out of a molehill with PARDON US and letting their characters inherit somebody else's problem with PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES. Though both films had many good points, neither was right for them. They would manage to do much better with their next two features, finding two separate formulas (the operetta and the "Pure Laurel and Hardy" story) that would work splendidly time and again for them.
One final note of interest: In 1947, the team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had fallen into a rut at Universal and needed a big hit. They borrowed many elements of Laurel and Hardy's PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES and came up with one of their best films, BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME, which featured Bud and Lou caring for the young daughter of an army buddy.
If I didn't know better, I'd think PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES was written
according to the rules of the old kids' party game wherein everyone
takes turns adding to an improvised story. In this instance, the
"game" appears to have taken about a month to play, with each writer
passing the screenplay along to the next guy as soon as his allotted
five minutes were finished. The law of averages dictates that,
along the way, some good scenes and some bad scenes entered into the
mix. The assembly-line method also ensures that the plot, pace,
mood, and main conflict change directions about a dozen times. I
know this film was not put together in this manner, but the results are
the same as if they had.
PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES follows the time-honored pattern of having comedy scenes alternate with "straight" scenes, a pattern borne of Hollywood producers' lack of faith in the ability of comic actors to carry a storyline. Throughout film history, there are countless examples of comedies in which the lead comedians function as heroes who reconcile young lovers or find nice homes for orphan kids. Rather than being central to the conflict themselves, they solve the problems of others. With the exception of the two films the Marx Brothers made for Irving Thalberg, I don't know of any great comedies constructed in this manner. But that's never stopped producers from attempting to create "something for everyone." Inevitably, such films are prone to compromise on all levels: the absurdity of the humor is watered down in order to mesh with the plot scenes, and the plot tends to be contrived and filled with cardboard characters, thereby preventing too much reality from intruding on what remains of the absurdity. You can't have a love story on the level of AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER while sharing scenes with Laurel and Hardy, and you can't have a comedy on the level of BLOCK-HEADS when there are serious problems that must be resolved.
The characters of Stan and Ollie seem affected by such compromises in PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES. They have enough delightful scenes throughout the film to sustain the interest of their fans, but there are also scenes in which the demands of the plot overwhelm and subdue their characters. On one level, the film is successful in that we genuinely care about the fate of the little orphan girl. But this concern comes at the expense of the comedy. An example of this comes when the Boys frantically pursue ways to get enough money by nightfall to keep the girl out of the clutches of the wicked child welfare official. Ollie instructs Stan to drive their lunch wagon to the nearest bank in order to obtain a loan, telling him "Don't hit any bumps along the way!" Predictably, Stan's driving is a disaster, leaving Ollie rolling around the back of wagon amidst a pile of pots and pans. In other films, we could enjoy this moment for it comic worth, but in PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES, such moments are something of an annoyance when placed in a serious context. And Laurel and Hardy's comedy should never be an annoyance.
Much of our concern for the fate of the orphan girl is a result of our fondness for child actress Jacqui Lynn -- a li'l tyke who really can't act, but who wins our hearts just by being cute and adorable. It's fortunate they found such an endearing little moppet, because the writers sure didn't help much in terms of the straight scenes. The plot of PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES has more holes than a sieve shot full of buckshot, as if credibility or tying up loose ends were not even the slightest concerns. The following is a partial list of those moments in the film wherein the writers must have figured we wouldn't be paying much attention anyway:
1. As John B. points out, we're supposed to think Eddie Smith "sure is a swell guy" on the basis of his exchanging a few friendly words with the Boys. Now I can understand how it would tend to depress a fella to have his wife walk out on him just as he's being sent to war, but this "swell guy" sure turns into an irritating mope ten minutes after we've met him. (The swellest guys in movies usually weather their hardships nobly.) He's also someone who'd entrust the fate of his daughter to an unknown (who turns out to be cretin Richard Craymer), rather than to his own parents, just to spite them. Yeah, what a swellerific guy.
2. Who are these kindly old ladies that are always tending to the kid? Early in the film, a little Pepperidge Farm-grandma-type shows up with the little girl in tow to deliver the Dear John letter to Eddie. She seems like a kindly sort and well-acquainted with Eddie. Is she the kid's grandmother? Nanny? Next-door-neighbor? Eddie's bookie? Never explained, nor is it ever considered that she should tend the girl until a suitable home is found. What happened that the kid should be shuttled from Aunt Bea to Richard Craymer? Later in the picture, as Stan and Ollie are desperate to find a hiding place for the child, another matronly type appears, apparently having cared for the girl throughout the day. Who's this dame? Can't they just hide the kid out with her?
3. I suppose it could be argued that it's an example of their ineptness, but surely even Stan and Ollie should be able to come up with a more efficient way of finding the right "Smith." Didn't Eddie leave any records with the army?
4. Just how did the Boys acquire that lunch wagon? A major addition to their lives since returning home from the war that's never explained. Hm. Laurel and Hardy run a lunch wagon. Now there's an idea for a film.
5. And that must have been some short stint in the service for Stan and Ollie. We first meet the little girl before Eddie and the Boys are sent to war. By the time the Boys are discharged, the girl hasn't aged a day.
What's frustrating about PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES is that these hastily constructed plot scenes are given equal, if not greater, emphasis than the comedy scenes. It might have worked had they simplified the serious plot line considerably and not introduced so many convoluted elements and extraneous characters. As it is, however, too much of the film's running time is given over to scenes that are blatantly flawed. Doubly frustrating is that there is some fine comedy to be found in the film, but it often struggles against the serious overall tone. The opening scene in the park, the standard (but well-done) dopey recruits vs. tough drill sergeant routine, the wedding scene with Billy Gilbert and Grady Sutton, the little girl's bedtime story to Stan -- all of these are fine and funny moments with the Boys. And, to be fair, the entire film is paced swiftly enough so that neither the comedy nor the drama ever seem like an intrusion on one another.
This film is, therefore, perhaps the most hit-and-miss of their features. It's made up of 20 minutes of blandness, 20 minutes of confusing and hastily constructed plot contrivances, and 20 minutes of above-average Laurel & Hardy comedy. Put it on your "Must-see, someday, when I get around to it" list.