SAPS AT SEA(1940)
Written September-October, 1939. Filmed November-December, 1939. Released by United Artists, May, 1940. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by Gordon Douglas. 57 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Rychard Cramer, James Finlayson, Eddie Conrad, Robert McKenzie, Harry Bernard, Charlie Hall, Ben Turpin.
STORY: Stan and Ollie are employees at a horn factory, where the constant honking eventually drives Ollie to a nervous breakdown (or a case of "hornophobia," according to his doctor). An ocean voyage is the prescription for Ollie's condition, but he seems to be just as afraid of the sea as he is of horns. They decide to rent a boat and keep it tied to the dock. At night, escaped convict Nick Grainger sneaks aboard the boat, while The Boys' pet goat dines on the mooring ropes, setting them adrift. In the morning, Grainger forces L&H to prepare a meal. Having no food aboard, they concoct a synthetic meal (string for spagetti, sponges for meatballs, lamp wicks for bacon, etc.). When Grainger threatens their lives, Stan starts blowing his trombone which causes Ollie to go berserk and subdue Grainger.
No one would ever mistake SAPS AT SEA for one of Laurel & Hardy's
masterpieces. "A fun little film" is typical of the praise it's
usually afforded, and on that level it succeeds. A return to the
loopy, near-surreal atmosphere of BLOCK-HEADS, SAPS AT SEA is a far
lesser film than their 1938 gem, but it is consistently enjoyable and
boasts a few scenes and gags that are among the team's most
memorable. We may wish that their association with Hal Roach
finished on a higher note, but it's a respectable end to their vintage
years and an infinitely better film than a handful of other Roach
Before Stan and Ollie make their first appearance, we are made aware that SAPS AT SEA will take place in a world far removed from reality. A man in the midst of a nervous breakdown may not seem like the proper opening scene to establish a mood of high silliness, but we soon learn that this man is but the latest in a long line of horn-factory employees who have suffered a similar fate, the result of constant exposure to the honking and tooting. The manager of the factory, who endures his days by wearing ear plugs, takes an almost perverse delight as the factory workers succumb one at a time to the nerve-wracking environment: "That G-flat horn gets 'em every time!", he states proudly, his delivery threatening to break into an evil chuckle. It isn't long before the factory's next victim, one Oliver Norvell Hardy, falls prey and unleashes his pent-up frustrations in a wonderfully over-the-top tirade. "Horns! Horns!" (or, to be phonetically precise, "Hawns! Hawns!") Ollie screams as he goes on a rampage of destruction. This and the scene that follows (in which Ollie is subjected to the blaring of a broken car horn) are examples of L&H's occasional use of "annoyance humor" in which a single source of frustration -- from honking horns to moving a piano up a flight of stairs -- is relentlessly repeated until the audience has no choice but to laugh.
The next series of scenes in the Boys' apartment illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of SAPS AT SEA. On the plus side, their domestic life is charmingly twisted, with the cross-eyed building janitor (Ben Turpin) providing tenants with refrigerators that play music and radios that require defrosting. There's also an exploding stove gag reminiscent of the one in BLOCK-HEADS, and a slapstick closing with Ollie dangling from a window that hearkens back to a similar moment in County Hospital. This scene, however, is a rare instance in which L&H's humor crosses that fine line from the childlike into the childish. James Finlayson, in his final appearance with the Boys, is afforded some good gags (rarely has a door-slam-in-the-face been so hysterical), but much of his material operates on the level of a sketch from "The Bozo Show." Dr. Fin has Ollie blow up his "lung tester" (I'm surprised he didn't call it a "Lung-O-Meter"), which is nothing more than a 10-foot balloon whose size and well-anticipated explosion are supposed to provide laughs. If there is a general flaw in SAPS AT SEA, it's kidstuff gags such as this.
Fortunately, it's such a happy and fast-paced film, we're usually laughing before we've had time to finish groaning over a stinker. The second half of the film, which takes place aboard the rugged craft "Prickly Heat," is what most people remember from this film. Rychard Cramer, portrays the most genuinely nasty thug the Boys have ever encountered, but there's a sense of fun underlying Cramer's performance such that he doesn't come off as too menacing for comedy to transpire. A loathsome guy with good timing, in other words. He forces Stan and Ollie at gunpoint to cook him a meal, thereby setting up a memorable, if prolonged, routine in which the Boys cook him a synthetic meal (string for spaghetti, lamp wicks for bacon, sponges for meatballs, etc.) in order to "fix his wagon." The problem with this scene is that the premise is funnier than the execution thereof. Once the audience is privy to the Boys' plan, the joke is pretty much over, but several additional minutes are spent with Stan and Ollie cooking the phony meal, as if this action somehow punches things up a bit. After Cramer then forces the Boys to eat their own concoctions, too much time is spent on Stan and Ollie gagging and getting nauseated, and there's nothing particularly funny about their discomfort. It also seems a bit out of character for Stan -- one would expect him to like the meal (as he enjoys Ollie's hat in WAY OUT WEST) and begin dressing things up a bit with salt and ketchup.
The final extended scene has Ollie subduing Cramer as Stan blows his trombone, thereby giving Ollie another chance to holler "Hawns! Hawns!". The Boys' momentary heroism at having captured an escaped criminal is dashed when Stan blows his horn once too often, launching Ollie into another tirade wherein he punches a cop. The last shot shows the Boys being led to jail and exchanging their last words in a Hal Roach film: "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" / "Well, I couldn't help it! (cries)." A fitting ending to the Golden Era of the team's career.
The flaws of SAPS AT SEA are mostly understandable. Two years previously, it seemed as if BLOCK-HEADS might be the last Laurel & Hardy film and the effort was made to do a personal work, packed with inspired gags. In 1940, Stan and Babe had what seemed to be a promising future in front of them (little did they know), so there was no sense of urgency to turn out anything more than just another film. SAPS AT SEA was undoubtedly approached with dedication, but the team's personal relationship with Roach also suggests that there was a bit of "contractual obligation" haste in its making. Certain gags and situations could have been improved with a bit of additional thought, but, under the circumstances, I suppose that we should be grateful that the final Roach film rises to the level of "not bad."
It is hard to dislike SAPS AT SEA but equally difficult to hold it up
as a shining example of Laurel and Hardy's art. In 1940, The Boys
were getting a little too old for the standard knockabout slapstick,
and so they used impersonal gags - the lung-tester, the mixed-up
appliances, the banana with three layers of skin and no bananas.
There are a few laughs in these gags, as well as in Stan and Ollie's
reactions to them, but more successful are the in-character moments,
such as when Stan tries to talk to Dr. Finlayson by putting the phone
receiver to his mouth and a banana in his ear.
Still, out of nowhere come moments of pure vintage Laurel and Hardy comedy. Doorbells have flown off the wall and struck Ollie in the head before, but never with the same disdainful malice that seems to possess the doorbell in SAPS AT SEA. And there is a marvelous sequence where Stan walks out of the closet, knocking Ollie straight out the window, with Ollie's grip on the phone line is the only thing keeping him from plummeting to the sidewalk below. Stan's rescue attempt with a mattress and the car is noble but, needless to say, unsuccessful as well as destructive to the building's lobby. This is good, old-fashioned, well-timed stuff, and it's nice to see that even at this late stage, The Boys still have it in them.
The heavy makeup Laurel and Hardy employed in this film is sometimes a distraction. Used to cover up wrinkle lines, the makeup only highlights the sad fact that our heroes were not the smooth-faced spirited youths they once were. This occasionally gives SAPS AT SEA a slightly pathetic aura. When The Boys were younger, it would have been fall-down-hilarious for Stan to be confused by a nusery rhyme he is reading to Ollie. But now that they were beginning to look like older men, there is a touch of sadness behind the comedy that is hard to ignore at times. There is even a moment that hints at the fact that The Boys are getting up in years, and that Ollie, for one, is resigned to things never changing. When Stan manages once again to blow up yet another kitchen, Ollie simply comes out of the bathroom to say "Can't you make a cup of coffee quietly?"
The film's first half harkens back to BLOCK-HEADS, both in its setting and its gags. But unlike BLOCK-HEADS, SAPS AT SEA looks like it was filmed on the cheap. The apartment set is so tiny and cramped, that the kitchen doesn't so much explode as collapse in on itself. Even the music is cobbled together from OUR RELATIONS, BLOCK-HEADS and A CHUMP AT OXFORD.
All this is not to say that SAPS AT SEA is a bad film. The Boys have done better, but they have done far worse also. SAPS AT SEA is a run of the mill Laurel and Hardy comedy, like THE FLYING DEUCES, which means some good laughs, some groans and a handful of unforgettable moments. The first half of the film, in the apartment, is funnier than the second half, on the boat. Yet the second half is more memorable, due to Rychard Cramer's performance as Nick the Killer. Always a minor member of their stock company, as soon as Cramer walks in on Stan and Ollie in their cabin and unleashes a sneering "Scuuuuse me, Jitterbugs!", he has already topped any other contributions he may have made to Laurel and Hardy's films in the past. His characterization has just the right mix of menace and humor, and he is the best villain Laurel and Hardy have run across since Mickey Finn in WAY OUT WEST.
The synthetic meal scene is one of those things that, like the jigsaw puzzle sequence in Me and My Pal, plays better in your mind after you've seen it. Stan eating something he shouldn't is funnier when he is unaware of it, like the wax apples in SONS OF THE DESERT, or, as stated in John L.'s comments above, when he realizes he enjoys it. Here, Stan's reactions are just uncomfortable, and Ollie gagging and coughing is much too realistic to be amusing. And yet, it is a sequence that can produces chuckles later on, when you reminisce with other people who have seen the film. And I sometimes think that those synthetic biscuits The Boys whipped up from talcum powder live on today in every fast food restaurant across America.
Although he changed the ending to BLOCK-HEADS and ordered a new beginning for A CHUMP AT OXFORD, Hal Roach seems to have quickly lost interest in his two major stars after SWISS MISS. Left to their own devices, Laurel and the writers ditched all the subplots, love interests and production numbers. From BLOCK-HEADS through SAPS AT SEA, it is wall to wall Laurel and Hardy from first frame to last. If there are disappointing moments in these films, they are along the lines of "Gee, they could paced that scene better" rather than "Who is this sappy juvenile lead and why should I care about him?". SAPS AT SEA's greatest strength is that every moment features Laurel and Hardy, but its greatest weakness is that many of those moments are not up to their usual standards. Still, in 1940, with the Thirties' style of comedy going the way of the dinosaur, we can almost be thankful that The Boys turned out such a nice little throwaway comedy. The same year, the Marx Brothers made GO WEST, a candidate for their worst feature, while W.C. Fields made THE BANK DICK, a comedy classic in every way. SAPS AT SEA falls somewhere in between these films, but is much closer to THE BANK DICK in spirit.
A final note: We now say goodbye to several key Laurel and Hardy players, but most of all to Mssrs. James Finlayson and Charlie Hall, who would never again appear in a Laurel and Hardy film. What they contributed to The Boys' world was priceless, and their value becomes all the more clear by their absence in the films following SAPS AT SEA.