and Hardy's first all-talking film. Like many early talkies, it suffers
a bit from the simple fact that nobody had yet mastered the tricks and
techniques of the new medium. To this day, sound films are generally
shot with but a single camera on the set. Actors will play a scene
perhaps up to half a dozen times, with various camera angles (long and
medium shots, closeups, etc.) employed for each. The film editor
assembles the shots to create the effect of the scene having been shot
simultaneously from a variety of angles, and edits the soundtracks from
each shot accordingly.
For the early talkies, however, the technique of editing the soundtrack, as well as dubbing, looping and other post-production effects, had not yet been conceived, so what you hear on early soundtracks was generally recorded on-the-spot. One and only one master soundtrack was recorded; therefore, if a director wanted to cover a scene from a variety of angles, he had to use several cameras running simultaneously so that the soundtrack could later be synched to any of the shots. With less freedom to utilize both picture and sound, early talkies are characterized by a static and awkward visual appearance, as well as the fact that whirring camera noises were often picked up by the primitive sound equipment and can be clearly heard on the finished films. The industry learned quickly, however. By 1930, most of these problems had been solved
"Affectedly or artificially unfamiliar, old fashioned..." is one
definition of "quaint," according to the third edition of Merriam
Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. For another definition of "quaint,"
see Laurel & Hardy's Unaccustomed as We Are. For that matter, see
just about any sound film made during the years 1928-30.
The main reason for the quaintness of early talkies is that, for perhaps the only time in entertainment history, artists appeared restricted by the limitations of the technology. Pre-electronic recording equipment didn’t prevent Enrico Caruso from belting an aria or Louis Armstrong from blowing his horn at full power. The grainy, green-tinged, 12-inch picture on your grandmother's old Philco didn't keep Milton Berle from cutting loose with high-powered burlesque comedy. Nor did silent films restrict directors in their choice of shots and camera angles or in their editing decisions. But there is a tentative and claustrophobic feeling to the first sound films, the result of all involved having to temper their artistic decisions according to the restrictions imposed by microphones that picked up all extraneous sound, and cameras that were bolted to the floor and encased in soundproof booths. Even to the uninitiated, there is a palpable difference between the professionalism of silent films and the amateurishness of the early talkies.
Nevertheless, master comics that they are, Laurel and Hardy are still able to create some memorable moments in a film where they are forced to play everything in long, unedited takes, and to perform everything full front to the audience (no close-ups, no insert shots), as if on a stage. The awkwardness of the film and the resulting plodding pace remain a distraction, but it’s hard not to take delight in the sight of Mae Busch (here at her most vitriolic) breaking phonograph records over Ollie’s head, or that of the Boys setting Thelma Todd’s dress on fire. It’s a film interesting more as a historical curio than a piece of entertainment, but it is enlivened now and then with a few solid laughs.
The technicians at the Roach Studios must have been fast learners, for none of the handful of films that followed suffered as much from these problems. And by the end of 1930, film technicians had figured out how to edit and synchronize film and soundtrack, the invention of the boom microphone stand cleared up the extraneous noise problem, and cameras were once again free to roam to a cinematographer’s heart’s content. But, things being what they were in 1929, a "test-the-waters" sort of film like Unaccustomed as We Are depended in large part on the talents of the performers -- and those talents ensured that what may be their weakest film from a filmmaker's viewpoint is by no means their weakest film.
The first words ever spoken by either Laurel or Hardy on screen come
floating in to us as they walk through an apartment hallway while Ollie
describes the delectable meal his wife is going to cook for Stan. This
intro is natural and disarming, as if Laurel and Hardy had been
speaking onscreen for years. Ollie's voice is mellifluous and pleasant,
and he emphasises his words with hand gestures. Stan's first words -
"Any nuts?" - instantly bring him into the sound era without
reservation and the workings of his mind are immediately revealed to us
as he ignores Ollie's tales of steaks and gooey desserts and only
wonders about one of his favorite foods, nuts. Stan's voice is
childlike, as it should be. And, in an example of how Laurel and Hardy
approached sound and dialogue on their own terms, Stan remaind fairly
close-mouthed throughout the film. It has been said before, but here is
the best place to say it again: Laurel and Hardy were blessed with
voices that were absolutely perfect for their characters. One can
imagine fans of the Boys seeing Unaccustomed for the first time in 1929
and saying "Yeah, that's exactly how I imagined they would sound."
Sound dominates this short in the first few minutes, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. Ollie gets bogged down in a dialogue routine with Thelma Todd (making her L&H debut) that depends on repetitions of the words "Mrs. Kennedy" and "Mr. Hardy" for its laughs. Mae Busch's first words - "Whattaya mean, 'yoo hoo'?" come to us from offscreen, and as she steps out of the kitchen to harangue her husband, we get more "sound" gags, first with Ollie and Mae talking over each other (a gag repeated to better effect in BLOCK-HEADS) and then with Mae lapsing into rhythmic sing-song as she tries to continue her harangue while Ollie plays a recording of "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (possibly by the period's King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman). It is five minutes before the first real extended sight gag sequence, Stan and Ollie setting the table and lighting the oven, makes an appearance.
This being one of the first sound shorts made at the studio, they have not yet invented the technique of dubbing exaggerated sound effects over sight gags, something The Three Stooges would later turn into an artform, and so some of the gags don't reach their full potential. A record cracked over Ollie's head, Stan being kicked in the rear, Ollie falling to the floor, all recorded with natural sound that barely registers with the hidden microphones. The gags play like one of the fistfights in an old cheapie John Wayne westerns - all action, no sound. Even a kitchen explosion, later to become a beloved and hilarious gag in several films, is rendered impotent due to a lack of proper sound effects. It is not enough for see the flames and Ollie come flying through the door. In the silent films, we could imagine the accompanying sounds. In a talkie, we expect to hear a large explosion and a yelp of fright from Ollie, and when neither is forthcoming, the gag loses much of its punch.
But this is not to say that Unaccustomed is a bad film. Technically it is stiff and awkward, but taking into account the thousand or so new technical problems faced in this film, Unaccustomed as We Are is still a mildly amusing situation comedy. Mae Busch scores instantly as Mrs. Hardy, a role she would repeat several times in her career. Thelma Todd and Edgar Kennedy also come off fine (how is it that just about all of Hal Roach's players turned out to have such perfect voices?). Unaccustomed was also good enough to be repeated almost wholesale as the final third of their classic feature BLOCK-HEADS. Although the short plays almost like a live Honeymooners sketch, where the timing sometimes seems to be off and misplayed sight gags draw only giggles rather than guffaws, there is still enough good comedy to raise Laurel and Hardy's first talkie above the level of a mere curiousity.
Copyright © 2012 John Larrabee, John V. Brennan