The Flying Showboat, Victory Caravan
and Other Stage Appearances (1940-42)

 By John V. Brennan 


   After leaving Hal Roach in 1940, Stan and Babe had some time on their hands. Ironically, as their movie career was winding down, a new avenue of entertaining the public opened for them: live stage shows. Adrift from Roach and not yet signed with another studio, the team performed in a special benefit for the Red Cross in a sketch written by Stan about Ollie renewing his driver's license.  Realizing they had a good piece of material, the Boys then toured for four months in a show called The Laurel and Hardy Revue, using the Driver's License sketch as the variety show's final act.  

      In June of 1941, they did another one-shot appearance in a show at a California military base, hosted by Red Skelton and featuring, among other stars, one of Babe's racetrack pals, Chico Marx, now a solo act (the Marx Brothers had retired as a team, temporarily as it turned out, after their film of that year, THE BIG STORE.) 

      After appearing in the army comedy GREAT GUNS for 20th Century Fox, Stan and Babe joined The Flying Showboat, a revue which would tour U.S. military bases in the Caribbean.  Once again, Chico Marx was on board, with other stars such as singer Jane Pickens, dancer Ray Bolger and actor John Garfield, who acted as master of ceremonies.  These stars performed under some extremely trying conditions, as the weather was brutally hot and many of the camps were not equipped to host theatrical performances.  Chico, whose "shoot the keys" piano solos were the heart of his act, often had to do without a piano at all.  Thankfully, Laurel and Hardy's Driver's License sketch needed only a few simple props.  In any event, even the most ramshackle shows brought loud cheers from the troops, overjoyed that anybody had come to perform for them, let alone some of the finest talents Hollywood had to offer.

      In 1942, the Boys returned to Fox to film A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO.  Immediately upon completion of the film they joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan, a cross-country fundraising tour for the war effort which featured some unbelievable star power:  Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, James Cagney, Groucho Marx, Claudette Colbert, Bert Lahr, Cary Grant, Joan Bennett, Joan Blondell and many others along the way.  

      The tour began in Washington D.C. at the end of March, 1942.  The stars were all invited to an official dinner at the White House with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was filling in for an absent FDR.  One can imagine it to be an awe-inspiring occasion for all the stars, but apparently not for Groucho Marx, who was in rare form that day, according to John Lahr's NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION. Groucho kept fellow comic Bert Lahr in fits of embarrassed hysterics all day with his running commentary and wisecracks. When approached by a highly-decorated general who inquired where the First Lady might be, Groucho nonchalantly replied "She's upstairs filing her teeth."  Later, when a military band began an offkey rendition of a patriotic tune, Groucho turned to none other than Mrs. Roosevelt herself to comment "No wonder the Old Man didn't come."  

      Bert Lahr remembered that on the tour, Laurel and Hardy were always first in the dressing room each day to get ready for each show, and aside from Charles Boyer, were generally the only ones who bothered to bring their own makeup.  Other performers would drift in one by one and crowd around Stan and Babe, sharing in the show-biz camaraderie as well as the bottle of whiskey the Boys always had on the table.  After shows, the fun continued as various stars would get together for impromptu singing sessions and private shows put on just for each other.  Most of these stars had never had the chance before to spend this much time with so many of their fellow performers, and they made the most of it.  Bert Lahr later wistfully described it as a "caravan of love".

     Late in life, Groucho confirmed the daily presence of alcohol on Laurel and Hardy's makeup table, remarking that the Boys were "pleasantly sloshed" most of the time.  It took some uncharacteristic humility for him to add  "This, I thought, would be the leg up I'd need to outshine them.  No way."  As far as Stan and Babe being "pleasantly sloshed", they were certainly not the only ones.  Through Groucho himself rarely indulged in hard liquor, drinking was surely one of the ways many of the other performers enjoyed themselves between shows.  Jimmy Cagney and Bert Lahr both picked Pat O'Brien as the tour's champion imbiber.  O'Brien would stay up most of the night drinking and chatting with whoever else was still up, and then fall asleep in a barber chair.  The tour's barber would wake him up early in the morning and after a shave and a hot towel, O'Brien looked more refreshed than anybody else on the tour!

      As the Victory Caravan arrived in each town, most of the stars received cheers and whoops upon exiting the train.  But a few drew nothing but confused silence, or, as Bert Lahr joked, cries of "Who's this bum?".  Lahr was thrilled to be invited on the tour, even though his name did not show up in a recent Top 100 favorite stars poll.  A bigger stage star than a movie star, Bert Lahr was of course famous as the Cowardly Lion from M-G-M's THE WIZARD OF OZ, but few film fans knew him outside of that costume (a problem that would plague him all his life). Groucho learned quickly that he could get no reaction until he painted on his famous greasepaint moustache. Laurel and Hardy, of course, had no such problem. They always looked like themselves.

       For the tour, the Boys once again trotted out the reliable Driver's License sketch.  Jimmy Cagney, who adored Laurel and Hardy, told L&H (and Cagney) biographer John McCabe that the Boys "...stole the show, and in the most gentlemanly way you ever saw.  Because there was no vanity there.  Just pure - very pure - comedy, and that's all there was."  Cagney's pal and Warner Brothers stablemate Frank McHugh told John Lahr, "When the orchestra played Laurel and Hardy's sign music, you've never heard such an ovation!" 

      Bing Crosby (a golfing pal of Babe's since the early '30s) was another huge hit, especially when his stint on the tour overlapped with his pal Bob Hope's.  Jimmy Cagney, who admired Der Bingle tremendously, worried about following him, since Crosby's crooning drew loud ovations similar to those received by the Boys.  But Cagney's rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", complete with Civil War costumes, chorus girls and much flag-waving, was a surefire patriotic crowd-pleaser.  In other star turns, Bert Lahr sang a comedy song in his inimitable style and performed a sketch with Cary Grant as his straightman, Groucho did a comic monologue, and Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh warbled and hoofed it up.  With other stars popping into the tour at various times when their schedules permitted, there was probably more real solid entertainment in 10 random minutes of any Hollywood Victory Caravan show than in either of the films Laurel and Hardy had appeared in for 20th Century Fox so far.

       John Lahr describes a poignant moment at the end of the tour in May, by which time many of the stars had forged new friendships.  As they were all saying their goodbyes and departing from the train for the last time, Bert Lahr spied...

    "...the massive Babe Hardy, so outgoing and confident a funnyman, trying to look away from his friends to hide his tears. He looked large and rumpled from the journey. 'Don't let's lose this. Keep in touch.' The image of Hardy, standing on the platform saying goodbye to the many new friends he had made, lingers in [Bert] Lahr's memory. 'He looked, I don't know how to say it - he looked so isolated, so alone.'"

   Having done their bit for the war, Laurel and Hardy were off to film AIR RAID WARDENS, their new film for M-G-M.  But their stage experiences during the war years would serve them well later, when they would return to touring when their movie career was over.

 ---- John V. Brennan

Copyright © John V. Brennan, 2013.  All Rights Reserved.