Stan Laurel is hired by Priscilla Dean to romance her and make her husband jealous. Stan’s career as a lothario is hampered by the family butler (Oliver Hardy), a violent bully who intends to get rid of the interloper by any means necessary.
Laurel and Hardy before Laurel & Hardy
Some of my very earliest movie memories include Laurel and Hardy. Their winning combination of physical comedy, personal chemistry, whimsy and just a touch of white magic delighted me as a child and their humor still delights me today.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been knocking around films for years before they were finally teamed up. Therefore, there are numerous Stan before Ollie and Ollie before Stan films available for our viewing pleasure. Stan specialized in playing horrible little men and spoofing popular films while Ollie was usually in supporting roles, often as the heavy. Both made the important decision to sign on with Hal Roach and it’s no exaggeration to say that it changed their lives.
Slipping Wives is from an interesting period in the careers of Laurel and Hardy, pre-Laurel & Hardy. They were at the same studio and they appeared together in films but they were not yet billed as a duo or considered a comedy team. Their first Hal Roach team-up was Duck Soup, released in March of 1927. By the end of the year, their chemistry was undeniable and they had been paired permanently.
It took the studio just a few months to figure out that it had stumbled on something special. Producer Broncho Billy Anderson failed to show similar insight as he hired Stan and Ollie to work together in The Lucky Dog (1921) but did not reunite the team. (In addition, Laurel later stated that Anderson did not pay the film’s cast and crew—and that he was still owed money for his solo comedy Mud and Sand, which spoofed Rudolph Valentino.)
Slipping Wives was the second time Stan and Ollie were teamed up on the Hal Roach lot and it shows that the studio was still experimenting with the pair, trying to make the most of the combination. While Duck Soup had been a co-starring affair (the duo later remade it in the sound era as Another Fine Mess), Slipping Wives was a Stan Laurel vehicle, no ifs, ands or buts. (By the way, I don’t count 45 minutes from Hollywood, which was made a few months before Duck Soup, because Laurel and Hardy reportedly did not share any scenes.)
The film is also of interest to silent film fans as the leading lady is Priscilla Dean, who had specialized in playing tough cookies at Universal during the late ‘teens and early twenties. Lon Chaney’s first pairing with Tod Browning had been in The Wicked Darling, a vehicle for Dean. Her star faded as the twenties wore on and she had subsequently slid into B movie work and then comedy shorts.
Dean is often listed as a victim of sound but it is clear that her career had been in trouble for some time before the talkies. After parting ways with Universal in 1924, Dean was unable to sign on with another major studio and bounced around the independents. As film historian William K. Everson points out in his book, The Complete Films of Laurel and Hardy, “Obviously, no top names would consent to appear in two-reelers, and so he (Hal Roach) had to content himself with stars who still had some name value, but who had slipped or were at least in temporary doldrums as a result of bad pictures or ill health.”
Sound arrived when Priscilla Dean was in her early thirties, a precarious age for an actress in any era, and it was merely the final nail in the coffin, not the actual cause of career death. In fact, it seems likely that her career would have ended in the early thirties with or without the talkies. (You can hear her voice here, if you’re curious.)
Dean receives top billing in Slipping Wives but her role is comparatively slight. She plays a wife whose artist husband is neglecting her. “He only kisses me on Sundays and holidays!” she complains to a family friend named Winchester Squirtz (Albert Conti). The husband, Leon (Herbert Rawlinson), spends all his time painting and fails to notice his wife’s unhappiness.
Squirtz suggests that Priscilla find a fake lover to make Leon jealous. However, he refuses to take the job himself because of Leon’s capacity for violence.
Meanwhile, the butler (Oliver Hardy) answers the doorbell and discovers one Ferdinand Flamingo (Stan Laurel), a paint salesman. Flamingo is exactly the person Priscilla needs for her little jealousy project. She orders Oliver to clean him up for the evening.
Priscilla claims that Flamingo is a famous author but is mortified when he acts out his latest novel, a reworking of Samson and Delilah. (Charlie Chaplin performed a similar gag in The Pilgrim with David and Goliath. Laurel’s routine has been dismissed as a copycat comedy bit but I think that’s uncharitable. Both men were talented physical comedians and brought their own unique spin to the gag.)
Flamingo thinks that Squirtz is Priscilla’s husband and so he mistimes his flirtations. Meanwhile, Oliver is trying his best to kill or at least harm his mistress’s unsavory guest. The whole thing concludes with mistaken identity and Flamingo is forced to flee for his life.
So, the big question is whether or not the comedy works. Well, yes and no. Laurel’s Samson and Delilah routine is great fun and his chemistry with Oliver Hardy is both clear and delightful. Unfortunately, the film kind of deflates after Laurel’s biblical pantomime. Leon catches onto the scheme and just plays along to make Priscilla happy, which ruins any suspense that might have built up. And by making Leon reasonable and calm about the situation, the film undermines its own story. Remember, the other characters are supposed to be afraid of his fiery temper.
Slipping Wives is fun for Laurel and Hardy fans as it is a glimpse at their early evolution but it’s not really their best silent film or even their best pre-team comedy. It’s a historical curio that is delightful for their fans but can be skipped by everyone else.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Laurel and Hardy have been ill-served on home video. Slipping Wives was released on DVD by Image but that disc is out of print and the scalpers are charging an arm, leg and firstborn child. The so-called “essential collection”, which is in print, skimps on the silents. I ended up getting the 21-disc box released in the UK. It includes both Slipping Wives and The Fixer-Uppers but remember that you will need a region free player for these discs.
Now we’re in for a treat! Laurel and Hardy remade Slipping Wives and we’re going to compare the versions and see if a few years made a difference.
The Talkie Challenger: The Fixer-Uppers (1935)
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were officially paired up around the same time The Jazz Singer opened and kicked off the talkie revolution. Would new technology kill off this promising team? Of course, we know that Laurel and Hardy survived and thrived in sound. In fact, I dare say that they transitioned far better than many of their more famous comedy colleagues.
A common misconception (reinforced by Singin’ in the Rain, a pox on its house) is that silent stars must have had funny voices and this ruined their careers. Nope. The big problem was actually whether or not their voice matched their appearance and persona, at least in the minds of their fans. We might compare this to listening to a favorite radio announcer for years and then finally seeing them on television. 9 times out of 10, they do not look the way we expected them to.
Stan and Ollie’s voices were perfect for the comedy personas they had built; Hardy’s rich, Georgia-infused tones contrasted beautifully with Laurel’s reedy squeaks. Further, both comedians and their studio understood how to balance their comedy with the new sound medium. You see, simply adding sound to a silent comedy routine could cause the whole thing to come crashing down. Sound was a potent new ingredient and needed to season the comedy, not drown it.
The new medium also presented an opportunity to remake older routines. As stated before, Stan and Ollie’s very first Hal Roach team-up, Duck Soup, was remade as Another Fine Mess and their second, Slipping Wives, was remade as The Fixer-Uppers. Let’s see what the boys had learned in the eight years that separated each version.
Stan and Ollie are making a living selling Christmas cards from door to door. Their customers include Hal Roach’s resident drunk comic, Arthur Housman, and Mae Busch, the wife of the famous painter Pierre Gustave. She is depressed because her husband neglects her. Hoping to help, Stan suggests that one of them pose as her lover and make her husband jealous.
After testing out some kissing on Stan (he faints), Mae wraps herself around Ollie just in time for Pierre (Charles Middleton) to come home. The plan works and he is insanely jealous. Emphasis on the insane. He challenges Ollie to a duel and he means to shoot to kill. Our heroes hightail it to their favorite bar, run into Arthur Housman again and end up completely soused. The police carry them home, at least what they think is home. You see, Ollie has Pierre Gustave’s card in his pocket.
The film ends with Ollie trying to escape by playing dead (Mae took the bullets out of her husband’s gun) but this is thwarted when Pierre decides to make really sure by cutting up the body. Stan and Ollie flee into the night. Now here’s another nice mess…
It’s not their best but all the Laurel and Hardy ingredients are there. Bizarre attempts at entrepreneurship? Check! Trying to fix the problem but only making it worse? Check! Violent husband? Check! The story could have used a tad of tightening but a few scenes, particularly the kissing practice, work quite well.
However, some of the elements just miss. For example, Stan and Ollie’s Christmas cards are inappropriate but most lack the wild cluelessness that would have cemented the boys’ loser status. (Only one card manages the right level of silliness: “A merry Christmas, husband/ Happy New Year’s nigh!/ I wish you Easter greetings/ Hooray for the Fourth of July!”) And Ollie’s “nice mess” at the finale is merely being dropped into a garbage cart, which is pretty tame by Laurel and Hardy standards.
Two key reasons why The Fixer-Uppers is a better short than Slipping Wives can be summed up with two names: Mae Busch and Charles Middleton. Both performers were perfectly capable of scenery munching in more serious films and they skillfully get their hams on here to great comedic effect. Plus, both their voices had that overblown, stagy throb as their scenes reached their emotional crescendo. It’s glorious and tons more fun than Priscilla Dean and Herbert Rawlinson.
However, both performers could have been put to better use. Busch is more of a befuddled straight woman. It’s okay but not nearly as fun as her insane turn as a serial killer of Olivers in Oliver the Eighth, which had been released the previous year. Charles Middleton (still a year away from playing Ming the Merciless) has the deranged role this time around but the part is so bloodthirsty that we are led to wonder why Pierre has not already been arrested.
Ultimately, neither short displays Stan and Ollie at their best and the antagonist proves to be the problem both times. While Leon is not threatening enough, Pierre is entirely too psychotic to fit into the comedy.
And the winner is…
While it’s not their best picture, The Fixer-Uppers still has most of the Laurel and Hardy charm intact. Arthur Housman, Mae Busch and Charles Middleton help matters as well. Slipping Wives is a museum piece while The Fixer-Uppers is a flawed but enjoyable comedy.