Duck Soup (1927) A Silent Film Review

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy share the screen as true co-stars for the first time in this long-lost comedy short. The boys play hobos who hide out in an empty mansion to evade a firefighting draft and then must deal with prospective renters. If this sounds familiar, it is. Laurel and Hardy remade it as Another Fine Mess.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

I will also be reviewing Another Fine Mine, this short’s talkie remake. Click here to skip to the talkie.

Well, here’s another…

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s film careers intersected before they were formally paired at the Hal Roach lot. The Lucky Dog (1920 or 1921, the records are not good) was produced by Broncho Billy Anderson, starred Laurel and included Hardy in a relatively small role as a bandit. In 1926, Hardy had a supporting role in the Glen Tryon comedy 45 Minutes from Hollywood and Laurel had a blink-and-you-miss-it bit. Then in 1927, the two men made Duck Soup, a comedy based on a scenario by Laurel’s father.

The film was missing and presumed lost until it was recovered in the 1970s. Before its rediscovery, film historians thought that the film would have a lot of Laurel (the bigger star of the two) and just a bit of Hardy. William K. Everson went so far as to state that Hardy’s footage was “severely limited” in The Complete Films of Laurel and Hardy.

Not blaming Everson, there’s only so much you can do if the film is unavailable.

Everson and his contemporaries had good reason for believing this to be the case. After all, this was only the second time they had worked together on the Roach lot and other Laurel and Hardy comedies from early to mid-1927 had much more Laurel than Hardy. (Read my review of Slipping Wives, released just three weeks after Duck Soup, here. Laurel is the main character and Hardy’s role is very small indeed.) The men were not yet formally teamed and it didn’t make sense that the Hal Roach crew would capture the Stan and Ollie magic in a bottle only to release it again.

You know what? That Hardy guy has something!

Well, once everyone got a gander at Duck Soup, they quickly realized that was exactly what had happened. Instead of being severely limited, Hardy has his fair share of screen time and actually drives the entire plot of the short. They’re more dishonest and rougher around the edges but the Stan and Ollie in Duck Soup are the same boys we know and love. Not perfected yet but the basic lines are all drawn.

One quick note before we delve deeper into the film: Duck Soup was recovered from archives in France and Belgium without its English titles. The foreign titles were translated, of course, but the original H.M. “Beanie” Walker title cards are still lost. The version of the film released on home video in the United States relies heavily on the dialogue of Another Fine Mess, the sound remake of Duck Soup which featured Walker dialogue, to give the title cards appropriate Hal Roach flair. However, these cards use the names of characters from the remake and not the original film. (Colonel Buckshot instead of Colonel Blood, Lord Plumtree instead of Lord Tarbotham, etc.) For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the characters as they are named in the restored title cards.

Meet Colonel Buckshot.

The short opens with the bellowing Colonel Buckshot (James A. Marcus) bullying his maid and butler as he prepares for a long hunting trip overseas. Meanwhile, a shabby Stan and Ollie sit on a park bench and read the newspaper. It seems that a fire was started by hobos and so the Forest Service is drafting every vagrant they can find to fight it.

(This seemed absolutely bonkers to me and I looked into the matter. Apparently Canadian Mounties and Forest Service wardens scooped up young men by the dozens to press into firefighting duties in the 1960s and a ranger in the Rockies holding his panicking crew at gunpoint in 1910. I also found a 1943 issue of the Oakland Tribune that states 200 deer hunters were conscripted to fight a 1,000 acre fire. Certainly, the lack of explanation in Duck Soup would seem to indicate that the conscription of the homeless would have been seen as reasonably normal by audiences of the day. But then again, we are dealing with translated title cards, so…)

The bicycle is an underrated getaway vehicle.

Not exactly eager to start new careers as firefighters, the boys flee on a bicycle and are wrecked by so-so special effects. They are near Colonel Buckshot’s mansion and since the door is open, they slip inside. Once in, they overhear the maid and butler planning to go away for the weekend. The house is to be rented to a long-term tenant.

Stan and Ollie waste no time in tucking into the colonel’s larder but their meal is interrupted by the arrival of Lord Plumtree (William Austin, Alfred in the 1943 Batman serial) and his new bride (Madeline Hurlock), who hope to rent the mansion. The boys disguise themselves, Stanley as the maid and Ollie as Colonel Buckshot.

Nothing! Nothing can go wrong!

The forest rangers are still hanging around and the real Colonel Buckshot is heading back home to retrieve the bow and arrow he forgot to pack. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing fans of Laurel and Hardy talkies notice with their silent work is how much rougher they played, especially this early in their partnership. While their sound films did have a fair amount of slapstick, these scenes were balanced with quirkiness, wordplay and goofy character development. It’s no surprise that the most successful parts of Duck Soup involve Stan and Ollie being Stan and Ollie without a lot of frenetic action.

When in doubt, dash around like mad.

The short ends with a mad chase through the mansion and while things are funny enough, they are a bit too crowded and jumbled to bring real guffaws. Director Fred Guiol can be forgiven for not understanding the Laurel and Hardy brand (it didn’t exist yet!) but one wishes that he had slowed things up a tad. Compare the climax of Duck Soup to the hilarious chase in Putting Pants on Philip, a Laurel and Hardy comedy from December of 1927, and you will immediately see that less is more. That scene involved one room and three characters (one a non-participant) but it got 100% more belly laughs than the mansion chase with a half-dozen participants.

I did very much enjoy Marcus’s roaring Colonel Buckshot, who terrifies our hapless heroes in a manner usually reserved for Walter Long. Of course, he has good reason to be furious as he returns home to find that two vagrants have hired a moving van in order to steal all his furniture! The rest of the supporting cast is good, if a bit broad.

I think we might have something here.

As is the case with all good comedy teams, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. While Laurel’s solo work could be very funny and Hardy excelled at comedic heavies, nothing they did apart compares to what they accomplished together. This Laurel and Hardy film is rougher but the quieter moments with Stan and Ollie just interacting demonstrate that something magical is happening.

(There is a small but vocal minority of fans who dismiss Hardy’s contributions to the team because Laurel was more of the behind-the-scenes man. I can’t believe I have to explain this but comedy is not created entirely in the writer’s room or from the director’s chair. A born performer, Oliver Hardy brought his timing and grace to the team and he sparked Laurel to be funnier than he ever had been before. If you don’t believe me, just watch Laurel’s solo stuff. Often hilarious but never to the same degree as the Laurel and Hardy comedies.)

Laurel and Hardy, Hardy and Laurel… it will never work.

Of course, the comedic chemistry of Stan and Ollie couldn’t remain a secret forever and 1927 proved to be the most important year of their careers. After a couple of Stan Laurel vehicles, supporting roles in the films of other comedians and actually co-starring without being a certified team, Laurel and Hardy were officially joined later in the year thanks to the enthusiasm of Leo McCarey. (I don’t think I’ve ever had to check so many release dates for a review but 1927 moved so quickly for Stan and Ollie that it is essential to mention that a film was released in March and not December.)

An old hat for Stanley.

As mentioned before, Duck Soup was based on a stage comedy, Home from the Honeymoon, written by Arthur J. Jefferson, Stan Laurel’s father. The 1905 sketch involves two burglars (Flash Harry and Lightfoot Jim) who pose as the master of the house, Colonel Pepper, in order to dupe the newlywed Percy Fitzhuggins and his bride. Laurel himself toured with the sketch as a teenager in 1908 and it obviously stuck with him.

While the Stan and Ollie characters in Home from the Honeymoon are burglars with dubious cockney accents, Duck Soup softens them into vagrants. Sure, they still are willing to steal every valuable from the mansion but they didn’t go inside with that intent. (The characters were softened further in Another Fine Mess, which we will discuss in a bit.)

Same time next year, they would be partners.

Duck Soup is most interesting as a historical curio, an example of one of the near-misses Laurel and Hardy had on their path to superstardom. The short was released in March of 1927. By the end of the year, Laurel and Hardy were an official comedy item and well on their way to claiming their places as film legends. Duck Soup is a tantalizing glimpse into their future.

Where can I see it?

Duck Soup was released on volume 5 of the Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy series. The discs are now out of print and quite spendy for used copies.

Three-and-a-half years later, the talkies had completed their takeover of the film industry, the heady days of the twenties had been replaced by an unprecedented economic depression and Stan and Ollie were among the top comedians in the world. Their screen personas firmly established and their sound transition a smashing success, the team returned to the Arthur Jefferson well to remake Home from the Honeymoon as Another Fine Mess.

A far more jovial pair.

This time, Colonel Buckshot is played by James Finlayson, a Laurel and Hardy regular. Lord Plumtree (Charles K. Gerrard) and his bride (Thelma Todd) still want to rent the mansion but chaos ensues.

The Home from the Honeymoon mischief-makers have evolved from thieves to sticky-fingered vagrants to a pair of homeless chums plagued by Murphy’s law. After Stan refers to a beat cop as “ma’am” the pair have to skedaddle and take refuge in a basement. Finding themselves locked in, the duo make their way upstairs and, in a snowballing bit of comedy, are forced to commit themselves deeper and deeper into their impersonations. They don’t want to steal anything, they just want to get out of the mansion without getting caught by a vindictive cop.

Trying to pose as Colonel Buckshot. To the real Colonel Buckshot.

Hardy’s rich Georgia drawl is used to perfection as he impersonates Colonel Buckshot, a joke made even funnier by the real Buckshot’s Scottish burr. Laurel doubles the fun as he is forced to impersonate both Hives the butler and Agnes the maid. (He was only the maid in Duck Soup.) He soon becomes flustered and begins to mix his characters and their costumes.

Stan and Ollie in Another Fine Mess are shabby but clinging to some middle-class respectability. (Not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Laurel and Chaplin were part of Fred Karno’s Company, arrived in America in 1910 and… Well, I’ll leave the controversial can of worms unopened.)

More familiar costumes.

On the other hand, Stan and Ollie in Duck Soup are vagrants pretending to be princes. Ollie sports a monocle and a cigar case full of stubs. He slides into the role of Colonel Buckshot readily and seems to thoroughly enjoy himself. After all, he is living his own fantasy.

Further, the setup of Another Fine Mess is designed to create sympathy for our heroes. They have fallen on hard times and are trying to make the park a little more habitable. Sure, it’s goofy but it’s easy to imagine that a Great Depression audience would feel some measure of sympathy for their plight. In Duck Soup, made at the height of the fat, roaring twenties, the boys are clearly layabouts and (as it turns out) vandals.

Fancy a bit of girl talk?

Finlayson and Todd are particularly fun as Colonel Buckshot and the new wife of Lord Plumtree, respectively. While not as physically imposing as his Duck Soup counterpart, Finlayson does his patented firecracker act and blusters and rages his way through the part. Todd does her best upper class twit impression, failing to notice that her maid’s wig is not exactly convincing. It’s all rather cute.

Director James Parrott (brother of Charley Chase) understood exactly what made Laurel and Hardy tick and he knew to let the comedy scenes take their time. Highlights include Stan, disguised as the maid, having a girl-talk session with Thelma Todd and Ollie trying to fake a piano recital. (Parrott also directed The Music Box, which won a well-deserved Academy Award in the comedy short film category.)

Third time’s the charm.

While Duck Soup is a curio, Another Fine Mess is a classic with Stan and Ollie doing what they do best, falling backwards into trouble and never really climbing back out again. It’s great fun to watch both shorts back to back in order to compare the scenes and see how rapidly Laurel and Hardy evolved.

Availability: Released on DVD as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection (which omits their silent career, boo!). Also available solo via streaming.

***

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8 Replies to “Duck Soup (1927) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Lovely “dual” review! And I’m glad somebody agrees with me about Stan Laurel as a solo act. Years ago, I bought Kino Video’s “The Stan Laurel Comedies” sight unseen. I have to say, it nearly put me to sleep. It’s obvious that each man inspired the best in the other.

    1. Yes, I really enjoyed some titles like Dr. Pickle and Mr. Pryde but I generally find that both the Hal Roach house style and Oliver Hardy’s charms brought out the best in Laurel. Enormously talented but they both needed one another.

  2. In the early 1940s my dad took me to reissues of L&H’s 1930s movies — he was a devout L&H enthusiast and had seen them in person in one of their tours of movie theatres. I’ve been a lifelong fan ever since. Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Graham Greene was also a film critic who admired L&H more than Chaplin — Greene regarded L&H as pure poetry in motion devoid of pretentiousness, saying “they never wanted to play Hamlet.”

  3. DUCK SOUP is currently being restored by C-W Films Film Restoration so to be presented as it would have appeared when first released in 1927. It seems that some scenes (but not necessarily the very same scenes) were censored in many states or countries (when first released). The restored edition will have the whole film as it was intended to be shown–with the correct subtitle cards, and with excellent picture quality!

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