Friday, November 21, 2008

Pack Up Your Troubles (Hal Roach/MGM, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles asked me either not to run a movie at all or to pick something “funny and uplifting.” I managed to find a film that was both: Pack Up Your Troubles, the second feature-length Laurel and Hardy vehicle, produced by Hal Roach in 1932 and directed by George Marshall (best known for his later vehicles for Bob Hope) and Ray McCarey (Leo’s brother) from a script by H. M. Walker (credited as the dialogue writer and one of the few silent-movie title writers who successfully made the transition to writing sound scripts) and probably worked on by Laurel himself as well as the usual crew of Roach gag-writers. The film opens in 1917; the U.S. has just entered World War I and a recruiter (Tom Kennedy) picks Laurel and Hardy as the unlikeliest cannon fodder conceivable.

They screw up in all the predictable service-comedy ways, from being unable to march in step with the rest of their unit (Aristophanes probably pulled this gag in Athens but it’s still hilarious) to getting assigned to dispose of the military’s garbage: when they ask the cook what they’re supposed to do with four trash cans’ worth of smelly kitchen leavings, he sarcastically tells them, “Take it to the general!” Of course, Laurel and Hardy do just that, dumping it all in the living room of the general (James Finlayson with a Bismarck-esque white moustache — his appearance in this role leaves one to wonder why the American army in World War I had a Scottish commanding officer) and ending up in the brig — along with the cook, who makes it clear he won’t forgive them for having snitched on him. To get rid of them, their commander in the field sends them on a suicide mission to pick up a German prisoner — and they end up stealing a tank and ensnaring an entire German company in barbed wire.

The only friend they made in the army was Eddie Smith (Donald Dillaway), the son of a rich family who married beneath what his parents considered proper for their station and was rewarded by his wife leaving him for someone else and dumping their baby daughter on him. Before he went into the service he placed the kid with two foster parents (Rychard Cramer and Adele Watson) who seem like the stuff of Charles Dickens’ nightmares — though there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud Laurel and Hardy comedy in this movie, it’s one of the darkest they ever made — and when Eddie is killed in the war Our Heroes take it on themselves to find his daughter and then trace his parents and introduce them. The second half of the film is a surprisingly dark search as they try to find the Smiths and are up against not only the sheer plethora of people with that name in New York City but also the law (who accuse them of kidnapping the child) and the child welfare people (who want to recover her and put her back with those abusive foster parents — child welfare workers were as clueless then as they are now).

They end up innocently taking money from a bank — they attempted to borrow on the lunch wagon they bought as a post-service business and when the bank president tells them, “In order to lend you $2,000 on that thing, I’d have to be unconscious,” he’s obligingly rendered unconscious when a bust of Shakespeare (what was a bank president in a 1932 movie doing with a bust of Shakespeare in his office?) falls on him at the precise moment. It turns out that the bank president is Eddie Smith’s father and the girl is therefore his granddaughter — and when he realizes this he’s so overjoyed that he refuses to press charges and invites Laurel and Hardy to dinner … only his cook is the guy they snitched on back in the early part of the film, and so it ends with them fleeing the scene and running hell-bent for their lives again.

Though it was only their second feature, Pack Up Your Troubles is a surprisingly well-structured movie (some of the Laurel and Hardy features were haphazard assemblages of gags, musical numbers and bits of plot, but not this one), with carefully “planted” plot devices and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Though it’s a little girl (Jacquie Lynn) instead of a little boy, the resemblance of this film to Chaplin’s The Kid is pretty obvious (but then Stan Laurel had understudied Chaplin in Fred Karno’s comedy troupe in Britain and the Chaplin influence hung heavily on him his entire career!), and like The Kid, Pack Up Your Troubles is deliberately played to avoid the sentimentality that usually took over when Hollywood in the 1930’s did anything involving kids. (The fact that this movie was made two years before the emergence of Shirley Temple probably helped; once Temple became the biggest movie star of the 1930’s, just about every pre-pubescent actor in Hollywood of either gender got pressed into her rancid cutesie-poo mold.)

Even one of the film’s funniest scenes has a dark undercurrent: they’ve traced Eddie Smith to a society home that’s hosting a big wedding (with Grady Sutton as the bridegroom and Billy Gilbert as the bride’s father!) and, when Laurel and Hardy announce that they’re bringing Eddie Smith’s baby, naturally his father-in-law-to-be decides that the man is a cad (Grady Sutton a cad?) and the wedding is not to be, so a perfectly innocent man loses his chance at a good marriage out of a mistaken identification that the filmmakers don’t stop long enough to give him a chance to clear up. There’s one other interesting scene, in which one of the “Smiths” Our Heroes trace turns out to be Black — and though the actor in this role gets only three lines and less than a minute of screen time, he’s able to play his part with a surprising level of dignity and humanity for an African-American character in 1932. Also, this film was remade surprisingly closely by the Ritz Brothers in 1939; though their studio, 20th Century-Fox, didn’t acknowledge the similarity and claimed that their version of Pack Up Your Troubles was based on an “original” screenplay by Lou Breslow and Owen Francis, the synopses in the American Film Institute Catalog describe virtually identical plotlines.