Duck Soup 1927
Filmed 20th September 1926 to 2nd October 1926, Released 13th March 1927, 2 Reels
Produced Hal Roach, Directed Fred Guiol
Photographed Floyd Jackman, Titles H.M. Walker
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Madeline Hurlock, William Austin, James A. Marcus
Widely thought of as the first “Laurel and Hardy” film, the story of Duck Soup was based on a sketch entitled Home From the Honeymoon written in 1905 by Stan’s father, Arthur J. Jefferson. As well as a playwright, A.J. Jefferson was also a theatre manager of some repute. Following a dispute with one of the comics appearing in Home From the Honeymoon, Jefferson replaced the actor with his own son, Stanley.
The Home From the Honeymoon premise must have appealed to Stan greatly, as he used it three times during his film career. First as Duck Soup, then, three years later, it was recycled for the sound short Another Fine Mess (1930), and finally, Stan re-used the opening sequence on the park bench for their 1932 feature-length outing Pack Up Your Troubles.
This first incarnation, Duck Soup, opens with a brief scene showing Colonel Blood, played by James A. Marcus, preparing to leave town to begin a big hunting vacation. His aged butler, played by William Courtwright, who would work alongside the boys again three years later as Ollie’s Uncle Bernal in the hilarious short That’s My Wife (1929), attempts to help but proceeds do quite the opposite, and he drives the colonel to distraction.
The film cuts to a quiet bench, filmed at Westlake Park, now re-named MacArthur Park, and Stan and Babe are introduced to the audience as characters, Marmaduke Maltravers (Hardy) and James Hives (Laurel); two vagrants, minding their own business. Babe earnestly attempts to read the newspaper, whilst Stan is convulsed with laughter at the comic strips or ‘‘funnies’, much to Hardy’s annoyance.
Hardy’s newspaper article reveals that vagrants are being drafted to help fight forest fires that are currently ablaze and out of control. Of course, Stan and Babe are soon accosted by the Forest Rangers, and, rather than being drafted, the boys make a swift and comical exit, first on foot and then by stealing a bicycle, chased closely by the rangers.
There follows a frantic chase sequence with Babe pedalling the getaway bicycle whilst Stan sits on the handlebars. The boys’ cycling scenes were shot at various locations around Culver City, and whilst stunt doubles were used for some of the shots, there are a good number of these scenes in which the boys do appear themselves. As John Bengtson highlights in his excellent online article, How Laurel and Hardy Filmed Duck Soup, the scene showing them cycling “west uphill along 3rd from the corner of Grand”, is actually Babe himself pedalling up the very steep hill.
They eventually give their pursuers the slip and hide in a large stately house, where some French doors have been left open. This is the house of Colonel Blood, who has since departed on his vacation and whose butler and maid are also just leaving to sneak a few days away for themselves.
From their hiding positions, the boys overhear that the house is to be empty for a few days, and so, once the coast is clear, they come out of hiding and begin to settle into their new, short-term lodgings, starting with a substantial slap-up meal. All the while, rangers are still sniffing around outside, trying to discover where the cowardly vagrants have fled.
Before long, the doorbell rings. The callers are Lord and Lady Tarbotham (William Austin and Madeline Hurlock), calling to enquire about renting the property. In the 1930 re-make, the Tarbotham characters are re-written as Lord and Lady Plumtree, with Charles Gerrard and Thelma Todd ably and memorably inhabiting the roles.
The remainder of the film is a bit of an old school farce, with Stan dressing up as Agnes the maid and Babe attempting to pass himself off as the master of the house, Colonel Blood. The prospective tenants have never seen Blood or his maid before, so the charade goes swimmingly; until the real Colonel Blood returns unexpectedly early and all hell breaks loose. James A. Marcus has a worryingly dangerous and unhinged air about him, much more terrifying than his 1930 counterpart, James Finlayson, who takes over the part as Colonel Buckshot. As one would expect, Finlayson would play the part much more humorously, but Marcus’ Colonel Blood was much more convincing as someone you wouldn’t want to cross.
This is enjoyable stuff to watch and very interesting from a historical point of view of the boys’ character development. There are some decent laughs here and there, and Stan’s performance in drag as Agnes, the maid, is excellent. However, Stan’s reprised version of Agnes in Another Fine Mess is arguably better, as the ability for Stan to play with dialogue opposite Thelma Todd adds a lot more depth to his characterisation.
In only their third appearance together, by one miracle or another, Duck Soup presents Stan and Babe as the fully-fledged Laurel and Hardy characters – almost! It’s certainly the first time the world saw the boys working together as a team, and from all appearances, their on-screen characters and relationship are pretty much fully formed in this film. Okay, so there’s still quite a bit missing, for instance, Ollie’s derby, his toothbrush moustache, the tie-twiddling and Stan’s trademark head-scratching and crying, to highlight just a few obvious elements. You could be forgiven for thinking that every one of the boys’ films, from here on in, would have built on the solid foundation blocks of Duck Soup, and the fine-tuning of the team would have begun in earnest, resulting in the Laurel and Hardy that we recognise today.
However, there was, frustratingly, still a further six or seven films with the boys playing random separate parts before Stan and Babe got the chance to be a team once more.