Sailors, Beware! 1927
Filmed April 4th to April 18th, 1927, Released September 25th, 1927, 2 Reels
Produced Hal Roach, Directed Hal Roach, Hal Yates, Titles H.M. Walker
Main Supporting Cast: Anita Garvin, Gustav Schaffrath, Frank Brownlee, Lupe Velez, Viola Richard, Tiny Sandford, Dorothy Coburn
The speed with which the Roach team were now turning out new comedies was impressive. The All-Star unit, to which Stan and Babe belonged, produced around one new picture every couple of weeks. As a case in point, the story for their latest vehicle, Sailors, Beware! was written by Hal Roach in late March, and the filming was completed between April 4th and April 18th, 1927.
For modern-day fans, Sailors, Beware! has all the frustrations of most of the boys’ pre-team films. Aside from not portraying the fully developed and identifiable Stan and Ollie characters, one of the main problems, shared by this and all the other pre-Laurel and Hardy pictures, is casting them as opponents or enemies. Yet, this is still a decent comedy with amusing gags and a great cast giving super performances.
Stan plays the part of Chester Chaste, a cab driver who is unwittingly loaded with his cab on board a cruise liner, the SS Mirimar, whilst Babe has the role of Cryder, the Purser on board the ship. There are some recognisable ‘Ollie’ traits on display here. His genteel smoothness with the ladies is lovely and very much like the familiar Ollie character. In contrast, and perhaps far removed from the ‘Ollie’ mannerisms, he instantly becomes aggressive and abusive to all the male passengers. A good illustration is a scene at the start of the picture where we’re introduced to his character. As Cryder welcomes passengers onto the ship, he is very charming to the women, but when the next in line, a male passenger, steps up, he rudely barks at them to move along and get on board. Babe’s transitions are sublime, alternating from charm to rudeness and then back again comically and effortlessly.
Joining the fun for her third film in a row, and her most prominent role so far, is Anita Garvin, who plays international crook, Madame Ritz. Garvin’s husband and partner in crime, played by Gustav Schaffrath, is a dwarf who tricks fellow passengers into believing he’s Garvin’s infant child, yet all the while scamming them out of their money and valuables. Born around 1904 in Germany, Schaffrath migrated to the States in March 1923 to join the A.S. Barnes circus in Dallas, Texas. Twenty-three years old, during the making of Sailors, Beware!, Schaffrath plays his part exceptionally well and makes the scenes that he’s in work brilliantly.
The supporting cast is littered with familiar names and faces. Although only in one scene, Viola Richard makes her second appearance with the boys. Viola’s character is playing cards with three other women, one of them being the villainous Anita Garvin. Garvin is secretly helped to cheat by her phoney infant, whose pram is positioned to give him sight of the other players’ cards. He signals to his wife what hands the women are holding, enabling Madame Ritz to win every time. Stan spots this foul play and quickly spoils their scam by ensuring Viola Richard plays the right cards to win.
Also of note in the cast are Tiny Sandford and Dorothy Coburn. Both players have minimal roles, but it’s always a delight to find them included. Coburn, appearing for the first time alongside Stan and Babe, is briefly seen on a deck chair, being pestered by Hardy’s character. Tiny Sandford plays a jealous husband who throws drunken Baron Behr, played by Will Stanton, out of his stateroom multiple times. The Baron had entered the stateroom in a drunken stupor, thinking it was his own, but finds himself in the room belonging to Sandford and his wife. The irate Sandford physically throws the Baron out into the hallway just as Stan is passing by. As an act of kindness, Stan helps the inebriated man by stuffing him back through the door of ‘his’ room, only to see him fly back out, courtesy of the off-screen Sandford. This happens twice more until Stan gets fed up and leaves the unfortunate drunk alone.
In an uncredited role, playing the part of Baroness Behr is Mexican-born stage star Lupe Velez. Sailors, Beware! was only Velez’s second film role, but her two films at the Hal Roach studio were enough to kick start her movie career. First appearing with Stan and Babe before they were even an official comedy team, Velez would go on to star in one more film with them, sharing a memorable tit-for-tat, egg-breaking scene in 1934’s MGM spectacular Hollywood Party.
Perhaps most noteworthy from a historical perspective is that this film is the first short starring both Stan and Babe together, in which Hardy performs what would become a trademark look directly into the camera to connect with the viewing audience. Whilst it’s true to say that this is certainly not the first time Babe had used it, he was now perfecting his craft.
Although the picture was filmed as part of the All-Stars series, the Pathé publicity billed Stan Laurel as the star, and rightly so. Stan carries the picture from start to finish and again turns in an enjoyable performance, with a scattering of trademark cries on display. Yet, several of Stan’s big gags, whilst very funny, are also a long way away from what would soon become his established ‘Stanley’ character. For instance, in the scene leading up to Babe’s poolside soaking, he pushes a couple of snooty bathers, one of them Lupe Velez, into the swimming pool, seemingly just because he’s annoyed by them. Then, later in the film, when Madame Ritz asks him to take the faux infant, in his pram, down the grand staircase, he gives it a shove and lets it free-wheel dangerously down the long flight of steps. These bursts of temperamental aggression are traits that the slow-thinking, passive Stanley would never feel. Stanley could and did get riled, but it usually followed a longer build-up or as part of a tit-for-tat exchange. Stan’s performance as Chester Chase is relatively fast-paced, not the slowed-down, dim-witted Stanley character yet. He is still quite belligerent towards anybody who crosses him and is quick to get into heated debates with people in authority, which is at odds with the Stanley that we know and love today.
Frustratingly, the film provides few opportunities for the boys to play off each other, but there are a few nice exchanges between them. One particularly humorous scene has Stan joining in with a female passenger skipping rope on deck. Babe, pursuing Stan, has to join the skipping action by visibly counting himself in to get near him. All three jump rope together for a moment until the Captain appears and stops it. The physical comedy is terrific, and the comic timing is faultless.
Following its release on September 25th, 1928, critics and exhibitors also appreciated the quality of Sailors, Beware! Almost eighteen months after its official release, it was still entertaining theatre audiences. By that time, however, it was showing concurrently with the new breed of MGM Laurel-Hardy movies, such as Two Tars, Habeas Corpus and Liberty. Even so, this old Pathé All-Star comedy was still received relatively positively, as this exhibitor review fairly records:
While this is not as good as the MGM Laurel-hardy comedies, it’s a funny comedy. These birds are good any place you find them. Sun Theatre, Kansas City in Exhibitors Herald World, February 16th, 1929