Our Relations - How and Why IV
The evaluation of VARIETY's critic was surprisingly favorable: "Based on mistaken identity with Laurel and Hardy playing dual roles, OUR RELATIONS is topnotch fare for the comedy team. Picture is the first to carry the Stan Laurel name as producer. Comic has done well in his initial effort as actor-producer. Harry Lachman's direction is exceptionally good. He has piloted the picture through a maze of gags, and maintained a semblance of plot throughout.
"Laurel and Hardy ... manage to get two excellent sequences, one with Arthur Housman in a phone booth and the other with their feet cemented in round forms in which they sway along the edge of a dock. Whoever contributed these ideas can take bows for something new.
"Supporting cast is strong. Daphne Pollard and Betty Healy are the wives, both handling their assignments well. Housman walks through the picture as a drunk in fine fashion. Jimmy Finlayson works in several sequences with Laurel and Hardy and gets most out of the comedy situations. Sidney Toler as a rough sea captain also contributes a nice performance....Impressive is the work of Iris Adrian as a trollop; unimpressive is Lona Andre as her pal.
"Art work and photography are both above par for comedy."
Unlike Hal Roach, the VARIETY reviewer saw no connection -- unpleasant or otherwise -- between Laurel & Hardy's crowded phone booth and the Marx Brothers' crammed stateroom. And as mentioned, it would be Stan Laurel who was entitled to take bows for the concept behind the film's climax, so superbly executed for heightened suspense by director Lachman.
Cynical trade reviewers were traditionally the hardest to please. The glowing consensus of these notices must have been reassuring to the filmmaking brain trust, although the divergence of opinion proves one more time that since they cannot seem to agree, not all film critics can be correct.
Both THE FILM DAILY and THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER suggested the picture could be tightened -- a frequent prescription of critics, usually adopted. Audience previews served the purpose of pinpointing where footage should be trimmed. But perhaps not in this case. Possibly not. Based on information available, either footage was restored (not likely), or new scenes were shot and added, or the declared running time of 65 minutes as reported in three different reviews was incorrect. The film was ultimately released on October 30 with a confirmed running time of 74 minutes, which ties to the length of extant master printing negatives today.
The large studio pressbook, possibly ready and furnished to reviewers at the time, also published an errant running time of 65 minutes. But if reviewers read the pressbook for the running time, the VARIETY reporter would also have seen that the producer was listed as Hal Roach, not Stan Laurel. So blaming the pressbook assumes none of the five trade critics independently timed the picture, or questioned the presumed differential of at least nine minutes. Probably more.
And probably the pressbook was furnished, it was mistaken, and none of the critics were critical enough to question how far off it was. Because -- once more -- probably the preview print ran well in excess of 74 minutes (not 65 minutes) and was eventually tightened based on scenes that were slow, didn't work, or really was confusing. But this is only speculation.
The last preview for OUR RELATIONS was conducted at the Ritz Theatre on July 2l, l936. No reviews were filed. The only record of the result was a memo dictated by Hal Roach to his secretary, Ruth Burch, to "Advise Metro and our departments the Laurel & Hardy picture is ready to ship. We are pleased." And the printing negatives were shipped to M-G-M in New York on August 11. Editor Bert Jordan's dialogue cutting continuity (the written transcript of the film's final dialogue and action content) was printed, and also dated August 11.
Elmer Raguse prepared and signed off on the music cue sheet August l3.
On September 2 and September 9, the New York office of Hal Roach Studios (conveniently located in the Loew Building, at l540 Broadway) sent letters to Ruth Burch in Culver City concerning the positive reaction and favorable comments OUR RELATIONS was receiving from the Metro sales, advertising and exhibition departments.
On September 5, following a recent luncheon with his studio alumnus Frank Capra, Hal Roach spoke to an Associated Press writer for a syndicated article. Seems Capra did Roach a favor, without knowing so. Capra had used Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper and other big stars in some rather broad, low comedy material, and Roach was grateful for the result since it was "taking the stigma off the comedy lot." Meaning his lot, since in l936 Hal Roach Studios was the only place in Hollywood devoted exclusively to making comedies.
In Roach's view, Capra started the vogue when he directed IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. With stars supplying their own comedy relief, broad comedy was no longer viewed as being "beneath the dignity" of dramatic stars and supporting dramatic actors in the business. Roach believed it was therefore going to be easier to sign that kind of talent for his comedies -- which was exactly what he did making OUR RELATIONS.
From his first days as a producer in l9l4, Roach had to develop his own talent, "because few established stars would consent to play in comedy....When Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy and Bill Powell all do regular comedy 'gags' in their pictures -- the sort we use in comedies all the time -- it becomes a popular thing to do," Roach explained.
Roach also took another opportunity to rail against the double feature, "which is here to stay, for better or worse," he said, "but within a year or two the second feature will give way to a four or five-reel comedy. Exhibitors have played double attractions for a long time, but they didn't need a second feature when they could get two-reelers of Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. Even with a poor feature picture, one of those two-reelers would save the program. But features became the thing -- our first feature with Harold Lloyd played 26 weeks in Los Angeles -- and as features improved, over time the short comedies have deteriorated.
"When they started using double features, it got so we weren't getting enough for a two-reeler to justify putting our important people in them, or spending any money on them. That's why I'm doing six or eight features a year now instead of making the 40 short pictures we used to do."
Roach cited another trouble with double features; exhibitors cannot easily book two films that offer variety or complement one another. "And that's another reason," Roach added, "why I'm sticking to comedy. I want pictures like OUR RELATIONS that will go well with any dramatic feature. Only -- I'd like to make them shorter, say four or five reels. And I think that's coming, too."
On September 29 OUR RELATIONS was registered with the copyright office.
On September 30, still well in advance in the picture's release, the studio's New York office wrote again to Ruth Burch, for the purpose of "calling to Mr. Roach's attention ... that at the request of His Majesty, The King of England, the Laurel and Hardy feature, OUR RELATIONS, was privately viewed by the royal party at Balmoral Castle."
In her column for the Hearst syndicate, Louella Parsons added of the October l command performance before the British Monarchy that "this is the house-party attended by the much-publicized Mrs. Wally Simpson." On December l0 the king signed an instrument of abdication and left the throne, soon after marrying Mrs. Simpson in France.
As Oliver Hardy's mother in OUR RELATIONS might well have warned him, and Stan Laurel too, "Let this be a lesson to you." Evidently, they paid no attention to any such advice.
On October 22, Warren Doane returned to the organization to head up the scenario and story department. Roach had relied upon Doane from l9l9 until l93l; he left coincident with the arrival of Henry Ginsberg -- as did, unfortunately, many other Roach colleagues. Now with Ginsberg gone and the Lot of Fun smiling again, and gearing up for an extensive production schedule, several of Hal Roach's trusted friends would return to their home base: Richard Currier, Robert F. McGowan, Robert A. McGowan, Fred Guiol, Fred Newmeyer, Jimmy Parrot, and eventually many others.
Finally, on October 30, OUR RELATIONS was released to movie theaters for the king's subjects, and everyone else around the globe, to see and enjoy.
An additional wave of reviews were published. Once more, the cynical Hollywood press corps was, surprisingly, enthusiastic and impressed. A second VARIETY assessment was printed on November l8, this time in the weekly edition of the paper, based on attending a show at the Rialto Theatre in New York.
"Stan Laurel has done himself proud on his first fling as a producer," VARIETY said. "So much so that Metro gives him liberal credit as such with the latest try of the Laurel-Hardy combination. Looks like easily their best all-around laugh-evoker to date, and a certain bet as a double program strengthener, with the time consumed on screen helping in this respect. It may hold its own in localities where the fun combo are favorites or houses appeal as drop-in spots.
"For one thing Laurel and Hardy get plenty of chances to talk and the dialogue handed them is considerably above par. Picture is deftly gagged, with the slapstick routines nicely contrasted with the saner moments. OUR RELATIONS is based upon a short story published in l903 but it is doubtful the author would recognize the screen version. Principal reason is that the plot has been subordinated for laugh purposes, with every move concocted to popular appeal.
"Most of the mix-ups involve instances of mistaken identity, with the twin brothers of Laurel and Hardy wandering into situations that obviously contain dynamite for the unsuspecting victims. These wild complications have a certain degree of plausibility. Besides a quota of new gags and hokum stunts, some of the old ones have been given a fresh outer coating so that they are not so indigestible. Outstanding uproarious sequences are the phone booth episode with three men packed in and the climactic one where the two clowns sway along the dock with their feet embedded in cement forms.
"Harry Lachman's direction is outstanding, being neatly geared to grab maximum chuckles. Richard Connell and Felix Adler, who authored the screenplay, contribute a modicum of draggy moments. Their dialogue is especially sprightly for vehicle of this type.
"With Laurel and Hardy playing both the sailor twins and the hen-pecked hubby twins, except where stand-ins are employed, the pair do not depend on their old droll tricks for best results. While there has been no attempt to bury the familiar humorous characterizations, they have been given more to do and funnier situations to enact. Here, the original touch of Stan Laurel as producer obviously is in evidence.
"Best contributing comedy role is by Arthur Housman as an inebriated gentlemen. When given the chance he runs the comic duo a close race. Vet James Finlayson handles dialectical humor with skill. Daphne Pollard and Betty Healy, as the wives, chip in with splendid support. Iris Adrian and Lona Andre do fairish work as beer garden flirts. Sidney Toler, Alan Hale and Noel Madison top a big supporting cast.
"Picture is billed as a Hal Roach Studios presentation. Much care has been given to elaborate production and lavish backgrounding. Rudolph Maté's lens work is good without being noteworthy."
In its November 2l issue, the MOTION PICTURE HERALD was likewise enthralled: "The relations named in the title are the twins brothers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, known as Bert and Alf, who are played, as are themselves, by Messrs. Laurel and Hardy in a manner less confusing than this paragraph and more reasonably, logically, and effectively than is commonly the case when identical twinship is used pictorially for comic or other purposes. As if in realization that twin portrayal has ever been a production pitfall, the sponsors appear to have taken extraordinary precautions against the occurrence of confusion, and the hearty reaction of a by no means handpicked audience present at the screening covered in this report is evidence that they have been extraordinarily successful. Hilarious is the word for that audience's response to the production.
"The story presents Messrs. Laurel and Hardy as themselves and simultaneously as their twin brothers, whom they believe to have been executed at sea for mutiny. Circumstances bring their seagoing twins to the city of their residence and during a day and night in which the paths of the quartet cross repeatedly without bringing the brothers face to face (until the end), complications entangle all hands in comic, dangerous and otherwise stimulating situations.
"Double exposure is used sparingly and identities are preserved, as far as the audience is concerned, by intelligently handled alteration of sequences. In addition to the comedy of gesture, grimace and pantomime which is characteristic of the comedians, is to be observed, in this appearance, the use of comedy dialogue, on a plane more nearly approaching the Charles Butterworth, Roland Young type of humor than anything these players have employed previously.
"Reviewed at the Rialto Theatre, New York, where laugh machines and other spectacular lobby exploitation were employed to attract passerby in Times Square and where widely assorted members of a capacity matinee crowd laughed long, lustily and often as the picture ran its course."
Of general audience critics, first that of the NEW YORK TIMES, as offered by no less than Frank Nugent on November ll, "Laurel and Hardy, Sennetters-at-large, are pursuing the abdominal guffaw with their usual subtlety in OUR RELATIONS, which opened yesterday at the Rialto. A knockabout comedy in which an acute case of confused identities is permitted to develop into galloping bedlam, it restates most of the slapstick arguments and offers a few new ones. Although it is fast and undeniably furious, we reached the saturation point when the picture touched the half-way mark. Custard pies can be funny, but only in limited amounts.
"Still, the hearty gentleman at our right enjoyed it. In his excesses of mirth he kept digging us in the side with his elbow -- particularly when Mr. Hardy smeared mustard over Jimmy Finlayson's bald head -- and laughed until our ribs were sore. We did not begrudge him his belly laughs; we stifled a few ourselves, for Laurel and Hardy are a funny pair; but they should know when to stop -- and that is after the third reel."
Frank Nugent, nearly as bright as Laurel & Hardy are funny, should have known why they couldn't stop after three reels.
Archer Winsten offered his opinion for the NEW YORK POST: "Those veteran exemplars of slapstick, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, bring a full bucket of the same to the Rialto in their full-length feature, OUR RELATIONS.
"Based on a stubborn and recurrent case of mistaken identities, the plot hammers its way through countless head-thumpings, nose twistings, food thrown in faces, and wreckage. The Hal Roach touch, not a light one, is much in evidence....
"It is all extremely uproarious, one error succeeding another in rapid succession, and if you like that sort of thing, you will giggle your fool head off."
For the NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE, Marguerite Tazelaar wrote, "If you like Laurel & Hardy, there is a feast waiting for you at the Rialto....
"In spite of its enormous hilarity, some new gags and our own increasing conviction that this team has a great comic talent, the new picture is not up to two earlier ones these clowns made -- THE BOHEMIAN GIRL and THE DEVIL'S BROTHER....Their struggles in a phone booth (with a drunk they have picked up) is as funny, to this way of thinking, as anything Chaplin ever did."
Both THE BOHEMIAN GIRL and THE DEVIL'S BROTHER incorporated the music, romance and outside names Hal Roach usually wished to incorporate in the Laurel & Hardy feature films as a means of maximizing commercial appeal among all strata of moviegoing audiences.
In the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, Kate Cameron told her readers, "Those hardy perennials of the screen, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, are gagging their way through their latest effort at the Rialto Theatre.
"According to the legend on the screen, the plot of OUR RELATIONS is based on a story by one of England's greatest humorists, W.W. Jacobs, but I believe there are more Laurel and Hardy gags than Jacobs wit in the revamped MONEY BOX."
The NEW YORK AMERICAN offered this commentary to moviegoers, "We Rialto Theatre Early Birds, composed, for the most part, of the windbreaker and sweater set, foregathered at a dawnish hour yesterday to indulge in our deplorable predilection for the on-screen antics of Messrs. Laurel and Hardy. What they had to offer was their modern dress version of William Shakespeare's COMEDY OF ERRORS.
"In the Times Square sector, under the scarcely superior title of OUR RELATIONS, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse are Stan and Alf Laurel, while Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse are Ollie and Bert Hardy. Maybe it's the other way around! Who is who, which is which, doesn't really matter.
"What really matters to us Rialto Theatre Early Birds is that Messrs. Laurel and Hardy are on hand with their brows and comedy as low as ever. Cakes are thrown instead of custard pies, but, apart from this innocuous innovation, Stan and Ollie remain the last of the pagliacci to whom a slapstick's sacred."
From the NEW YORK WORLD TELEGRAM, on November 11, this view, "In case you are in search of some good, lusty slapstick that will tickle your funnybone with its knockabout highjinks, then the Rialto, where OUR RELATIONS, the latest Laurel and Hardy film, is on view, is the place to visit these days. Indeed here is a recommended photoplay for low comedy enthusiasts and others who would relish some robust, fundamental comedy as a relief from the sophisticated, satirical type of fun that the movies have been offering lately.
"The opportunities to see low comedy on the screen are becoming less and less frequent each season now, as old-time masters of slapstick are either disappearing from the screen altogether or are modifying their erstwhile tactics to such an extent as to be almost unrecognizable. Such being the case, you who still retain memories of Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon and others would better drop in at the Rialto and see OUR RELATIONS, which seems to have all the earmarks of old-time low comedies.
"I'll warrant that you'll have a good time at it from beginning to end and that on several occasions you'll laugh your head off at the antics of its two principals."
So much for critics on the New York opening, a rather enthusiastic group of Laurel & Hardy fans as it turned out.
Hal Roach left for the coast on November 7, after ten days in New York. He attended an OUR RELATIONS screening at the Rialto Theatre in Times Square, and he conferred with Nicholas Schenck on next season's program slate. Evidently Schenck was not displeased with the way Roach produced OUR RELATIONS.
Planned for the 1936-37 season were six ambitious musicals budgeted at $500,000 each, beginning with PICK A STAR. This item was reported several places, including the ALONG THE RIALTO column in FILM DAILY, which concluded with an assessment of the driving force behind the new production lineup, "It was in l9l2 that Hal Roach busted into films when he answered an ad for screen cowboys, and started work at Universal at five bucks a day.....two years later he decided he knew enough about the biz to become a comedy producer.....he was evidently right.....look at him today.....at the top of the heap.....and still going strong.....a young man of 44 with his life still before him.....Hal is one of those optimistic gents always looking ahead to bigger and better things.....he tells friends that with a reasonable break he hopes to get somewhere in this film biz.....he figures he has Just Started.....what a man!"
On November l7 it was announced that the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had asked to screen OUR RELATIONS as the featured entertainment to be provided aboard the cruiser Indianapolis during the president's goodwill tour sailing around South America.
No plans were announced concerning a possible, rumored rendezvous with either the S.S. Periwinkle, or potential companions Alice and Lily, during the president's seagoing trip. A tight-lipped White House spokesman resisted confirming or denying if any meeting was planned between the president and either or both of the young lovelies. "I wouldn't say yes," declared the representive in response to an inquiry, "and I wouldn't say no."
Besides command performances for King Edward VIII, the King of England, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States, plenty of others around the world were pushing nickels and dimes across boxoffice counters for admission tickets to see this "low comedy," OUR RELATIONS. The domestic gross totalled $327,759, while a preliminary overseas revenue figure amounted to $623,538. After deducting the cost of prints, advertising and the M-G-M distribution fee, the provisional net profit on just the initial theatrical release would be $306,000. OUR RELATIONS was a commercial success, justifying the faith of Hal Roach, Stan Laurel and the rest of their team of comedy filmmakers and performers.
The domestic gross returned by MODERN TIMES, however, was a figure nearly five times greater, at $l.4 million. The money talks, although Chaplin still did not.
On a related financial note, on January l6, l937 the United States government made public the salaries paid in l935 to the leading Hollywood stars and executives in the movie industry. Some selected individuals, and their l935 gross earnings were as follows, beginning with the highest paid figure -- and what a figure -- in motion pictures:
On the one hand, these figures are not adjusted for significant price level changes; on the other hand, on average, 46% of Hollywood's high bracket salaries went to pay federal and state income taxes. Of Chaplin's $2l6,000 gross earnings, he would net only $90,8l4. Oliver Hardy's $85,3l6 was reduced to a net income of $55,906 after the heavy levy taken by taxation. .
The next year, l936, Hardy was paid $88,600; Laurel earned $135,000; and Roach received $129,000. The declared earnings of Hal Roach, however, was deceiving, since he received many perks provided to him as expenses of the corporation he controlled. The highest paid person in America for l936 was actress Claudette Colbert. Her famous hitchhiking scene in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT would soon be the object of parody by Stan Laurel in WAY OUT WEST.
As all figures above are pre-tax, so are they also pre-alimony. With OUR RELATIONS piling up sizable earnings at the boxoffice, the real Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were, unfortunately, themselves accruing sizable indebtedness for alimony and related legal fees. On November 5, as the picture opened in theaters around the world, the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD carried a headline, "Argues Laurel Too Poor To Pay Alimony." The related details constitute another story entirely, one more complicated than the plotting of OUR RELATIONS, although not without curious parallels. Since two different women were simultaneously claiming in court to be Mrs. Laurel, and demanded huge separate maintenance cash allowances, could it be true there really were two Laurel brothers named Alf and Stan?
It was no laughing matter, for the one and only Stan Laurel, solemn-faced throughout the messy court proceedings which droned on and on.
Seaman Laurel was doubly despondent because Mrs. Virginia Ruth Laurel had tied up his yacht, the Ruth L, at Avalon in Catalina, with a court order. "Oh well," Laurel tried to console himself, as reported by the newspapers, "the swordfishing season is just about over anyway."
Then proving almost conclusively that life imitates art, the very same week, Oliver Hardy was dragged into court with the same twin, double trouble of marital difficulties. Two former wives of his were petitioning judges for alimony. Was this cruel irony someone's demented publicity stunt to promote the picture? Just an in OUR RELATIONS, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy were chased and browbeaten by four women, all at once, all complaining, all wanting satisfaction, financial and otherwise, all while their film-comedy-of-connubial-errors was delighting moviegoers everywhere.
On November l3, columnist Jimmy Starr reported in the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD EXPRESS, "Nice part is, however, that the front-paging of (Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy's) divorce antics have caused long lines at the boxoffices for their new giggle-getter, OUR RELATIONS, in which they are matrimonially entangled."
-- by Richard W. Bann --