"Mr. Hardy is a bachelor -- Mr. Laurel married the successor to Sherlock Holmes."
Produced by Hal Roach
Although this plot synopsis can serve both versions, movie patrons of English-speaking theaters in l930 saw and heard a somewhat different edition of BLOTTO than everyone else has enjoyed since l937, when the film was re-cut and reissued. Through the years Laurel & Hardy aficionados have wondered why BLOTTO was singled out for such early re-release, plus why and how it was altered.
Later on short subjects would compete with feature films, or double-bill attractions. But in l930 shorts contended with live unit stage shows for the attention of audiences. In large cities, lavish in-theater presentations were offered in lieu of short product as a means of luring customers.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer responded with support for its lineup of short subject offerings. Publicists mounted a campaign aimed at exhibitors boasting that Metro was "long on shorts...(which offered) de Luxe showmanship. Count on M-G-M's box-office-tested shorts for show insurance! Hal Roach's comedies (two reels each) are bringing in, every day in the week, that extra business!"
They were. They did. In this test, the public preferred short product. Stage shows disappeared. Short product would not win the next contest, however, in the battle for time and space on a theater program.
Thanks (or no thanks) to a marketing ploy, the traditional components of movie programs changed during the l930s. More and more, shorts were gradually phased out of exhibition, and therefore out of production. The time theater managers allocated to a diversified lineup of one and two reel shorts, leading into the longer main attraction, began to disappear. Second features dispossessed shorts.
Loew's (which controlled M-G-M) owned its own theater chain and could take advantage of any trend in exhibition. Hal Roach Studios, however, was only an independent production operation, not a distributor, and not an exhibitor. M-G-M could adjust with ease, but if shorts were in jeopardy, Roach was in trouble.
So exhibitors (theater managers and bookers) were responsible for this shift away from short product. Instead of offering a series of short subjects -- a newsreel, a travelogue, a cartoon and a two-reel comedy -- a second, shorter "B" feature film was substituted at the discretion of exhibitors. In this way theaters could advertise a double bill program on the marquee outside, enticing and fooling movie fans into thinking they could get two features for the price of one. Actually they could. Indeed they did.
The hidden price of the "extra" feature was the opportunity cost of missing all the displaced short subjects. Things like The Voice of Hollywood (station STAR), Lowell Thomas (narrating the Fox Movietone News), James Fitzpatrick (and is Traveltalks), Flip the Frog, the Our Gang Comedies and all the rest were eventually crowded off theater screens. Instead of getting something more, or something for nothing, all audiences got was something different. And nothing better.
Therefore show business economics forced Hal Roach to alter production away from short subjects and into feature films. Not because shorts were unpopular, and not because features were somehow better. After two decades Roach had to abandon one and two reelers because the studio could not survive otherwise. Producing short product exclusively, or primarily, was profitable in l930, but a bad business model halfway through the decade. Conditions were changing dramatically.
To combat the so-called "double bill" menace for the l936-37 season, M-G-M launched a campaign on behalf of Hal Roach Studios extolling the virtues of one and two-reel subjects. Metro urged theaters to advertise their "distinguished" short product. "M-G-M Junior Features are definitely showman's shorts!" the publicity hailed. "M-G-M's Junior Features can and do balance the books as well as the program!...Sell the complete show by giving M-G-M shorts adequate display in your lobby." And up in lights on Loew's theater marquees outside. Or just on a stand, declaring for passersby to see, "Laurel & Hardy Here Today!"
Promoting the name value of short product stars would fill theater seats, was the message Metro promised. Shrewd exhibitors and circuit managers catering to discriminating audiences, however, complained to Metro sales agents in l936 that the most potent brand name in shorts was no longer available for this kind of profitable exploitation. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were no longer appearing in short subjects. Hal Roach had produced the last two reel comedy starring Laurel & Hardy, THICKER THAN WATER, in l935.
Fred Quimby managed production of the short feature department at M-G-M. Besides handling the Roach output, Metro produced its own series, including Carey Wilson Miniatures, John Nesbitt's Passing Parade, and the Crime Does Not Pay series. Quimby previously held the corresponding post at Pathe and moved to Metro in tandem with Roach in l927. So by l936 Quimby and Roach had worked together for two decades. When so many Loew's regional branch managers besieged Quimby for Laurel & Hardy short product, he telephoned Roach on November ll, l936. Both men understood the business reasons precluding the production of new two-reelers starring Laurel & Hardy. Since Roach could no longer manufacture shorts for the money that Metro was willing to pay to serve a dwindling audience, reissuing old subjects was the only solution to their problem. During the l920s and l930s films might remain in original release for about a year, and were thought to have a shelf life of about a decade. Roach's distribution agreement with M-G-M did provide for a ten year term, and he promised to nominate three subjects for Quimby's consideration.
Roach conferred with Matthew D. O'Brien to make a selection. O'Brien and Roach were boyhood friends from Elmira. In l936 O'Brien was general manager and secretary-treasurer of Hal Roach Studios, Inc. Together they selected three titles both men liked and O'Brien phoned Quimby. In response, Quimby sent O'Brien this letter on November l8: "Confirming our telephone conversation believe that following two-reel Laurel and Hardy comedies will be satisfactory for reissue, however, would like to see print of each before making definite decision: PERFECT DAY, NIGHT OWLS, BLOTTO. Believe that we also should look at print of the four-reel subject BEAU HUNKS with the thought of reissuing it, to be used as a second feature in double feature houses. Discussed the two-reel reissuing with Mr. Roach but did not discuss reissuing of BEAU HUNKS, however, am quite certain that he will be agreeable to the plan."
He was, as noted in hand by O'Brien on Quimby's letter. Whether it was Quimby or someone else who suggested re-releasing COUNTY HOSPITAL instead of NIGHT OWLS is not known. In l98l Hal Roach did not recall much about this, but did say of Fred Quimby, "He was a competent executive, I trusted him, but he was completely humorless. Why Louie Mayer placed him in charge of shorts there, I never understood. I mean the Pete Smith Specialties, the Bob Benchley things, the cartoons, they were comedies. Quimby never knew what was funny, or why."
Fred Quimby retired from M-G-M in l955. Animators of the Tom & Jerry cartoons, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, replaced him. By then one-reel cartoons were virtually the only shorts one could see on theater screens.
On December 3, l936, Mat O'Brien charged sound recording engineer Elmer Raguse with the task of preparing the four Laurel & Hardy subjects for reissue. In the interim since l930, BLOTTO, more than any other talking Laurel & Hardy short, had become dated. As would happen with respect to PARDON US as well, the repeal of Prohibition affected a key plot point. Why this impediment occurred to no one remains a mystery. Asked about it in l986, Hal Roach could offer no explanation, except to deride the merit of the inquiry! Possibly the very same thing had taken place exactly fifty years previously!
In the August 20, l930 issue of OUTLOOK & INDEPENDENT Creighton Peet wrote a surprisingly favorable piece on Laurel & Hardy and did raise the related issue insofar as how BLOTTO would play for audiences in countries without Prohibition laws: "Alone (Laurel & Hardy ) had hardly caused a ripple; together they are unquestionably the best comedians developed in the past ten years. At present they make from six to eight films a year, the stories and dialogue being written by Harley M. Walker and directed by James Parrott. Inasmuch as Laurel & Hardy speak both French and Spanish, special editions are made of their films in these languages (in Hollywood), while authorities in the latest French and Spanish slang and wisecracks translate the dialogue. One of their films, BLOTTO, dealing with the dubious pleasures of 'secret' drinking inspired by Prohibition, must be pretty confusing to the French audiences. In Buenos Aires it was advertised as VIDA NOCTURNA (NIGHT LIFE), 'entirely spoken in Castilian.' In an adjoining column was an ad for champagne at a dollar and a half a quart."
Of course Walker wrote only the dialogue, not the stories; Laurel & Hardy did not speak French or Spanish; and the films were not made in Hollywood but Culver City. Also during the intervening six years between l930 and l936 there had been a policy change in the self-regulatory code of ethics administered by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. As of July l, l934, under the new regime, moral guardians of filmed entertainment headed by Joseph Breen would now more strictly enforce the specific written standards of propriety and good taste in movies.
To cite a general principle, for instance, the Code dictated that "no picture shall be produced which will lower the standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." In l930 the sale and consumption of alcohol was a crime in America. If Prohibition had not been repealed in l933, the new strict adherence to the Production Code of l934 would have forbidden BLOTTO's reissue since the story sympathized with the pursuit of illegal activity! The original uncut edition of BLOTTO -- were it extant today -- would be classified as "a pre-Code film," now a mark of distinction among the film cognoscenti!
On January l3, l937 Elmer Raguse wrote the Breen Office concerning the four subjects scheduled for reissue. Raguse stated "no changes" were planned, and asked "will you kindly check from your files the status of the above pictures, insofar as censorship is concerned?"
In fact several changes were made, beginning with the alteration of the opening credits section. (The actual physical cutting was performed by film editor William Ziegler.) By l936 text title cards were relics of then "ancient" silent film days. So excising the gag introduction card written by H.M. "Beanie" Walker was an easy choice, if not a wise one. Then for reasons unknown, production credits were removed -- no director, cameraman, editor or sound engineer was named. Plus featured billing in the cast for Anita Garvin was removed. Not a prudent act: invoking the wrath of Anita Garvin.
A decade later when a company called Film Classics succeeded to M-G-M's distribution rights, they remade all the opening title cards and restored the production credits (although camera credit was mistakenly given to Jack Stevens instead of his brother George). That particular cut of BLOTTO, as used by Film Classics, constitutes the best pre-print material which survived to be preserved. No negative, print, or fine grain master from the original release in l930 has lasted long enough for us to restore the deleted titles and footage described next.
There were three main internal cuts , all footage with Laurel & Hardy, all now lost. Theater audiences viewed these sequences in l930 -- they have not been screened in English since. Their excision was recommended by the Breen Office because evidently each one violated at least the spirit and possibly the letter of the Code. And without the Code seal of approval on or before the main title of any post-l934 exhibition print, no movie theater in America would book and show that film. The industry meant to regulate itself, for fear that government censorship would be far more severe. So trimming certain scenes was recommended by Mr. Joseph Breen, and Mr. Elmer Raguse ordered it done.
Well into the second reel, a Spanish dancer performs. At the conclusion of her number the audience applauds. Cut here was Ollie's pantomimed instruction to Stan seeking more water for his mixed drink. Ollie holds out his glass, then looks back onto the dance floor. Stan aims the seltzer water, but his squirt misses the glass, instead spraying Ollie's lap. It takes several seconds to soak in before Ollie realizes what Stan has done, whereupon he jumps to his feet and slaps at Stan's errant hand. Ollie sits down before scolding and slapping at Stan again. Seems innocent enough, yet censors disapproved.
Instead of this sequence, extant prints cut directly from audience applause for the dancer to a shot of Anita Garvin poised to purchase her means of retribution outside the sporting goods store. Incidentally the Spanish dancer's routine is longer and more suggestive in the two export editions. They also contain two other alleged entertainers, both intrusive and extraneous, although the third dancer is at least attractive.
Fortunately an expanded version of this excised gag survives in LA VIDA NOCTURNA, which never had to withstand the tighter scrutiny of the l934 Production Code. In this extended sequence Hardy finds his chair has collected a puddle of water. So he exchanges the soda-soaked chair for a dry one at a nearby table, just as a dignified and elegantly dressed lady (played by Symona Boniface, later associated with so many society scenes in Three Stooges comedies) enters and sits down. Then she slowly gets up again, her evening ruined before it began.
There were specific articles in the censorship code, such as those entitled "Vulgarity," and "Profanity," which contained language that was interpreted to forbid the scenes edited from BLOTTO. The second trim comes right after the scene at the sporting goods store, near the start of reel three. Stan and Ollie appear to be drunk, hiccoughing and slurring their words ("le's have another, pal") and pouring another "drink" from what they believe is alcohol. This sequence represents the depths of their self-induced intoxication.
According to the Motion Picture Production Code, "The use of liquor should never be excessively presented. In scenes from American life, the necessities of plot and proper characterization alone justify its use. And in this case, its use should be shown with moderation." So much for the hiccoughs and the really good time the soused twosome believed they were having. There the cut version resumes as Frank Holliday sings THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART.
Following this number is the third and longest sequence to be deleted. When Holliday expresses his opinion of their cocktail, by spitting it out, Stan and Ollie offer criticism in kind of his singing. "We can sing better than that," Ollie boasts. They may think they can; they can't and proceed to prove it. Stan attempts to employ the ice tongs as a tuning fork. It doesn't help. He never could sing anyway, and Ollie's usually melodious voice sounds terrible. Besides, they can't remember the words.
The original l930 pressbook hails the scene with these words, "Oliver Hardy's whiskey tenor would make a confirmed drunkard tear at his hair with envy, and Stan Laurel's ditto alto would be the pride of a Limehouse rummy. It is just one of those things; so rotten you'll scream with laughter."
Or, maybe not. Probably not.
For the l937 reissue M-G-M prepared a new presssheet treating BLOTTO, BEAU HUNKS, COUNTY HOSPITAL and PERFECT DAY together. Although the boys' pained rendition of THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART was cut for the re-release, the story about it was not excised from the pressbook.
As their song nears its merciful end, the head waiter, played by Tiny Sandford, stops by in angry wonderment. He glowers at the duo, then twists Stan's ear as though turning off the noise. At this point the cut sequence rejoins the reissue version showing Stan and Ollie inebriated at the table. Fortunately this material was pretty much reworked intact for LA VIDA NOCTURNA and can be viewed there.
The primary editorial alteration in updating BLOTTO was to compile a more contemporary incidental music score. "Re-dubbing" was the phrase Raguse applied to this procedure of mixing an old dialogue track with new or different background melodies. And a new audio blend was needed not only to modernize the film, but to drown out the inherent surface noise -- the hash, hiss, and crackling sounds -- on a dialogue track recorded on "ancient" equipment. New, properly mixed background music would bring the soundtrack up to state of the art technical standards, as well as expectations of l937 audiences.
For this purpose Elmer Raguse drew upon the recent compositions of LeRoy Shield and Marvin Hatley for the feature films OUR RELATIONS (l936) and WAY OUT WEST (l937) to score BLOTTO for reissue. It worked. No one born after the subject's original release can imagine BLOTTO without the pacing and energy these delightful tunes provide.
While the original music track remains lost, one can view LA VIDA NOCTURNA to get a pretty good sense of how it played, and how different this assembly of stock tunes by different composers, and played by various orchestras, made the film seem. Some of the tunes selected for the original patchwork score were l929 pop hits. Fans filling theater seats could connect what they were seeing on screen with their independent knowledge of the songs' titles and their lyrics. Many of these tunes were selected for their meaning as much as for the melody. All of which would be lost on audiences today since only music scholars would recognize the songs. In l937 people would still recognize the songs, but as "old" music -- seven or more years old! -- therefore dating the film. It was another reason why the tunes were replaced for the reissue.
Raguse's revised music cue sheet was dated August 23, l937. Prints were available for booking out of regional M-G-M exchanges on October l, the domestic re-release date.
The reissue pressbook urged exhibitors to resist running double bills by means of encouraging a well-balanced theater program. BLOTTO should be sold like a feature attraction, was the message: "In Laurel & Hardy you have two marquee names that are favorites with every type of audience. Smart showmen will take full advantage of the boxoffice importance by giving their pictures feature prominence in all publicity, ads and lobby displays. One sheet posters, ad mats and 8xl0 stills are available at your local M-G-M exchange."
If only that were still true.-- by Richard W. Bann --