The Fixer Uppers - Contemporary Film Criticism
Leslie Halliwell: "Rather flat comedy marking a tailing-off from the stars' best period."
Glenn Mitchell: THE FIXER UPPERS is one of the low key efforts characterizing their final shorts....Authentically plastered as usual is Arthur Housman, whose tearful reaction to a Christmas card verse is one of the film's highlights."
Low key is an apt description. THE FIXER UPPERS was not aimed very high. It's pretty much an unremarkable and routine short, at least as compared to Laurel & Hardy's more famous and inspired efforts. In late 1934 and 1935, with everyone at the studio then focusing on the transition to feature film production, it seems as though shorts such as THE FIXER UPPERS were merely cranked out as units of product delivered to fulfill Roach's obligation with Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer. The real creative energy, and the best gags, were mostly saved for the now more important feature films.
Few aficionados would grade THE FIXER UPPERS above the second echelon of Laurel & Hardy two-reelers. And yet we shouldn't underestimate its worth either, since this short never fails to please audiences of casual viewers. Despite the stars performing here sometimes almost as caricatures of themselves, it works. Then as now, viewers laugh.
As for Arthur Housman, he was indeed, "authentically plastered," yes. Evidently that was often the case with respect to Mr. Housman, regardless of whether or not the cameras were rolling! In 1982, in casual conversation, Hal Roach was discussing three actors who once vied for supremacy as drunks in movies -- Housman, Jack Norton, and Harry Myers. Watching television earlier in the day, Roach had enjoyed a performance by Jackie Gleason where he was called upon to stagger through something, inebriated -- perhaps a HONEYMOONERS episode. So Roach was in a mood to talk about drunken characterizations in movie comedies.
"Myers was great as a drunk in a picture (CITY LIGHTS) with Chaplin," Roach remembered. "We used both Norton and Housman regularly for that kind of thing. Stan Laurel liked Housman. Whenever I saw the guy, he seemed to be feeling no pain. I was never sure if he was acting the part of a drunk to impress me so I would use him, or if he was really just drinking all day. I never knew the difference. Laurel told me he was drinking most of the time, and preferred gin.
"From experience, we found the trick was to get across that Housman was a rich guy, and a nice guy. Anything else and people would either feel sorry for him, or be angry with him."
Instead, as in THE FIXER UPPERS, people laughed. What Roach remembered was how Housman was used here, and elsewhere in Hal Roach Studios comedies: he does have money, he is generous with it, and he's as helpful as he can be. Besides, he talks funny, he moves funny, he was funny.
Possibly connected with his excessive real-life drinking, Housman died of pneumonia, on April 7, 1942, at age 52.
He began his career on the New York stage, toured in vaudeville, then entered movies in 1910 with straight parts and comedy roles at Edison and Selig. Important credits -- not all of them comedies -- include Roland West's THE BAT (1926), F.W. Murnau's SUNRISE (1927), W.C. Fields' FOOLS FOR LUCK (1928), Al Jolson's THE SINGING FOOL (1928), Harold Lloyd's MOVIE CRAZY (1932), Mae West's SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1932), Ernst Lubitsch's THE MERRY WIDOW (1934), Jean Harlow's RIFFRAFF (1935), Bing Crosby's TWO FOR TONIGHT (1935), Clark Gable's CALL OF THE WILD (1935), James Whale's SHOW BOAT (1936), William Powell's AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936), and the Marx Brothers' GO WEST (1940).
Housman made four other welcome and memorable appearances with Laurel & Hardy in SCRAM (1932), THE LIVE GHOST (1934), OUR RELATIONS (1936), and THE FLYING DEUCES (1939).
In the middle to late 1920s, Housman enjoyed success with a series of shorts at Fox, more often than not as a sober and straight comic, at least as can be seen in the few entries which survive. When Edgar Kennedy left his role as Roach utility player "Kennedy the Cop" in 1930, it was to co-star with Housman as a comedy team in a new series for Pathe about bickering neighbors. The concept may well have been inspired by Kennedy's work with Laurel & Hardy in PERFECT DAY (1929). The first entry, NEXT DOOR NEIGHBORS (1931) was very much in the Laurel & Hardy mutual abuse mode. Successive episodes, including HELP WANTED, FEMALE (1931) did not succeed, however, and the team folded when Kennedy left Housman and the neighborhood to begin his long running series over at RKO.
Housman turns up tipsy in several 1930s Columbia two-reelers starring the Three Stooges and Andy Clyde. When the latter's AM I HAVING FUN! (1936) was remade as CRAZY LIKE A FOX with Billy Gilbert in 1944, Housman was by then deceased, so Jack Norton played his role.
One of Housman's silent Edison comedies was entitled THE SIMP AND THE SOPHOMORES (1915), featuring an "O.N. Hardy."
It was just about this time -- the mid-teens -- that Housman gave one of his only known published interviews, for MOTION PICTURE MAGAZINE. "I was born in New York and educated there," Housman told the reporter. "When my mother wanted me to go to college, I went out and got a position so I'd have a good excuse to get out of more education.
"My favorite parts? Don't ask me to name the characters, for I can't remember them, but I look for 'boob' parts. I've had a lot of them to play, and I like them pretty well. I like any comedy part, though.
"I've been with the Edison company for four years, and I like it much better than stage work, for it is, in a way, easier; there is no night work, and it's more interesting, for on the stage you play the same part for a whole season, and sometimes more, when in 'movies' you have a new part handed you every week, and sometimes two.
"My great ambition? Oh, to have a few million dollars and a chicken farm."
Then or now, drunk or sober, who could argue with any part of that?
More contemporary criticism, from Randy Skretvedt: "The pacing of (THE FIXER UPPERS) is a bit slow, but there are a number of amusing bits. The dialogue is quite entertaining too....It's notable for its locale, which may or may not be Paris. The sets and costumes have a Gallic look, yet other aspects of the film are decidedly American."
Leonard Maltin: "The cast is full of familiar faces to any Laurel & Hardy fan, including blood and thunder Charles Middleton, tipsy Arthur Housman, and the ever-popular Mae Busch...at her most glamorous as a woman who hires the boys to make her artist husband jealous. A scene in which she shows Ollie how a lover would kiss her, by practicing on Stan, is comic timing at its best."
William K. Everson: "The highlight of the whole film, and indeed one of the funniest scenes that the comedians ever did, is a long, beautifully paced and edited sequence in which Mae shows Oliver how a lover should kiss her by practicing on Laurel. She grabs the stiff and unresponsive Laurel in a tight close-shot of their two heads ... and presses her lips to his. Laurel doesn't react, but the camera frequently cuts away to Hardy's face, capturing its alternating expressions of disbelief, amazement, and impatience. In long-held shots, he shares his incredulity with the audience, beginning, after a while, to time the kiss with his watch; then listening to his watch to make sure that it is still going; assuring the audience that it is, and finally turning back to the still-kissing couple just before they break their clinch. Laurel falls swooning to the floor. But as Mae begins to explain to Hardy that that's how she should be kissed, Laurel, suddenly revived and very much aroused, bounces back and embraces Mae passionately, giving her another torrid kiss. When they break this time, it is Mae who faints!"
THE FIXER UPPERS was Laurel & Hardy's next to last short subject before moving to feature films exclusively. As an indication of how little relative importance was attached to this production, the story was a reworking of the basic plot for SLIPPING WIVES (1927), a primitive and frenetic Pathe Laurel & Hardy short which was actually an All-Stars release. Their teamwork in SLIPPING WIVES had been pretty much coincidental, with Hardy given a mere supporting role as the family butler. In the far superior remake, it is Hardy who dominates both the action and the comedy.
The nominal "stars" of the antecedent two-reeler were Priscilla Dean and Herbert Rawlinson, names which had once represented stronger drawing power to audiences in the silent movies era. Many of the film's same gags were incorporated into the more refined remake, but it's all quite different because both Laurel & Hardy -- in a far different place eight years later -- are cast in different roles. In SLIPPING WIVES it was Laurel who had the task of romancing the artist's wife.
Whatever sparked the notion in Roach's mind to remake SLIPPING WIVES, the old script was dusted off, the revision was slowed down, and the roles were reshaped. The story was filtered through another prism, too. At work this time was a French Connection.
Laurel & Hardy had first visited Paris in 1932. The president of France furnished the team with a beautiful car they drove down the Champs Elysees, passing through a throng of wild fans. French moviegoers loved Laurel & Hardy, and on that day demonstrated their devotion. The comedians were able to see, with first person experience, the remarkable impact their films were having on French audiences. Hal Roach knew this as well, from reports conveyed regularly by M-G-M sales executives based overseas, particularly Roach's friend Laudy Lawrence (who was soon to be instrumental in Roach's ill-fated association with Benito Mussolini). The braintrust at Hal Roach Studios was therefore always keen to please French fans.
On October 24, 1934, in a syndicated entertainment news column appearing in THE BOSTON TRANSCRIPT, to name but one paper, Barbara Linscott reported, "Laurel & Hardy are laying plans to go to Paris this winter to appear in person at Parisian cinema houses."
Did not happen. For reasons unknown. Possibly the imminent contractual dispute with Stan Laurel. Instead, the team visited another country, although only on film, when they made BONNIE SCOTLAND.
But was this intended, impending trip to Paris on their minds in the waning weeks of 1934 when the filmmakers fashioned the holiday story that became THE FIXER UPPERS? The company had just completed TIT FOR TAT (1934), which was a reworking of BIG BUSINESS (1929). Did they think that if Stan and Ollie could sell Christmas trees in sunny California, then there was no reason why they couldn't sell Christmas cards in France?
November 10, 1934 was the release date for a Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly short called DONE IN OIL, also featuring Arthur Housman (one of his four appearances with the funny ladies). The story for DONE IN OIL calls for Thelma (looking especially lovely, and practically falling out of her low cut dress) to pose as a visiting French artist in hopes of gaining critical recognition for her paintings. Patsy, who'd been Thelma's chief model, has to dress up as her French maid, Fifi. Three Parisian art critics then pay a visit to the flat of "Mademoiselle La Toddi," a play on Thelma Todd's nickname around the studio, "Toddy."
DONE IN OIL is not set in Paris, or any part of France. Nor is THE FIXER UPPERS. But leaving the question open for discussion, as happened, was probably intentional and a good overseas marketing strategy. The idea being, allow French movie-going customers to conclude each film is set in France.
Both films do use the same principal set -- aspiring artist Thelma's apartment in DONE IN OIL is also used as Pierre Gustav's residence in THE FIXER UPPERS. Which was also, by the way, decorated with a polar-bear-skin borrowed from Hal Roach's office, and a combination bureau-desk-bookcase last previously seen as part of the set for OUR WIFE (1931). And in what almost certainly amounts to a continuity gaffe, the clearly recognizable painting of Patsy Kelly (supposedly made by Mademoiselle La Toddi) is prominently featured in both films -- although, apparently, not so prominently that two critical screening room viewers such as Hal Roach and Stan Laurel would be drawn to it as a visible distraction.
In DONE IN OIL it's disclosed that Patsy's just come from Paris, so they're not in Paris. In THE FIXER UPPERS it's depicted as snowing outside, so Laurel & Hardy are not in Los Angeles. But they're not in Paris, either. They do retreat to the Cafe des Artistes. Charles Middleton is identified as "the best shot in all Paris." And Hardy does speak in French when he says, "Qui, monsieur, jais sui pres. Au revoir, madame. (Yes, sir, I am ready. Goodbye, madame.) Viva la France!"
The telephone call in the cafe, however, is the technical proof that the setting is somewhere in America, most likely New York. When the phone rings, Stan gets up to answer it, then returns to his table. "Who was it?" Ollie asks.
"Oh, some fella having a joke," Stan answers.
"Well, what'd he say?" Ollie inquires.
"Well, I said 'Hello,'" Stan explains, "And the fella said, 'It's a long distance from Atlanta, Georgia.' And I said, 'It sure is.'"
In 1935, it was not possible to place a telephone call from anywhere in America (therefore including Atlanta!) to anywhere in France.
In 1982 I asked Hal Roach about the connection between DONE IN OIL and THE FIXER UPPERS. He seldom retained the release titles of the more than one-thousand short subjects he made. But when I outlined the respective plots he did remember conceiving the story for each film, as well as the basic concept for SLIPPING WIVES.
In all cases, Roach would turn over the task of developing each story outline to his team of writers and gag-men. In the middle 1930s, for the Laurel & Hardy unit, these included such names as Stan Laurel; Tom Dugan (the Dublin-born character actor who portrayed "Hitler" in Ernst Lubitsch's TO BE OR NOT TO BE); Charley Chase's brother, Jimmy Parrott; prolific supporting player Charlie Hall; former Mack Sennett head-writer Felix Adler; silent films clown Harry Langdon; John Guedel (later producer of Groucho Marx's television program); Carl Harbaugh (who co-authored some of Buster Keaton's silent masterpieces); Frank Butler (Spat Family star later to win an Oscar for writing Bing Crosby's GOING MY WAY); and Frank Tashlin, at the outset of his distinguished career as a writer-director of both Warner Bros. cartoons and feature film comedies.
Felix Adler, who had just left Harold Lloyd's employ to join Roach, as a "scribbler," on December 2, 1934, must have felt some kind of proprietary interest in the script filmed as THE FIXER UPPERS. He later received screen credit for the story and screenplay of an unauthorized partial remake, by the Three Stooges, in 1940, as a two-reeler entitled BOOBS IN ARMS.
Boob-seeking Arthur Housman was not featured in the cast. However, Housman had been, quite naturally, cast in a superior Stooges short made immediately preceding his work in THE FIXER UPPERS. It was entitled PUNCH DRUNKS (1934). Ironically, Housman played every scene sober!
Like another associate of both Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach named Clyde Bruckman, Felix Adler frequently reused written material. He also took the crowded phone booth routine from OUR RELATIONS (1936), which once again featured Housman, and restyled it for The Three Stooges in a pedestrian two-reeler called SCRAMBLED BRAINS (1951).
There is little equivalence, however, as between Three Stooges shorts and Laurel & Hardy comedies. Even a superior Stooges short like PUNCH DRUNKS, only their second and quite ambitious two-reeler for Columbia Pictures, cannot surpass a lower echelon Laurel & Hardy effort such as THE FIXER UPPERS.
Corresponding with fans in the 1950s and 1960s, Stan Laurel was often asked how he regarded The Three Stooges, especially insofar as they "borrowed" so much material from Laurel & Hardy. Almost unfailingly kind and considerate, Laurel pulled his punches. Were the truth to be told, the comedian might well have been justified using the line spoken to Charles Middleton as Pierre Gustav in THE FIXER UPPERS when he said over the phone, "Hello. This is me. Yeah. Say, listen, if you had a face like mine, you'd punch me right in the nose, and I'm just the fellah that can do it!"
-- by Richard W. Bann --