Laughing Gravy - Script to Screen

Tony and Irma Campanaro lived at the Hal Roach ranch on Robertson Boulevard, north of the studio. They managed the menagerie of animals roaming the property, which was often used for rural location shooting. With the exception of Our Gang's Pete the Pup, whenever animals were required for a picture (like the chickens in PASS THE GRAVY) Tony Campanaro was called upon to procure them, train them, and deliver them ready to work wherever the assistant director instructed. Mr. Campanaro was busy.


LITTLE DADDY was an Our Gang comedy that began shooting when LAUGHING GRAVY was being developed as a project call TRUE BLUE. These two shorts shared the same production number, G-39 and L-39. Far in advance of shooting, Rascals director Bob McGowan told Tony Companaro he needed "an assortment of mongrels for atmosphere," according to subsequent studio publicity issued in connection with LITTLE DADDY. Campanaro went to the city dog pound and selected several sorry inhabitants, including one wistful small female pooch, who turned out to be Laughing Gravy.

While being trained for movie work, the fuzzy little animal caught the eye of Stan Laurel, possibly because she happened to resemble "Buster," Laurel & Hardy's canine co-star in EARLY TO BED. So before Laughing Gravy could appear in LITTLE DADDY, Laurel recruited her for scenes in the multi-lingual feature PARDON US. Then either Laurel was already planning to rework ANGORA LOVE and needed an animal to cast, or watching this adorable dog frolick through her paces gave him that idea.

Paraphrasing professed dog-hater W.C. Fields, of such minor adventures is motion picture history made. For after appearing in LITTLE DADDY and starring with Laurel & Hardy, Laughing Gravy was called upon by Charley Chase for ONE OF THE SMITHS (1931). She played one of the dogs. The next year Laughing Gravy returned to the Little Rascals in THE POOCH, and at least once more in 1937 for ROAMIN' HOLIDAY. The same year Laughing Gravy can be glimpsed scampering through WAY OUT WEST again with Laurel & Hardy. And was it coincidence that their scene with Laughing Gravy in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL (1936) was set outside in the snow?

Hal Roach's secretary, Ruth Burch, remembered that Laughing Gravy became one of many studio pets who had the run of her boss's office. Irma Campanaro said Laughing Gravy "lived a long happy life, well into World War II. People at the studio spoiled her, though, beginning with Mr. Roach. He loved all dogs, although he was partial to hunting dogs, like black labradors. Another who spoiled Laughing Gravy was Thelma Todd. She had her own little dogs, too. She often brought her cocker spaniel named Gallant onto the sets, which was okay because he never barked. But you would always see Thelma with little dogs like Laughing Gravy sitting in her lap."

Laughing Gravy worked with the Thelma Todd unit too, appearing in SHOW BUSINESS (1932), I'LL BE SUING YOU (1934) and TREASURE BLUES (1935). In the concluding scenes of TREASURE BLUES, everyone dives overboard into the sea. Last to take the plunge is Laughing Gravy, wearing a life preserver clearly marked as the property of "Ruthie 2." Lois Laurel-Hawes speculates Ruthie "was the dinghy for her father's yacht. The Ruth L. named for second wife Virginia Ruth Rogers!"

The motion picture LAUGHING GRAVY was issued to movie houses well before the previously shot feature PARDON US, which was held out for post-production tinkering and distribution considerations. Following its eventual success, the demand for Laurel & Hardy feature length films would be huge, especially in the international markets. Laurel & Hardy have always been more popular overseas. Such approbation explains why LES CAROTTIERS and LOS CALAVERAS were hastily assembled out of two completely unrelated short subjects: BE BIG and LAUGHING GRAVY.

For almost two decades Hal Roach Studios had specialized in snappy short comedies. And they worked. They were the best format to present the style of comedy created at Roach. Hal Roach himself waged a campaign in the press against the so-called double-bill menace that was crowding shorts off theater programs. So no one at the studio preferred making features.

The worldwide sales organization at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, however, was insistent that features were easier to book, and generated a greater return on investment, on a per-reel basis. The features Laurel & Hardy made were an enormous commercial success. Accidentally at first, then gradually throughout the 1930s, Hal Roach Studios was converted to feature film production as a matter of economic necessity and survival.

As it was, the story for BE BIG was stretched paper thin over three reels. This property could not possibly be expanded into an export feature on its own. Nor could it be combined with the next script, since CHICKENS COME HOME called for Hardy to be married (to Thelmd Todd, not Isabelle Keith), whereas Laurel was single. But there were two more opportunities before the season ended to combine BE BIG with some other footage and maximize its international value.

Roach was obliged to deliver two more short subjects on the 1930-1931 release schedule. The candidate for coupling turned out to be LAUGHING GRAVY, and on the flimsiest of pretexts. It was a simple matter to add a title card explaining that what happened in BE BIG - the unpleasantness with the rifles - led to divorce, poverty and winter. So LAUGHING GRAVY was appended to BE BIG to form a stopgap feature for the international market until PARDON US was ready. Because Hal Roach had higher regard for PARDON US, confident it could play as a B-plus feature film on the Loew's circuit throughout America. He conceded on creating the makeshift LES CAROTTIERS and LOS CALAVERAS because Loew's (the parent company of M-G-M) was pushing him, and both knew that these features would satisfy the less discriminating demands of territories overseas.

The decision to build on BE BIG as happened was most likely made during post-production on LAUGHING GRAVY. Conceived any earlier, Charlie Hall would not have been cast as the hard-hearted landlord, since he already played a different part in BE BIG. Was no one supposed to notice this? As with Anita Garvin in BE BIG, Charlie silently mouthed dialogue that was simultaneously recorded off-camera by native speakers of Spanish and French.

On LAUGHING GRAVY the Laurel & Hardy company worked from a six page script. This guiding written text was faithfully filmed in English. Then in one last attempt to appease the international market the story was re-filmed as literal remakes in Spanish and French. Each of the three versions ran three reels.

Yet someone had immediate reservations concerning that third reel. Wether it was the opinion of Stan Laurel, Hal Roach, a preview audience reaction, or a negative consensus after screening a roughcut in the studio projection room - the third act did not play, did not fit, and had to go, at least in the primary market of America.

In 1935 Stan Laurel gave an interview to FILM WEEKLY revealing his distinct care and discipline as a filmmaker. Laurel discussed his struggle to maintain the team's "consistency of characterization," he called it. "Laurel and Hardy must always remain in character. I could think of thousands of funny things we could do to get laughs, if we didn't have to study this character problem."

The consistency and the relationship of the characters was the key issue in rethinking the value, on balance, of LAUGHING GRAVY's concluding sequence. Most probably the decision to discard the footage was made by Stan Laurel.

A surviving typed draft of the film's pressbook contains a three-reel synopsis, the conclusion of which is marked out with a huge "X." In explanation, written by hand across th bottom of the page are the words, "new finish." The deleted copy described the intended ending:

"Oliver blames Stan for the deplorable condition they are in and claims their being ousted out of the house on a cold night is the straw that broke the camel's back. He and Stan must split. Stan is piteously broken up about it, but Oliver is insistent - they must part.

"A letter is just then delivered to Stan, stating that he is the heir to a late uncle's fortune if he leaves the company of one Oliver Hardy who is responsible for Stan's deplorable condition. Stan refuses to let Oliver read the letter, but the domineering Oliver has his own way, as usual, and reads it. He is very repentant, but insists Stan go and get the benefit of the money. Very dejected, Stan picks up his dog, Laughing Gravy, and his suitcase. Oliver pleads with Stan to leave the dog - he'll be lonely enough without Stan. Leaving the dog Stan walks through the door, then, with a very determined expression on his face, he throws down his suitcase, tears up the letter, and runs past Oliver to Laughing Gravy. He could leave Oliver, but never the dog."

This sequence, lasting slightly more than the final ten minute reel, completely alters the arc of the film. Suddenly it is dialogue which dominates. The tempo slows. The action stops. The gags cease. The mood is different. The camera set-ups are altered.

The business around the bed in the center of the room is over, so the camera is diverted away from there. Stan and Ollie stand and are photographed from and on the two sides of the room, making it appear as though it's some other room. Plus the two men seem to be uncharacteristically mournful, resolved, brave.

This footage is touching, extremely well-acted and fascinating to view, but also a bit uncomfortable because it's so dark and serious. One withstands a lesser dose of this feeling watching certain scenes in EARLY TO BED, THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE, and THEIR FIRST MISTAKE. Likewise these films raise disconcerting issues about the nature of Stan and Ollie's relationship. Why are they friends? What might tear their freindship? It is less troublesome and distracting to view Laurel & Hardy films secure in the knowledge that their fellowship and loyalty are consistently unconditional - the kind everyone wishes for.

The final parting of Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in CITY LIGHTS was so eloquent, so sad, and so moving it could well have influenced Stan Laurel here. The one criticism Hal Roach was known for voicing about Stan Laurel was his alleged "Chaplin complex." We do know from Laurel's testimony and correspondence with friends and fans that the former understudy and roommate was in fact Chaplin's most ardent admirer. "There's no one greater than Chaplin, nor even close to him. Never was, and never will be," Laurel wrote to Ray Atherton in 1964.

Chaplin's masterful CITY LIGHTS premiered in January of 1931, just as the script for LAUGHING GRAVY was being prepared. Pathos was common in Chaplin films, but foreign to Laurel & Hardy. Yet the honest sentiment in CITY LIGHTS was so overpowering that Laurel may have been inspired to try and infuse his work with the same artistic feeling and sensibility.

As for the business considerations, executives at Roach and Metro knew that cutting the length of a three-reel short subject to two reels could actually increase the gross revenue since the shorter length made LAUGHING GRAVY easier to book on crowded theater programs. Excising the same footage from the combined BE BIG and LAUGHING GRAVY, however, would actually impair the boxoffice overseas since the net ten-minute edit would disqualify the compilation as a feature film. Instead of commanding marquee billing and a fee as a short feature, LES CAROTTIERS and LOS CALAVERAS might only be slotted as long short subjects with lesser rentals charged accordingly. This factor outweighed any aesthetic considerations.

Shooting for LAUGHING GRAVY concluded on a Wednesday. A rough-cut was prepared by the weekend. The decision to abandon the concluding reel was probably made by Roach and Laurel when they viewed the first general assembly of scenes. Because by Tuesday the company was called back to shoot a new, different ending, on stage two, at the door to the boys' lodgings. It was the same set used as the residence of the late Ebeneezer Laurel one rainy night in THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE. This time, in LAUGHING GRAVY, Stan's uncle's name is Jason Pratt Laurel, and the date on his check was December 17, 1930, a fact of no significance whatsoever except that it pre-dates prinicipal photography.

LES CAROTTIERS and LOS CALAVERAS were the last two Laurel & Hardy films re-shot separately for international markets. Except for the third reel, the foreign LAUGHING GRAVY footage is the most faithful adaption of its English language source material, at least insofar as can be determined. Sadly only about one-quarater of the studio's expanded export editions have survived. We are fortunate to have these, to say the very least.

Foreign versions such as LES CAROTTIERS and LOS CALAVERAS can be seen and enjoyed today by any audience anywhere. Since Laurel & Hardy depended on visual humor, their dialogue is relatively unimportant (except for wordplay added by H.M. Walker). Monolingual Americans familiar with the basic plots can view and delight in these two films as though they are fresh, new shows - because they are new to anyone who has not seen them before.

The reason the studio discontinued this authentic but labored method of production was not so much the supersedure of dubbing, or sub-titling, but rather that Hal Roach was being criticized by Metro executives for upstaging M-G-M and its important dramatic stars. Hal Roach elaborated on this in 1969, "Metro followed my method. I went over and instructed their people. But after a while they began dubbing their pictures. We let our companies continue speaking the real German and so on. If the pronunciation wasn't so good - and it wasn't - it didn't matter for Hal Roach. The principal actors only had to say a few words anyway. Besides we were making comedies. Sometimes what Laurel & Hardy or the Gang said, or tried to say, added a few extra laughs.

"In Metro's big pcitures, on the other hand, Garbo and Gable and Barrymore did nothing but talk. You couldn't have those kinds of stars making a mockery out of the language in dramatic pictures. People would laugh.

"So when exhibitors in Paris and Berlin and Barcelona and the Argentina realized we were making an effort to speak their language, whereas Metro was not, they objected. They said to the Loew's sales organization, "What the hell, we no longer will accept dubbed pictures from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; we get them not dubbed from Hal Roach Studios."

"We gave audiences what they wanted, but we were also beholden to M-G-M. They were financing our output. So when Nick Scheck and Louie Mayer asked me to stop, I quit. Anyway they were right. It was too bad, because the prices we got for those foreign versions were terrific. The grosses were extremely high, particularly in the Spanish speaking countries."

-- by Richard W. Bann --