Midnight Patrol - Script to Screen

In 1933 the real age of Jack Benny was, indeed, 39. Four of the top ten boxoffice attractions had connections to Hal Roach Studios: Will Rogers (2), Janet Gaynor (3), Jean Harlow (6), and Norma Shearer (9).

The 1933 motion picture trade ads aimed at exhibitors proclaimed of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, "This teamfull (stet) of merriment is an American institution! The only big time feature film stars who also come to you in short comedies!"


Well, true, but not as many as in years past. Before they edged into features, the Laurel & Hardy unit was delivering as many as ten short subjects per year. For the 1931-32 season, the number was reduced to eight, and for the 1932-33 schedule the L&H company would manage to make only six two-reelers. Even so, production lagged on these, as mentioned. With everyone concentrating so intently on perfecting the classic FRA DIAVOLO, production on the humble MIDNIGHT PATROL was delayed and delayed through the spring months until it couldn't be completed on time.

On March 22, 1933, MOTION PICTURE DAILY reported, "Hal Roach Studios has two more comedies to produce to complete the current season's schedule. One co-stars Laurel and Hardy and the other ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd. Both are untitled. Upon completion of the two pictures, the studio will close down, reopening in June."

ONE TRACK MINDS was completed by the Pitts-Todd company in time for the studio's annual spring recess, but not the Laurel & Hardy subject.

On April 8, 1933, FILM DAILY carried this item, "When the Hal Roach studio resumes production, June 1, only one comedy, a Laurel-Hardy, will remain to be made on this season's program, after which the studio will start the new lineup."

The same week, a story broke in VARIETY revealing Roach's plan to split the Laurel & Hardy short and feature production staffs. In order to successfully graduate to feature films, since it appeared that's where the industry was focusing at the expense of one and two-reelers, Roach believed it necessary to distinguish his now long form product from mere padded shorts. Several new outside directors, writers and other technical help would be brought in to handle the features division, and the separate two reeler staff would be bolstered as well.

On March 25, production manager Al French's son, Lloyd, primarily an assistant director, signed a contract "megging" (directing) Laurel & Hardy two-reelers. Succeeding French as A.D. on the L&H shorts would be Hal Roach's brother, Jack.

On April 10, Billy Bletcher signed as a writer-actor, also for the shorts staff. The diminutive Bletcher supplied the deep resonant voice of not only the police dispatcher in THE MIDNIGHT PATROL, but the same year did all the huffing and puffing for the Big Bad Wolf in Walt Disney's Academy Award-winning THREE LITTLE PIGS. Bletcher knew Babe Hardy well dating from their days together in Jacksonville, Florida at the Vim Studios in 1916. Bletcher's widow told Randy Skretvedt how much Stan Laurel enjoyed hearing Billy tell about the adventures he and Babe Hardy shared in Jacksonville, and "the funny tricks they played on each other....Billy would keep (Stan) entertained, and have him laughing." The following year Bletcher would be the voice of the giant in Our Gang's classic MAMA'S LITTLE PIRATE (1934) and by the end of the decade spoke for "the masked man" in Republic Pictures' serial adventures of THE LONE RANGER.

 When the studio did reopen in June, Hal Roach had assigned three more writers, including Royal King Cole, to work with Stan Laurel developing two new short subject stories, "the last of the old series and the first of the new," per the June 9 issue of VARIETY.

On June 20 FILM DAILY reported "in the resumption of producing activity at the Hal Roach studios, three comedy units will be in work next week, according to Henry Ginsberg, vice-president and general manager. Laurel-Hardy in TICKETS FOR TWO starst first, with Lloyd French directing, followed by a Charley Chase comedy and an Our Gang picture. CALLING ALL CARS, second Laurel-Hardy, also is ready to start."

Good thing, too, because M-G-M had long ago published a release date for that delinquent Laurel & Hardy subject. It was to be June 17, already past. Plus TICKETS FOR TWO turned out to be a show that was cancelled and never made. The studio now desperately needed to deliver a short subject to fulfill the previous season's program lineup. With Hal Roach in New York, paying less and less attention to shorts, and Stan Laurel evidently left to his own devices, it is reasonable to speculate that the genesis for what turned out to be MIDNIGHT PATROL might well have been a Charlie Chaplin film then currently playing in theatrical resissue around the country through RKO-Radio Pictures -- EASY STREET.

Stan Laurel probably did revisit EASY STREET that spring. Seeing his countryman, his old friend, and his idol, Charlie Chaplin, in a police uniform, working in one of his finest short comedies from the Mutual "golden dozen" days, it might well have sparked an idea -- the inspired premise of Stan and Ollie as policemen.

Like patrolmen Laurel & Hardy, in EASY STREET Chaplin plays the new cop on the beat, one who has some trouble with a telephone in a policeman's call box. A title card reflected the tone of what was, however, otherwise a very different film:


Love Backed by force,
forgiveness sweet,
Brings hope and peace
to Easy Street.

Laurel & Hardy had performed without derby hats in PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP (1927), FLYING ELEPHANTS (1927), THE ROGUE SONG (1930), and THE DEVIL'S BROTHER (1933). They had appeared without derby hats, and in uniform, previously for WITH LOVE AND HISSES (1927), SAILORS, BEWARE! (1927), THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS (1927), TWO TARS (1928), MEN O' WAR (1929), PARDON US (1931), BEAU HUNKS (193l), and PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES (1932).

In 1927 they had portrayed detectives in DO DETECTIVES THINK? coincidentally reporting to agency supervisor Frank Brownlee, who told them, prophetically, that their escaped prey will probably kill them, but that they will be buried like heroes.

As a team, Laurel & Hardy hadn't previously enacted cops, although in his more prolific solo career, Oliver Hardy had portrayed policemen in such now almost totally obscure shorts as WHO'S BOSS (1914), SWITCHES AND SWEETIES (1919), Our Gang's THUNDERING FLEAS (1926), GALLOPING GHOSTS (1927) co-authored by Stan Laurel, and Max Davidson's WHY GIRLS SAY NO (1927) again co-written by Laurel.

Furthermore while films including WE FAW DOWN (1928), WRONG AGAIN (1929), THE HOOSE-GOW (1929), BLOTTO (1930) and LAUGHING GRAVY (1931) prepared us for the notion that guns and rifles in an L&H film, once introduced, are sure to be fired, our protagonists had never, both, been previously murdered, on or off-screen before!

And one does get the impression that the happy police chief, as enacted by the dour Mr. Brownlee, has exacted the same kind of swift justice, and retribution, before! Upon coming to in the police station, and realizing what has happened, he never once breaks eye contact staring at Laurel & Hardy as they attempt to leave. He says nothing, merely puts his hand out, and the nearest cop knows to fill it with a gun!

Bang! Bang!

Send for the coroner.

There is at least one comedy precedent for such an ending -- COLLEGE (1927), a Buster Keaton film featuring Charlie Hall, directed by James Horne, and co-written by Carl Harbaugh, who had just supplied gags and appeared in FRA DIAVOLO and perhaps contributed to the very black resolution of MIDNIGHT PATROL. In COLLEGE, Keaton offers a sardonic coda to reveal what happens after the hero wins the girl. As shown in only eleven seconds, they marry, then live together in a tiny apartment snarling at each other with two obnoxious little kids, then they grow old and embittered, until the conclusive and most harsh image of all shows a pair of graveyard headstones! The end!

So much for happy endings.

Under the second working title of CALLING ALL CARS, shooting finally got underway on Monday, June 19, on a budget of $40,000, which sum was advanced by M-G-M to finance production. On any overrun, the Roach studio would have to contribute its own funds. The average ticket price for admission to movie theatres in America was then 23 cents. Meanwhile two of the eight major studios, Paramount and RKO, were placed in receivership. Others among the big eight production plants were on the brink of bankruptcy too.

As usual the hastily assembled Laurel & Hardy script was more of a guide than a blueprint. Spontaneous gags and humor, originated naturally on the set during shooting, always produced the best comedy.

"Ideas for laughs are the result of continuous elimination," was Stan Laurel's working methodology, as he himself explained for the pressbook. "By that I mean it is all a process of discarding what at first seems an excellent laugh idea. The next day or sooner that same idea would seem flat.

"Long ago we realized that there must be no striving for humor. It must be natural, spontaneous. Thinking it over for days and weeks was out of the question. The ideas simply were stale. They were worn out. As a result, we now originate our funny business right on the set in the studio during the making of the comedy.

"In this way the laugh ideas are given a fresh, original tang, and we are equal to the occasion when the cameras start to grind. In other words, we get into the spirit of the laugh situation, and we always silently pray the theatre-going public will receive it in the same spirit of fun."

One written idea that "seemed flat," or wouldn't work when transposed from script to screen, was a reprise of the salt and pepper shakers routine from YOU'RE DARN TOOTIN' (1928), almost immediately reused for sound microphones in THE HOOSE-GOW (1929). Perhaps it was too difficult to show, clearly, what was happening, since in THE MIDNIGHT PATROL Stan and Ollie are dining inside their police car. Actually Lloyd French did quite a workmanlike job composing scenes and covering the action -- like that overhead shot showing Babe Hardy pinned beneath the stone bench in the lily pond, gurgling between bubbles, "Do something (blub, blub) to help me!"

A further visually interesting sequence is the unique opening titles section. The credits are disclosed by a camera shooting through the windshield at night as the boys' police car speeds into traffic, with siren blaring. The wiper blades moving across the windshield sweep first the presentation main title, and then the production credits, on and off the screen.

It's extremely clever, well done, and sets the tone for some fresh and amusing comedy -- such as the briefest possible homosexual dialogue and posturing exchange between Stan and an unexpectedly effeminate Charlie Hall. Threatened with arrest, Hall minces back at Stan, "Oh, is that so?" and lifts his foot in a pose to remove all doubt he's light in the loafers. It's a black and white film, but they're lavender loafers.

Also funny: when Stan accidentally cuts the phone line, it makes sense to him that he might restore the connection by tying the two cords together in a knot! Who hasn't been tempted -- for at least a second -- to try a repair that foolish?

Another scripted casualty was some choice dialogue humor where Stan made up a riddle while enjoying their midnight snack. "What is it that people eat," he asks Ollie, "covered with skin and filled with meat, and whistles like a skylark soft and sweet?" His partner gives up. Stan tells him it's a hot dog.

Ollie complains, "A hot dog doesn't whistle like a skylark!"

"I know it doesn't," Stan responds. "I just said that to make it hard."

A longer deleted sequence involved the police chief's butler and maid, played by O. Corporal and Louise Beavers (who later starred in the Hal Roach television series BEULAH, the first dramatic show to headline a black actor). The couple can't decide if they should marry. This subplot reads as though it would be distracting and was probably best revised and reshot in accordance with a script captioned "New Business." Contained in the original sequence was a gag where Ollie's head gets stuck in the cellar doors. When Stan tries to pull Ollie through, the yanked neck stretches out like rubber -- a bit used later in WAY OUT WEST.

The completed MIDNIGHT PATROL contains one continuity error. At the end of the film we learn this was Laurel & Hardy's first day on the police force. Yet earlier they argued over when their last day off was. "I beg your pardon," Stan interrupts Ollie in front the safe-cracker, Frank Terry. "We haven't been off since Ash Wednesday." It plays like the kind of impromptu, reworked-on-the-spot scene that might have been conceived minutes before the one and only time it was shot. The dialogue just seems to have that improvised feel about it. In any case the gag was more important than the continuity, and even if it wasn't, by the time we discover the slip, the film is over and everyone is either laughing, or knocked out by the unique climax.

Send for the coroner.

While THE MIDNIGHT PATROL was still shooting, on June 29 a star of many early Keystone Kops capers, rotund Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle -- blacklisted, broken, but still baby-faced -- died at age 46, the victim of one of Hollywood's most notorious scandals. Hugely talented, grossly wronged, Arbuckle never worked at Hal Roach Studios, although several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he almost did. That's a different story.

After systematically but unintentionally sabotaging his work, and his comedy, M-G-M had just notified Arbuckle's former protégé, Buster Keaton, that they were terminating his employment over the star's excessive drinking. Keaton had recently completed his last film for Metro; he'd been ordered to star in WHAT! NO BEER? (1933).

By the time MIDNIGHT PATROL reached movie theatres, the runaway star of COPS (1922) had been caught at last and placed in a sanitarium for treatment of his alcoholism. Keaton's career appeared to be as dead as his mentor, Arbuckle. The dark ending to COLLEGE seemed almost prophetic.

On July 9, during post-production, a John E. "Jack" Bally died of a heart attack at the age of 73. He was employed at Hal Roach Studios as "sound watchman," and sometime extra. Nearly six decades later, his nephew, Hal E. Roach, was buried next to him, and near Mark Twain, at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Elmira, New York.

An insert of an appointment calendar in MIDNIGHT PATROL shows us that Frank Terry is supposed to get his hair cut on Tuesday, the eleventh, then visit the lower vault of the National Bank on Wednesday, the twelfth. In July of 1933, the twelfth actually was Wednesday. Although why it should surprise us that the filmmakers would not use the current, most handy date book, is another question we needn't waste any more time on.

On July 14 a different kind of fat and skinny comedy team debuted in movies, when the first Popeye the Sailor cartoon was released by Paramount.

Also on July 14 the score for MIDNIGHT PATROL was recorded. The effective release date coincided with the copyright date of August 3.

THE MIDNIGHT PATROL was a title that had been used before, in 1918, by Roach's immediate neighbor on Washington Boulevard in Culver City, Thomas H. Ince. In 1932 Monogram Pictures had also used this title for a programmer which featured Snub Pollard in a small part, and was adapted by one of Stan Laurel's solo film directors at Roach, George Jeske. Otherwise the only tie between the three films was the same title.

By mid-1933 Ince was long deceased (a famous incident, never resolved), and his company had been dissolved. And since Monogram was not a member of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc., Hal Roach Studios was clear to take the title THE MIDNIGHT PATROL. No other member of the Association had previously registered that title for future use, so Roach was free to claim it. That did mean, however, there were two different and unrelated films both called THE MIDNIGHT PATROL released within the same sixteen month period.

Elsewhere in the late night sweepstakes, M-G-M released MIDNIGHT MARY on June 30, 1933. Paramount issued MIDNIGHT CLUB on July 28, 1933. And as a final source of confusion, on August 12, 1933 (just to cite an instance in one edition) the MOTION PICTURE HERALD published the release date for the Laurel & Hardy version of MIDNIGHT PATROL as being November 25, 1932. The Monogram entry had been issued on April 3, 1932.

As best as can be determined so far, the trade press never did sort out the mix-up. Yet how could they, if neither Roach nor M-G-M ever did? On September 26, 1933, for example, Hugh C. Huber, Roach's assistant secretary-treasurer, wrote to Charles K. Stern in New York, the assistant treasurer of M-G-M. Huber asked Stern, "Will you please advise as soon as possible, the national release date on the last Laurel and Hardy picture of the 1932-33 productions, namely: L-14, titled THE MIDNIGHT PATROL."

No one knew. No one may care anymore, but we still don't know. Not exactly.

It's like Stan and Ollie arguing over whether or not they "went to the beach last Monday," and Frank Terry interrupts, "Say, listen! Listen! I wish you birds would make up your minds. I can't stand here listening to you argue all night. I've got my work to attend to. Make up your minds one way or the other, or we'll call the whole thing off!"

-- by Richard W. Bann --