Today is the anniversary of the release date of the silent Laurel and Hardy classic short Duck Soup (1927). Why does it have the same title as the 1933 Marx Brothers movie? Perhaps the fact that the supervising director for the first one, and the director of the second one, were one and the same man: Leo McCarey. Apart from this, the films have almost nothing to do with one another.
This film was long thought permanently lost until a copy surfaced in 1974. And it’s a good thing too, for the film has great historical importance, at least to film and comedy fans and scholars. It marks the first pairing of Laurel and Hardy as co-stars, although they were not yet officially billed as a team here. Yet they are amazingly like the characters for which they would eventually become famous. This is remarkable especially given that their roles are unlike what they have previously played and that they would revert to other characterizations immediately afterward.
In Duck Soup, Laurel and Hardy play a pair of tramps who are fleeing a conscription of hobos to fight a raging forest fire. They take refuge in a mansion where the owner is away for the weekend and masquerade as the owner and the maid (Laurel in drag). The owner returns early and furiously throws them out. They end up having to fight the fire, which they apparently started, anyway. Laurel is playing dumb (which he doesn’t always do) in this one. But Hardy is particularly close to what we know, perhaps because he is doing the kind of tramp who puts on airs. He sports a monocle and top hat, and exhibits a lot of the manners and mannerisms we associate with “Ollie.” If this sounds familiar, this film, based on a comedy sketch by Stan’s father Arthur Jefferson, was later remade by Laurel and Hardy as the talkie Another Fine Mess (1930).
With 20-20 hindsight we can see that in Duck Soup Laurel and Hardy (and the staff of Hal Roach studios) have stumbled onto a discovery without realizing it. For example, the powerful visual impression, with Ham and Bud as its obvious precedent, of two contrasting body types dressed identically, in this case, fat and skinny as opposed to short and tall. Laurel, by the way, wasn’t particularly thin at this stage in his life (and even less so going forward). The effect would be accomplished with over-sized clothes that made him look like a boy wearing hand-me-downs.
But apparently they would need to back away from this Eureka moment in order to notice what they had found. Over the next few films they would revert to other relationships and other characterizations, occasionally regaining a piece of it or making a new discovery but still not appearing as “Laurel and Hardy.”
For more on comedy film history, including Laurel and Hardy, see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube