The Flying Deuces (1939)
Ok, for the past few years I have been slowly writing movie reviews for tacky Japanese monster movies. Recently, however, I decided to branch out a bit. First I did a Blaxploitation war movie called Black Brigade, and that was fun. For this review I have gone even further downstream from Godzilla and Mothra in every possible way. I will be reviewing The Flying Deuces, a classic Laurel and Hardy comedy movie from 1939. Hope this goes well...
Originally released by RKO Radio Pictures on October 20, 1939, The Flying Deuces could be found in a variety of media over the years. The DVD that I will be using was released in 2004 by Digiview Productions. It's in black and white (which is cool), and full screen. The running time is 70 minutes. Most importantly, I got it at Wal-Mart for a dollar!!!!! Well, actually my best friend Olga bought it and gave it to me...credit where credit is due.
Laurel and Hardy need little introduction. They were one of the great comedy duos from the early age of motion pictures and their massive body of work is still appreciated to this day.
Stan Laurel was 49-years old when The Flying Deuces was made. Much like his partner Hardy, he had a long and impressive movie career, racking up 187 movie credits between 1917 and 1951. He was just 5'9" tall and much thinner than Hardy.
Oliver Hardy was 47-years old when this movie was made. The IMDB gives him a staggering 426 movie credits between 1914 and 1952, an average of nearly 15 movie per year. In most of them he appeared as "Oliver Hardy", but he did take other stage names at times. In contrast to Laurel, Hardy was a large man by any standards, 6'1" tall and close to 300 pounds.
It was produced by 48-year old Boris Morros. Russian by birth, Morros was mostly known for being the musical director on numerous movies. In a wider sense, Morros was infamous for being a double-agent who spied for the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1955, and at the same time for the USA from 1945 to 1960. He wrote a great book in 1960 detailing his life as a spy.
The Flying Deuces was filmed entirely at various locations around Southern California, which is apparent in the sets and outdoor locations. During filming at one of these locations, Stan Laurel met his future wife, script supervisor Virginia Jones.
Ok, I will admit right here and now that this is the very first Laurel and Hardy movie I have ever seen. Thus, I am totally ignorant of the total body of work these two men have made. I am going to write this review based solely on this movie, not on a career as a whole.
And now on to the show…
The first 15 minutes or so are set in a cheap Paris hotel. Stan and Ollie play two Americans visiting in France. Why they are here is never explained, but we learn they are fish packers from Des Moines, Iowa. Later we learn they make about 25 cents and hour, and we wonder how they could afford to make the trip to France.
Stan is ready to go back to Iowa, but Ollie is in goo-goo love with the beautiful waitress Georgette, the daughter of the innkeeper. As we open, Ollie has sent a basket of flowers, some candy and a framed photo of himself to Georgette. She and some other waitresses giggle and gossip about this American who expresses his feelings in such romantic ways.
Georgette is played by 24-year old Jean Parker, a relatively famous Broadway stage actress and accomplished gymnast. Her acting resume includes the role of Beth March in 1933's Little Women opposite Katherine Hepburn. She is just 5'3" tall, and surprisingly unattractive. Well, I suppose she was the picture of feminine beauty in 1939, but times have changed along with conventions of attractiveness. Her features are sharp and angular and her hair is massively coiled. She is always dressed in huge, frilly, lacy clothes that totally hide her figure.
Georgette's girlfriends are all more attractive than Georgette, two of them an order of magnitude hotter than Georgette. Unfortunately, all four of them disappear from the movie after the first ten minutes.
UPDATE! In a wonderful stroke of luck, I was recently contacted by Bonnie Bannon's neice, who provided me with some great information on her aunt, who played one of Georgette's girlfriends. It seems that Bonnie had won a contract with Warner Bros when she was still a teenager. While she did act in more movies after 1944, for some reason she doesn't show up on credit lists. Bad on IMDB. In the late 1940's she married rich and lived the life of a retired starlet until she passed away a few years ago. She had auburn hair and green eyes and was quite a beauty.
Ollie has bought a diamond ring, aiming to propose to Georgette that very day. He never gets that far, as Georgette drops the bomb on him…she is married. Now, she wasn't leading him on in anyway before, she was just being nice and the impressionable and clearly self-loathing Ollie took it way too far.
Crushed, Ollie is suicidal. He is convinced that throwing himself in the river is the only way to escape the crushing loss of his love. Stan is opposed, but goes along with his friend.
Meanwhile, Georgette's husband convienently arrives, unseen by the boys who are upstairs in their room. He is a Lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion named Francois, just returned from duty in Morocco. Francois is played by 36-year old Reginald Gardiner. The English-born Gardiner would have a long career in film and on television, up until the late 1960s. He is a serviceable actor, with a faintly Claude Raines look to him. Throughout this entire movie he is dressed in knee-pants, high boots and a class A uniform. He also carries a riding crop, even when in the streets of Paris, which is a little weird.
Ok, an quick insert shot of a Paris newspaper front tells us that a man-eating shark has escaped the zoo and is loose in the river. When I saw this, my first thought was, "DAMN!!!!!!" You don't know this, but I am insanely phobic of sharks, to the point of crippling madness. So my first thought was, "Oh, man, I can't even watch Laurel and Hardy without seeing freakin' sharks!"
I have a fascination for these fake newspaper fronts in movies, so I will give you the page here..."Man-Eating Shark Escapes! Ferocious Fish Battles Keeper in Paris Aquarium!". A little bit of the body of the article that we can see gives the shark's name as Gaston.
So Stan and Ollie go downtown to the Seine and tie a large rock to themselves. They vacillate several times taking the plunge, and it's clear that Stan totally doesn't want to do this. The shark is represented by a fake fin that keeps swimming by, smacking Ollie on the butt as he leans over to pick things up. Even in grainy black and white it creeped me out a bit.
Just as they are about to jump in, who should walk by but Lt. Francois (!!!), on his way somewhere. He talks the boys out of drowning themselves, suggesting instead that they join the Foreign Legion to forget their troubles. Keep in mind that Ollie doesn't yet know that Francois is Georgette's husband. As this is preferable to death (so they think), Stan and Ollie agree to join the Legion. And now we leave Paris for good, 22 minutes into the film.
So we cut now to North Africa, to the "coast of Morocco", where the Legion is encamped in a large base. It's a complex of buildings surrounded by a high wall that looks suspiciously like a studio backlot in Hollywood, complete with palm trees and camels borrowed from some local zoo.
Inside are probably a company of Legionnaires, milling around and drilling. Most of these shots are stock footage, but they did go to some considerable effort to dress a large bunch of extras in "authentic" FFL uniforms and give them prop rifles.
The boys have a hard time figuring out timed marches and are eventually sent to see the Commandant for assignment. The Commandant is played by 65-year old Charles Middleton. The son of a billionaire, Middleton picked up acting as a way of expressing himself. In the 1930 and 40s he was known for playing the evil "Ming the Merciless" in the great Flash Gordon serials. He would reprise this same role for a new batch of Flash Gordon series in the 1960s, by then well into his 90s. He is 6-foot tall, craggy, lined and very serious-looking. He is the spitting image of James Edward Olmos' character in Blade Runner.
The Commandant is beyond frustrated with them, and assigns them to laundry duty. He also tells them that they will be making about 100 centimes a day. When queried further, he says that's about 3 cents in American money! Wow, that's like 3,333 French centimes to the US dollar. The French currency in 1939 was a mess, inflation must have been rampant.
Out we cut now to the countryside near the encampment. This was filmed at the Iverson Ranch near Chatsworth, CA. The trees and landscape are oh-so Southern California, way away from the North African setting that they were going for. The boys are washing and ironing an insurmountable mountain of laundry. Hilarity ensues. I must admit, they did go to a lot of effort to hang zillions of clothes on hundreds of yards of clothes lines for what are essentially a few seconds of sight gags. The mountain of laundry is also impressive, though I suspect that it's a hill of dirt with a layer of clothes on it.
Just when they are at their lowest, a truck arrives, the bed full of crates of produce. The driver jumps out to say that the Commandant has ordered them to wash and peel all this produce for the meals tonight.
In the course of this scene, the boys insult and offend two Legionnaire NCOs. They take their complaint back to the Commandant, who orders Stan and Ollie arrested immediately. The NCOs, a Sergeant and a Corporal, take a squad and go after them.
Meanwhile, Ollie reaches his breaking point here, deciding that he has forgotten Georgette enough for them to both go back to Des Moines now. As they leave, Stan knocks over a fire pot, which sets the mountain of laundry aflame after they have left. That's gonna get them spanked...
The boys and the soldiers coming to get them miss each other. The NCOs find the burning pile of laundry and can only rage some more. Stan and Ollie go back to the encampment and change back into their civilian clothes.
They pack up their things and head for the Commandant's office to tell him they are leaving. He is not here, being off looking for them. Ollie trashes the office while writing him a nasty good-bye note and then steals a bunch of his cigars as they leave. The Legionnaires are running around looking for them, but they always miss each other.
Stan and Ollie pass by a group of off-duty Legionnaires who are playing a tune on some instruments, "Shine on Harvest Moon". Suddenly, Ollie breaks out singing a few verses of the song. His voice is warm and full, and surprisingly good. I was not aware that Oliver Hardy was a singer, but he is a decent one here. More wonderfully, Stan then starts an outstanding soft-shoe routine to Ollie's singing. I love soft-shoes, they are so light and breezy and probably so incredibly difficult to master. Truly, this three minute interlude is the high-point of the movie for me.
Anyway, that over, they walk out the main gate, which is adjacent to the airfield. These airfield scenes were shot at what was then called Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. It's now called Van Nuys Airport.
A plane is just landing, taxing to a stop near where the boys are walking. Out of the plane steps...Georgette!!!! Imagine the odds! Even though she is here to see Francois, Ollie is convinced that she changed her mind about marrying him and came here to find him. Ollie starts to kiss and grope the poor girl, who cringes and objects.
Francois arrives in a spiffy convertible car, just in time to see Ollie molesting his wife. Enraged, he threatens to smite Ollie if he ever does it again. The great revelatory scene comes off flat as Ollie doesn't seem too surprised to learn that the man who got him into the Legion is the same man whose marriage caused him to join in the first place. Hmmm...that made no sense to write, let alone read.
The soldiers arrive just then, and haul Stan and Ollie off to the jail. They thought they could leave at any point, but they are informed that they have signed up for life! You'd think they might have read the fine print on the contract before they signed it, eh? Now they are guilty of desertion, a capital offense in the Legion.
They then have some comedy moments with the jailor, some of the funnier moments in the film. The jailor is played by 52-year old James Finlayson. A bald man with a fake handle-bar mustache, the Scottish-born Finlayson was a reoccurring comic foil in Laurel and Hardy movies, mastering in the double take and the "slow burn". This particular movie killed his not-so-impressive career...of the 20 roles he had after The Flying Deuces, 15 of them were uncredited bit parts. Oddly, Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson has said that he got Homer's trademark "Doh!" from James Finlayson.
In the jail cell, they learn they are to be shot at dawn for desertion. This bums them out, but they regain their spirits as Stan discovers that he can play his bed springs like a harp. He starts playing, ironically, "The World is Waiting for Sunrise", in an obvious homage to the great Harpo Marx, a contemporary comedian who always played the harp in a similar style.
Suddenly, a hand tosses a note in through the window. The note tells them to pull up the floor boards of the cell, where they can enter a tunnel that leads beyond the outer wall. The note is signed, "A pal". We never learn who this mysterious man is.
So the boys follow the tunnel. Halfway there, a small cave-in causes them to loose track of distance. They think they are farther than they really are and they start to dig upwards. They come out in the basement wine cellar of a house still within the compound.
This must be the officers' quarters as we see Georgette is staying here while her Francois fawns over her. Stan and Ollie sneak upstairs, unaware of who is there. Upon seeing them, Georgette faints dead away. The boys put her on the bed and are attempting to revive her when Francois enters to see Ollie kissing Georgette again.
Wisely, Stan and Ollie make a run for it. The Legionnaires give chase, and everyone dashes around frantically in a Keystone Cops kinda way. Watch as the 300-pound Oliver Hardy runs up and down stairs with the grace of a much lighter man.
They eventually run back into the jail, and down into the tunnel, the soldiers following all the way. In the wine cellar, they grab some wine bottles and shoot the soldiers as they emerge from the tunnel with the corks!!! It's really more funny than it sounds. They then block off the hole by dumping a barrel of wine down it. Later we see a line of drunken Legionnaires stumble out of the jail cell.
They make it back out the main gate, and head for the airfield. Chased by a group of Legionnaires, they make it to one of the hangers where they hide in an airplane. The plane is the same that Georgette came in earlier. It's a Bellanca cabin, but I can't identify it any better than that. If anyone knows more, let me know.
Having shaken their pursuers, they try and leave the plane, but Stan accidentally starts the motor. The plane starts rolling!!! They are alternately chased and are chasing a group of soldiers around the infield of the airfield, driving the plane around out of control.
Finally, they take off, bouncing along the runway before barely taking to the air. Completely out of control, they weave and jink around over the airfield, swooping down to skim the ground, barrel-rolling and dead-sticking in a mishmash of stock footage and well-framed stunt flying. Bad early matte effects show us the view from within the plane, as the boys fight and pratfall to control the plane.
I must admit the stunt flying in this sequence is brilliant and dangerous. The Bellanca dips and bounces off the ground most cringingly, showing the strength of the landing gear struts as well as the fortitude of the pilot. The stunt pilot was Frank "Air Ace" Clarke, a professional pilot who appeared in numerous WWII air combat films. Ironically, he died in a plane crash in 1948.
Eventually, they spin it in, crashing hard into a clearing. Stan amazingly stumbles from the wreckage, clothes in tatters but otherwise alive. He looks back to see an image of Ollie, dressed in white and wearing angel's wings, ascending to heaven. Yes, Ollie has died, which kinda surprised me.
We cut now to "sometime later", as Stan is walking down a country lane, presumably back in Iowa. He's dressed as a hobo and is carrying a stick with his belongings in a hankerchief. He's surprised to see a white horse leaning over a nearby fence. The horse is wearing a bowler hat like Ollie was famous for, and a large comical square mustache. Earlier, Ollie spoke of coming back as a horse after he died. Ah, a nice way to tie up the movie.
The horse says, "Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into" as the credits roll.
The End. Thanks a bunch.
Written in March 2005 by Nathan Decker.
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