Why don’t you say something to help me?

In about a month, TCM will be showing a veritable smorgasbord of Laurel and Hardy treasures, and in anticipation of this coming bounty I wanted to single out their first talking picture, Unaccustomed As We Are, for extra-special nit-picky attention.  It’s not their best or most representative or most important or best remembered short.  As such it disappears too easily into the shadows of such bigger triumphs as The Music Box or Helpmates.  But on closer examination, this unpretentious little film has a lot to offer…

Title screen 1
Title screen 2

For one thing, Unaccustomed As We Are happens to mark the very first time that American movie audiences had ever heard any of their favorite comedians speak on screen.

Charley Chase was a close second with The Big Squawk later the same month, the Marx Brothers had The Cocoanuts in theaters by the summer of 1929.  Harry Langdon’s Hotter Than Hot followed soon thereafter, and Harold Lloyd reshot Welcome Danger as a talkie for release in the fall.  Buster Keaton and W.C Fields started talking onscreen the following year.  Charlie Chaplin didn’t make any onscreen vocalization until Modern Times in 1936.

It is commonly accepted that the arrival sound spelled doom for silent comedy.  It is of course obvious that sound replaced silent film generally.  With the exception of the odd experimental film or gimmick (such as Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie), silent films are no longer manufactured.  But by and large, this transition in technology added value to existing modes of storytelling rather than replace them entirely.  Hollywood still makes dramas and science fiction films and romances and historical epics just the same as before The Jazz Singer.  Silent comedy, however, was a unique genre with a cinematic language all its own.  And it is this special form that is alleged to have been killed by the coming of sound.

Several factors are said to be at fault.  Some performers had developed screen personalities that were at odds with their actual speaking voices (a phenomenon dramatized in Singin’ in the Rain).  Some filmmakers were accustomed to giving directions to their cast while shooting, shaping performances as the camera rolled—or in other cases, playing music on the set to establish a rhythm or mood.  Such techniques had to be aborted when microphones were present.  For that matter, those microphones were notoriously finicky.  Scenes had to be staged to group the actors close to the microphones, which had to be somehow hidden from the camera.  In turn, the camera’s own noise had to be blocked from the microphones by some kind of baffling apparatus.  The result was an imposition of stodgy, stagy film techniques.  Where cameras had once roamed according to the whims of the directors, they were now slaved to the limitations of the sound recording equipment.

All-new studios had to be built to the needs of the new technology, at a time when the stock market was crashing and America was entering the worst economic crisis of its existence.  The investment in sound was therefore precious, and to protect that investment the studio heads were reluctant to wait while silent filmmakers adapted.  Instead they brought in staff from Broadway and the stage, and subordinated the silent era technicians to these new arrivals who “knew” how to handle dialogue.  The aesthetics of sound film shifted in order to emphasize the new attribute: films came to prioritize talk and song.

The likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd had been kings of a particular environment.  Sound completely changed the production environment, aesthetics, and economics of their business.  Like dinosaurs facing the havoc wrought by a crashing asteroid, they had to adapt or die.

At least, that’s how the story is usually told.  And when the subject of Laurel and Hardy’s transition to sound comes up, it is excused as an anomaly—the exception that proves the rule.

As it happens, Laurel and Hardy made the transition to sound handily.  The reduced production schedule of short comedies meant it was far easier for the makers of shorts to change over than it was for comedians working in features.  On May 4, 1929, American audiences enjoyed the opening day of the Laurel and Hardy two-reel short Unaccustomed As We Are.

Unaccustomed As We Are

Originally, it was to have been titled Their Last Word, an ironic defiance of the fact that these are their first words.  From the beginning, no special pride of place is given to their first words.  You can imagine the publicity guys at Hal Roach Studios desperate to bill this as “Laurel and Hardy SPEAK!” but when the moment comes the boys get no privileged entrance.

Here it is folks–the very first words ever spoken on screen by an American comedian:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibrVO-hKZ34]

The film fades up on the hallway of an apartment building as Stan and Ollie stride into the frame in the middle of a conversation.  It is as is they have alwaysbeen talking.

Ollie looks like a man who’s enjoyed many a meal, and the words he uses are rapturous, almost lustful.  Stan listens to all of this, but his mouth isn’t watering yet.  “Any nuts?”  Ollie’s build up is deflated, and not for the last time.

Ollie’s non-versation with neighbor Thelma Todd is immediately derailed by their mutual insistence on formality.  Ollie can’t just ask how her husband is, he has to ask, “And how is Mr. Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy?”  Thelma’s responses are every bit as ridiculously mannered: “Oh, he’s very well, thank you, Mr. Hardy.”  After what feels like an eternity of this, Ollie notes to Stan, “That was Mrs. Kennedy.”  Stan’s bewildering response—“I was wondering who it was.”

It is not an especially good joke, but it is a kind of joke they had never before been able to do.  Stan and Ollie have punctured social graces throughout their silent films, but did so by tearing buildings to their foundations or dragging live horses into the middle of tony mansions.  Now they can work on a smaller scale.

Ollie is concerned with social propriety, to the extent that he often misses how far out of alignment appearances can get from reality.  Stan, too simple-minded to be under any illusions, is the one to break the spell.  Ollie can’t have a normal conversation withThelma, because he’s so distracted by formalities that he has no mental energy left to think of anything worth saying.  He introduces “Mrs. Kennedy” to Stan because that’s what etiquette demands in such a situation—and is then annoyed by the realization that Stan actually needed that tidbit of information.  Ollie is satisfied by the surface of things—and this is his downfall, every time.

They are now at Ollie’s door.  Inside, he promises, is the sweetest girl Stan could ever hope to meet.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heSML4gqaCM]

To hear Oliver describe her, she must be the very definition of American femininity.  Ollie calls to her in a sickly-sweet coo: “Yoooo-hooo.”  From off camera comes the growling reply of some rabid animal: “Whaddya mean, yoo-hoo?”

It is a priceless moment.  Mae Busch’s bleating delivery of the line sells the gag beautifully.  She looks like Barbara Stanwyck but has the temperament of Jimmy Cagney.  She’s the sort of dame you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.  She storms onto screen with a look of fury so intense it’s a wonder Oliver doesn’t burst into flames on the spot.

We understand Stan’s befuddlement at the turn of things (“Are we in the right apartment?”) but the real joke is in Oliver’s confusion.  How could Oliver live with this woman, day in and day out, and have described her the way he did?  How could he have honestly expected any other response from her than the torrent of abuse she starts to spew upon sight of Stan?  Somewhere in his mind, Oliver Hardy has constructed the world he believes he ought to live in. It’s a place where his best friend is a competent and trustworthy figure, his wife is a loving and supportive partner, and he comports himself as if these things were true, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Oliver and Mae are screaming at each other now, with Stan looking vaguely awkward beside them.  He clearly hasn’t figured out that they are arguing about him, and is embarrassed for his friend to have such a private spat in front of him.  With both performers screaming, the dialogue is completely obscured.  It is as confident a moment as Ollie’s initial appearance, walking into the frame in mid-sentence.  This is a film specifically designed as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy to talk, and they are willing to let that descend into inchoate noise.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yisoZmCodvM]

During the row, Ollie absent-mindedly turns on the record player, and Mae equally absent-mindedly finds her rant settling into the rhythm established by the music.  Once she realizes how silly she sounds, more or less “singing” to the backing track, her fury burns even hotter and she storms out.  We are barely five minutes into the film, and Laurel and Hardy have shown themselves to be supremely comfortable with the new medium.

Hal Roach had a separate print of Unaccustomed As We Are prepared for those markets that were not yet equipped for sound.  This alternate silent version of the film is exactly the same footage, but with the soundtrack removed and title cards inserted where necessary to make sense of it.  A comparison of the two versions is quite instructive.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxJgJ2NHon8]

The silent version of the film quickly becomes mired in intrusive title cards that disrupt the flow of the action and fail to serve the jokes.

Stan’s line “Will there be any nuts?” is funnier when it actually follows the full description of the upcoming banquet.  The abbreviated description offered by the title card is an inadequate set up to the punchline.  Similarly, Stan’s improbable reaction to the endless “How are you, Mrs. Kennedy?” routine is diminished when it is cut back to a mere handful of cards—which are themselves more of an interruption than a joke.

However, writer Bernie Walker and director Lewis Foster are in a jam.  If they don’t interrupt the scene with title cards, they are left with a lengthy sequence of Laurel and Hardy standing in a hallway without any interesting action.  The only jokes here are verbal.  In theory, you could start the film at the moment that they enter the Hardy’s apartment, but that would remove the introduction of Thelma Todd’s character, a vital character to the remainder of the plot. As you can see below, it doesn’t take long for her to end up in Ollie’s apartment, virtually nude, and hunted by her ruthlessly jealous husband.

Thelma

Short of reshooting the opening sequence entirely, the silent version has no choice but to surrender to an awkward and unsatisfying approach.

Put simply, Laurel and Hardy’s first talkie is confidently and completely constructed as a talkie.  It isn’t a silent film with dialogue added; removing the dialogue diminishes it.  Far from robbing them of their power as comedians, the addition of sound has given them a new dimension with which to make their jokes.  They even make the first utterance of a line that would become a running gag and trademark: “Why don’t you do something to help me?”

Prior to seeing Unaccustomed As We Are, it is hard to imagine what voices audiences may have imagined belonged to these two characters.  Laurel and Hardy had experimented successfully with a few domestic comedies in the style of Unaccustomed As We AreTheir Purple Moment, Should Married Men Go Home, We Faw Down, and That’s My Wife—but most of their silent shorts find the boys as rough, down and out figures.  They are escaped convicts (twice!), hard laborers, unemployed vagrants, sailors, street musicians, boxers…

And yet, when we finally hear them speak, it is with a surprising hint of erudition and gentility.  Oliver Hardy speaks with a soft Southern accent—not a twangy drawl, but a gentle lilt atop a deep, honeyed voice.  Stan Laurel has a British accent (he hailed from the same place as Charlie Chaplin and came through the same career channels).  Rightly or wrongly, an accent like Stan’s has been associated with education and sophistication.  These two men speak with voices that seem utterly at odds with their physical rowdiness and mental ineptitude.  However, this is no Singin’ in the Rain-style scenario where their misfit voices undermined their characters.  Instead, it is essential to the joke.  These voices imply a certain pretention, a reach for social grace that we also find in Ollie’s awkward formality and misapplied etiquette.  These voices belong to men who want to think of themselves as gentlemen.

The Three Stooges made their prolific career in much the same comic milieu as Laurel and Hardy.  Several Stooges shorts are outright remakes of Laurel and Hardy films.  Yet there was a crucial difference in personality.  A typical Stooge gag went like this: the three of them have devolved into mayhem, and some figure of authority or social superiority tries to get their attention by calling, “Gentlemen!  Gentlemen!”  The Stooges look around in confusion, wondering who the poor chap might be talking to.  Laurel and Hardy would never make such a joke—no matter how decrepit their circumstances, they always just assumed they were gentlemen.  As with everything else, Oliver Hardy happily glossed over any misfit between the world he desired to live in and the one he actually did.

Sound did not kill Laurel and Hardy’s career—if anything it propelled them to new comic heights.  They continued making films together until 1951, without much changing their act along the way.

20 Responses Why don’t you say something to help me?
Posted By Jeff : December 11, 2010 10:13 am

A very nice little think piece. It should be noted that ironically, for years UNACCUSTOMED…was literally mute. The Roach studios used the sound-on-disc system for both recording and release prints for the first 5-6 months, and for many years no disc with the soundtrack for L&H’s first talkie was available. Fortunately a little over thirty years ago many discs that had gone missing for years were discovered (including the discs to the 2nd Our Gang talkie, RAILROADIN’) and the films were restored. Now it is possible to see this little gem of a film and hear that grand finale when Stan appears to fall down countless flights of stairs-off camera!-and give the conclusive evidence of the Boys mastery of sound.

Posted By Jeff : December 11, 2010 10:13 am

A very nice little think piece. It should be noted that ironically, for years UNACCUSTOMED…was literally mute. The Roach studios used the sound-on-disc system for both recording and release prints for the first 5-6 months, and for many years no disc with the soundtrack for L&H’s first talkie was available. Fortunately a little over thirty years ago many discs that had gone missing for years were discovered (including the discs to the 2nd Our Gang talkie, RAILROADIN’) and the films were restored. Now it is possible to see this little gem of a film and hear that grand finale when Stan appears to fall down countless flights of stairs-off camera!-and give the conclusive evidence of the Boys mastery of sound.

Posted By Tom F. : December 11, 2010 10:26 am

Wonderful! After 50+ years of watching and loving Stan and Ollie, I can still be taught something new about their comedy. David’s blog is a great commentary. What a crime, that in this age of dvd/blu-ray, there is not a definitive collection of restored L&H.

Posted By Tom F. : December 11, 2010 10:26 am

Wonderful! After 50+ years of watching and loving Stan and Ollie, I can still be taught something new about their comedy. David’s blog is a great commentary. What a crime, that in this age of dvd/blu-ray, there is not a definitive collection of restored L&H.

Posted By Tom S : December 11, 2010 12:21 pm

Tom F: There’s a spectacular Laurel and Hardy set, 20+ discs of them, if you can watch region 2 dvds- it’s on amazon.co.uk. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Laurel-Hardy-Collection-21-disc-Box/dp/B0001K2KE8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1292083471&sr=8-1)

More broadly- I was reading an essay Buster Keaton wrote later in life, and he describes how he was never interested in ‘dialog comedy’, sound or not. He then goes on to describe how in the early days of sound film, dialog comedy was privileged- in the Laurel and Hardy above, there is some clever use of sound to add extra dimensions to the screen, but most of the additions are dialog based. The Marx brothers could never have been on screen before sound, because Groucho would have had nothing to do.

What’s strange to me is that, to judge from most of the histories I’ve heard, people suddenly stopped being interested in the kind of comedy they’d loved for decades, silent comedy in the style rather than the technical sense, as soon as sound showed up. People watch that kind of comedy now- Mr. Bean is an internationally popular figure, and Mr. Hulot was one before him, both of them fundamentally silent comedians dropped into a sound world a la Modern Times. So what killed it back then? Why did people suddenly want all Grouchos and no Harpos?

(I realize it wasn’t that abrupt- I have a Harold Lloyd set that has a good half dozen sound features- but certainly it does seem as though the great majority of the brilliant silent comics struggled and burned out in the sound era. W.C Fields and Laurel and Hardy seemed like they’d had their dialog routines all set up beforehand, but for the majority of the silent guys, it’s hard to think of much they did after the advent of sound. It’s harder still to think of a single fundamentally silent comedian who popped up in the sound era until Jacques Tati, decades later.)

Posted By Tom S : December 11, 2010 12:21 pm

Tom F: There’s a spectacular Laurel and Hardy set, 20+ discs of them, if you can watch region 2 dvds- it’s on amazon.co.uk. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Laurel-Hardy-Collection-21-disc-Box/dp/B0001K2KE8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1292083471&sr=8-1)

More broadly- I was reading an essay Buster Keaton wrote later in life, and he describes how he was never interested in ‘dialog comedy’, sound or not. He then goes on to describe how in the early days of sound film, dialog comedy was privileged- in the Laurel and Hardy above, there is some clever use of sound to add extra dimensions to the screen, but most of the additions are dialog based. The Marx brothers could never have been on screen before sound, because Groucho would have had nothing to do.

What’s strange to me is that, to judge from most of the histories I’ve heard, people suddenly stopped being interested in the kind of comedy they’d loved for decades, silent comedy in the style rather than the technical sense, as soon as sound showed up. People watch that kind of comedy now- Mr. Bean is an internationally popular figure, and Mr. Hulot was one before him, both of them fundamentally silent comedians dropped into a sound world a la Modern Times. So what killed it back then? Why did people suddenly want all Grouchos and no Harpos?

(I realize it wasn’t that abrupt- I have a Harold Lloyd set that has a good half dozen sound features- but certainly it does seem as though the great majority of the brilliant silent comics struggled and burned out in the sound era. W.C Fields and Laurel and Hardy seemed like they’d had their dialog routines all set up beforehand, but for the majority of the silent guys, it’s hard to think of much they did after the advent of sound. It’s harder still to think of a single fundamentally silent comedian who popped up in the sound era until Jacques Tati, decades later.)

Posted By Jeff : December 11, 2010 4:48 pm

That Region 2 box set is definitely the ultimate-it even includes the surviving foreign language films the boys did before dubbing made it easier to redo films for the international market.

The one from that set that is a must see..is the Spanish version of CHICKENS COME HOME entitled POLITICARIAS, which is the damnedest film you will ever see. The extended footage revolves around entertainers in the Hardy house for a party. One of them is a man-legendary in vaudeville circles-whose act consisted of ingesting various amounts of water and flammable liquids, which he would then use to set fire to a miniature house by regurgitating the flammable liquid like a flamethrower, then afterwards doing the same with the water and putting out the fire. Like I said, the damnedest film you will ever see. I attended a screening at a Cinecon some years ago, and the audience reaction began with shock, a little revulsion, then wonder, ending with admiration and huge applause. And he does this without saying a word!

Posted By Jeff : December 11, 2010 4:48 pm

That Region 2 box set is definitely the ultimate-it even includes the surviving foreign language films the boys did before dubbing made it easier to redo films for the international market.

The one from that set that is a must see..is the Spanish version of CHICKENS COME HOME entitled POLITICARIAS, which is the damnedest film you will ever see. The extended footage revolves around entertainers in the Hardy house for a party. One of them is a man-legendary in vaudeville circles-whose act consisted of ingesting various amounts of water and flammable liquids, which he would then use to set fire to a miniature house by regurgitating the flammable liquid like a flamethrower, then afterwards doing the same with the water and putting out the fire. Like I said, the damnedest film you will ever see. I attended a screening at a Cinecon some years ago, and the audience reaction began with shock, a little revulsion, then wonder, ending with admiration and huge applause. And he does this without saying a word!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : December 12, 2010 11:21 am

I’ve always promised myself that I will one day delve into Laurel and Hardy as I have the Marx Brothers, Stooges and other comedians. Not sure why I’ve waited so long — I don’t recall L&H being childhood TV staples where I was in L.A. — but obviously I should wait no longer!

As a sidenot, is there a gender bias for L&H as there is (but maybe it’s not even so anymore) for The 3 Stooges? Are there a lot of “Daughters” of the Desert? If not, the ladies have missed out on a lot, and we’ve got to catch up! (Actually the bias is probaby for all rowdy comedy, and it took the romcom to invite the ladies in.) Can we talk sometime about how I think the problem is that women somehow, deep down, want to be attracted to comedians, and not all of them are conventionally attractive? Guys just want to laugh; women want to fall in love, a little bit. Or am I just screwy on that one?

Thanks for introducing me to this landmark moment for Laurel and Hardy!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : December 12, 2010 11:21 am

I’ve always promised myself that I will one day delve into Laurel and Hardy as I have the Marx Brothers, Stooges and other comedians. Not sure why I’ve waited so long — I don’t recall L&H being childhood TV staples where I was in L.A. — but obviously I should wait no longer!

As a sidenot, is there a gender bias for L&H as there is (but maybe it’s not even so anymore) for The 3 Stooges? Are there a lot of “Daughters” of the Desert? If not, the ladies have missed out on a lot, and we’ve got to catch up! (Actually the bias is probaby for all rowdy comedy, and it took the romcom to invite the ladies in.) Can we talk sometime about how I think the problem is that women somehow, deep down, want to be attracted to comedians, and not all of them are conventionally attractive? Guys just want to laugh; women want to fall in love, a little bit. Or am I just screwy on that one?

Thanks for introducing me to this landmark moment for Laurel and Hardy!

Posted By Joe Berkowitz : December 12, 2010 6:18 pm

I have been a fan of L&H for many years, going back to my teens, and I never had the opportunity to watch UNACCUSTOMED. The clips and your insight into them are just terrific and I look forward to watching with delight more Laurel and Hardy and to having the opportunity to introduce my son to their delights.

Posted By Joe Berkowitz : December 12, 2010 6:18 pm

I have been a fan of L&H for many years, going back to my teens, and I never had the opportunity to watch UNACCUSTOMED. The clips and your insight into them are just terrific and I look forward to watching with delight more Laurel and Hardy and to having the opportunity to introduce my son to their delights.

Posted By DBenson : December 16, 2010 6:15 pm

Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns makes a strong case that the nature of sound itself killed classic silent comedy: The slight undercranking to give people and objects a subtly impossible speed and grace; the absence of ambient noises that make the world too solid and dangerous; and the general air of fantasy that allowed artful violations of physical laws and accepted behavior . . . all these vanished with sound.

He argues that Laurel and Hardy prospered in part because their comedy style was slow and patient — their timing was already in sync with sound. And as noted here, they were already more interested in social niceties and other ideas that leant themselves to dialogue. Ollie’s fastidious way of presenting a business card or removing a hat clearly presaged his verbal habits, and Stan had established his Unclear on the Concept mindset via pantomime (the statue bit in Wrong Again).

Kerr also points to an early sound effort with Lloyd hanging off a building once again. This time, you hear the traffic, the wind, and Lloyd’s calls for help — you’re actually scared for this very real guy in very real danger, whereas the silent Lloyd had the implied invincibility of a cartoon character.

Posted By DBenson : December 16, 2010 6:15 pm

Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns makes a strong case that the nature of sound itself killed classic silent comedy: The slight undercranking to give people and objects a subtly impossible speed and grace; the absence of ambient noises that make the world too solid and dangerous; and the general air of fantasy that allowed artful violations of physical laws and accepted behavior . . . all these vanished with sound.

He argues that Laurel and Hardy prospered in part because their comedy style was slow and patient — their timing was already in sync with sound. And as noted here, they were already more interested in social niceties and other ideas that leant themselves to dialogue. Ollie’s fastidious way of presenting a business card or removing a hat clearly presaged his verbal habits, and Stan had established his Unclear on the Concept mindset via pantomime (the statue bit in Wrong Again).

Kerr also points to an early sound effort with Lloyd hanging off a building once again. This time, you hear the traffic, the wind, and Lloyd’s calls for help — you’re actually scared for this very real guy in very real danger, whereas the silent Lloyd had the implied invincibility of a cartoon character.

Posted By errol23 : December 17, 2010 7:01 pm

It would be nice if someone could find The Rogue Song(1930)Somehere it must exist.

Posted By errol23 : December 17, 2010 7:01 pm

It would be nice if someone could find The Rogue Song(1930)Somehere it must exist.

Posted By Jeff : December 18, 2010 6:18 am

We seem to be finding bits and pieces of ROGUE SONG. A sequence with the boys in a cave exists, along with one musical number (which mistakenly made its way onto the JAZZ SINGER DVD) and I think the trailer. The entire soundtrack exists on discs and was presented in condensed form on an LP in the 80s from Pelican Records. Too bad they didn’t find it in New Zealand or Buenos Aires, but it may turn up somewhere. The question is, aside from the Boys, will it really be worth it?

Posted By Jeff : December 18, 2010 6:18 am

We seem to be finding bits and pieces of ROGUE SONG. A sequence with the boys in a cave exists, along with one musical number (which mistakenly made its way onto the JAZZ SINGER DVD) and I think the trailer. The entire soundtrack exists on discs and was presented in condensed form on an LP in the 80s from Pelican Records. Too bad they didn’t find it in New Zealand or Buenos Aires, but it may turn up somewhere. The question is, aside from the Boys, will it really be worth it?

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – The Sin of Harold Lloyd : September 1, 2012 6:02 am

[...] As We Are, a short film and the first time any silent comedian was heard to speak—but we’ve dealt with that in this forum before).  Lloyd yanked his already completed feature Welcome Danger from theaters to reshoot it as a [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – The Sin of Harold Lloyd : September 1, 2012 6:02 am

[...] As We Are, a short film and the first time any silent comedian was heard to speak—but we’ve dealt with that in this forum before).  Lloyd yanked his already completed feature Welcome Danger from theaters to reshoot it as a [...]

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