It’s amazing how some personalities from older movies and short films are still so recognizable today. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are still easy to identify even for younger generations, even if many of those same people have never watched an actual Laurel and Hardy film. The thin man and the fat man have become almost an archetype of comedy pairings, and it’s largely due to the characters that these two actors portrayed themselves as (with Abbott and Costello also contributing to the image, in a less exaggerated form.)
I saw Babes in Toyland a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it, I could tell it wasn’t quite the archetypal Laurel and Hardy film. The Flying Deuces may come after their best-known run under producer Hal Roach — it’s directed by A. Edward Sutherland and produced by Boris Morros — but this 1939 film feels a lot more like what my generation has been told to expect from Stan and Ollie. It’s a silly, light-hearted film with a simple plot and a lot of funny gags.
And, of course, no small amount of head trauma for poor Stanley.
Stan and Ollie (they almost always play “themselves”, similar to the Three Stooges) are vacationing in Paris, when Oliver announces he may not ever return home. He has become smitten with the innkeeper’s daughter Georgette (Jean Parker), and plans to ask her to marry him. But unfortunately for him, there’s another man in Georgette’s life; in fact, she’s married, although that particular point escapes Ollie. All he knows is that the woman of his dreams is in love with another man, and he can’t take it. A member of the French Foreign Legion visiting home — actually Georgette’s husband Francois (Reginald Gardiner), though neither he nor Oliver realize the connection — overhears Oliver’s despair and suggests he engage in the classic solution to lost love: enlist in the Foreign Legion to forget. Pretty soon Laurel and Hardy are in the desert of northern Africa, and driving their commandant (Charles Middleton) crazy with their antics.
Many military organizations have a fitness requirement for volunteers. The French Foreign Legion evidently is not among them.
The plot is basically an excuse to get Laurel and Hardy into a new situation for their comic antics. It’s not deep or complicated, or even very long (the film is just barely over an hour in length), but it doesn’t need to be. We’re not here for a brain-bending plot, we’re just here to laugh at Stan and Ollie. And on that score, the film succeeds marvelously. There are visual gags, pratfalls and physical gags, and some pretty good dialogue gags from both leads. It even has a bit of pretty dark humor, with the suicidally depressed Ollie simply assuming Stan will want to join him in jumping in the river — and Stan trying desperately to find another solution for Ollie so he doesn’t have to go along with it. The film is simply a very fun little comedy, and watching it, it becomes a lot easier to see the way modern comedies owe a tribute to Laurel and Hardy.