Great Guns (1941)

Directed by Monty Banks

The beginning of the end…

Author: Jim Griffin from Portishead, England
30 July 2004

Under the watchful eye of producer Hal Roach, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy moved from silent shorts in the 1920s to feature length talkies in the 1930s to become one of the world’s best loved comedy double acts. At Roach’s studios Laurel in particular was given the freedom he needed to refine the duo’s act, working as writer and producer on a number of films. By the end of the decade, with scores of classic shorts and features behind them, relations between the double act and Roach were strained beyond breaking point, and Laurel and Hardy left the studio – and their glory days – behind them.

Great Guns was the first proper film of the post-Roach era, The Flying Deuces with RKO something of a one-off. The move to Twentieth Century Fox in 1941 brought down these giants of comedy in four short years, assigning them to the B unit where little care was taken and little interest shown in what was being made. Their talent wasted by the talentless men who surrounded them, the Laurel and Hardy we loved were dismantled, simplified and bastardised.

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In Great Guns we find them as gardener and chauffeur to a sickly rich kid drafted in spite of being allergic to everything. When the army medical proves there’s nothing wrong with him he eagerly jumps into uniform, with Stan and Ollie joining him to make sure their master is well looked after.

The change in the duo is jarring, Fox’s fumble immediately noticeable. Here we see not the gentle troublemakers we remember, nor the ambitious under-achievers content in their delusion that they can better themselves. As gardener and chauffeur they are servile, loyal, self-sacrificing. They know their place, and that there they belong; none of Ollie’s arrogance here, no petty one-upmanship with exasperated authority figures. Gone are the childlike, naïve little strugglers, our charming anarchists replaced by simple idiots. This wasn’t just a botched attempt to move them on; it was a fundamental misunderstanding of their appeal.

This isn’t Laurel and Hardy. Look at how Ollie’s size is now handled; with joke after joke about his waistline, we see him compared to a blimp and a weather balloon as people queue up to tell him how fat he is. In their glory days the joke was Ollie’s agility in spite of his girth, his delicate finger taps and tie waving. Now the joke is his girth. He’s fat. We get it. The same subtle treatment is extended to Stan’s simple-mindedness. He was always in a world of his own but before all we needed was one of Ollie’s withering looks to tell us so. Here people just call him an idiot, name-calling a poor substitute for punchlines. It makes their act too blatant, as if Fox wanted to assure us they understood what the boys were all about.

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Edmund MacDonald as
Sergeant Hippo

The Flying Deuces showed that the duo could work well enough without Hal Roach, but to do so they had to have solid writing and directing, with input from Stan Laurel. At Fox they were just actors, and actors saddled with poor scripts and no creative control. Simon Louvish’s biography tells how Oliver Hardy would sit at home going over the Fox scripts, shaking his head in disbelief as his character was betrayed; a terribly sad picture to imagine. Beyond its poorly handled characterisation, Great Guns just isn’t funny, with Penelope the crow an obvious example. Consider, too, the drippy romantic subplot that keeps the boys on the sidelines for scene after scene.

We don’t care about it. There’s no reason to.

One of the biggest problems with the boys’ wartime output was the war itself. Stan and Ollie don’t belong in a world with Nazism. They’d been in the army countless times before, but those were more innocent times. Here our heroes were confronted by such a unique evil that they were horribly out of place. They should be struggling with a piano and a flight of stairs, or fighting with James Finlayson because he won’t buy a Christmas tree. Seeing them in the same world as Pearl Harbor and the holocaust is uncomfortable.

Given their reputation it’s surprising to learn that the first few Fox pictures were modest successes, but it’s easy enough to understand. In an age before television repeats, re-issues and re-mastering, the only chance to see the much-loved duo was in their new films, and even a below-par Laurel and Hardy were better than none at all. Today, when a short from the ’20s is as available to us as the feature-length dross from the ’40s, there’s less reason to be so charitable. In Great Guns we can see the beginning of the end and that, however sad the end was, it was inevitable with material of this quality.

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Plot

The young, spoiled but feeble Daniel Forrester IV (Dick Nelson), a very rich eligible bachelor, gets his draft notice from the US Army and is beside himself with joy, because now he has a chance to prove he does not have the weak constitution his Aunts Martha (Mae Marsh) and Agatha (Ethel Griffies) believe him to have. Daniel performs well at his Army physical and is enrolled in the Army soon afterward. To look after Daniel during his service, his chauffeur Ollie (Oliver Hardy) and gardener Stan (Stan Laurel) join the Army at the same time. They all go to basic military training at legendary Fort Merritt in Texas. Daniel finds the Army to his liking, performing excellently at the exercises, but Stan and Ollie are less happy with their new duties. Their drill Sergeant, Hippo (Edmund MacDonald), considers Stan and Ollie to be lazy, and their antics drive the sergeant crazy. Stan’s pet crow Penelope is a constant source of irritation to the sergeant. But what irritates Hippo most is that the fort’s photo developer, Ginger Hammond (Sheila Ryan), takes a special interest in Daniel. The sergeant, who has tried to catch Ginger’s heart himself for quite some time, becomes jealous of Daniel. Daniel confesses his love for her in his sleep, while Stan and Ollie listen in. They do not want Daniel to pursue Ginger, since they are not certain that his health will cope with the strain of a romantic involvement. Stan and Ollie worry that a such relationship between the two will kill their employer, so posing as businessmen, they pay Ginger a visit at home and try to deflect her by telling her that Daniel is broke and not the catch she believes he is. She recognizes them and throws them out of her apartment. Hippo also tries to break up the loving couple by cancelling Daniel’s night leave and making him a prisoner in the guard room instead. Stan and Ollie get into trouble when they are captured by the opposing team in a military exercise. When Daniel hears about their unfortunate situation, he escapes his lock-up and uses Penelope to find Stan. Penelope helps find Stan, and the team that Stan and Ollie belong to win the maneuver. Daniel and his employees become heroes, and Daniel and Ginger become a couple. Penelope gets her own bird-size uniform and all the boys participate in a military parade together, while the aunts and Ginger watch.

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