THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE FLYING DEUCES”

BOOTLEG FILES 156: “The Flying Deuces” (1939 Laurel and Hardy comedy with a weird production history).

LAST SEEN: Available for online viewing at MovieFlix.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: An orphan film that no one wants to restore.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Only as a PD title.

True or false: Laurel and Hardy worked for a Commie double agent. The answer is, believe it or else, true. Oddly, that is one of the more sedate bits of trivia connected to the movie “The Flying Deuces.”

In 1938, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were at a career turning point. They were frustrated in their dealings with Hal Roach, the producer who helmed their success. Roach did not keep the duo under contract as a team, instead signing them to individual contracts that were separated by a year. This was not out of malice, since Laurel and Hardy originally signed with Roach’s studio as individual players and only became a team by accident.

Laurel and Hardy decided to sign with Roach as a team in their next contract renewal. Laurel’s contract expired first and he agreed to wait for Hardy’s pact to expire in the following year. Roach, who was angry over this strategy, cast Hardy as a solo performer in the comedy “Zenobia” opposite Harry Langdon, which gave a spin for rumors that Laurel and Hardy were breaking up. But “Zenobia” was a flop and Hardy had no further work from Roach until his contract expired.

At this point, the team received an unexpected offer from Boris Morros. He was the head of the music department at Paramount Pictures, but that work left him unsatisfied and he wanted to branch out into independent production. He set up shop at the RKO studios and acquired the rights to the 1931 French comedy “Les Deux Legionnaires” as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy. Morros wasn’t the first producer to try to get Laurel and Hardy away from Roach – reportedly, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made a pitch for them to appear in a series of comedies to be shot in Rome. However, the comics were finally at liberty to accept gigs without Roach’s approval and they took the assignment.

The new film was called “The Flying Deuces” and from the beginning it created considerable headaches. Laurel, who coordinated the creative material for the team, took an abrupt disliking to Morros’ script and brought in his own team of gag writers (including Hardy’s “Zenobia” co-star Harry Langdon) to yuk it up. Laurel also insisted on casting long-time sidekick James Finlayson in a supporting role as a jailer. If Morros tolerated the tinkering and changes, the director Edward Sutherland did not. Sutherland, a veteran comedy director, grew to hate Laurel as the production progressed and reportedly claimed he would sooner eat a tarantula than make another movie with Laurel.

Morros also had financial problems and “The Flying Deuces” wound up looking fairly cheap. Sets leftover from other RKO films were grabbed for the production, and at one point Morros hastily used the exteriors of the RKO sound stages to double as a Foreign Legion fort. “The Flying Deuces” was hurriedly shot in four weeks, with one day devoted for retakes.

The film itself is rather simple. Laurel and Hardy are in Paris and live in a cheap hotel. Hardy is in love with the daughter of the hotel owner, but when he discovers she’s married to a Legionnaire he decides to commit suicide. However, his plan for self-destruction (drowning in the Seine) has a weird catch: Laurel is supposed to kill himself, too. Their watery demise is interrupted by a Legionnaire who suggests they join the Foreign Legion. The logic: in the Foreign Legion, Hardy can forget the woman he loved.

Well, Laurel and Hardy join the Foreign Legion and make a mess of things. Their attempts at formation marching create chaos, and their assignment to laundry duties results in a fire that burns all of the clothing in their care. They attempt to desert, but they’re caught and jailed with the prospect of facing a firing squad. Through a happy accident, they escape and steal an airplane. But the airplane crashes and Hardy is killed (his angelic soul ascends from the wreckage). In the fade out, Laurel is back home in America and is reunited with Hardy, who has been reincarnated as a horse (complete with derby and mustache!).

On the whole, “The Flying Deuces” is more silly than funny. There are a few truly boffo moments, such as Laurel’s disastrous attempt to use smelling salts on Hardy (he gets the bottle jammed on Hardy’s nose, causing his olfactory passages to be burned) and the zany escape from jail (the funnymen wind up in a liquor storehouse and use champagne bottles as weapons, firing the corks at their pursuers). The film also has a sterling (if irrelevant) musical interlude when Laurel and Hardy walk past a group of Legionnaires who are inexplicably holding an outdoor jam session. With little prompting, Hardy breaks into a charming rendition of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and then joins Laurel for a jolly soft-shoe dance.

But these bits of business are separated by long stretches of middling knockabout. Some gags don’t hold up today (Laurel awaits the morning fire squad in his jail cell by playing “The World is Waiting for a Sunrise” on his bedsprings, a la Harpo Marx) and some gags are ruined by cheapjack production values (especially the climactic airplane ride, with its obvious use of toy miniatures and rear projection effects). There is also a sad waste of Jean Peters as Hardy’s would-be love interest. She was a gorgeous actress who’s barely used here as a mere prop, which is a shame since her beauty and vivacious personality balanced well against Laurel and Hardy’s knockabout.

“The Flying Deuces” was released to no great acclaim. The comics went back to Hal Roach for a pair of comedies, “A Chump at Oxford” and “Saps at Sea,” but those films were mediocre. They then signed with 20th Century Fox, but their output was so awful that they were dropped from the studio roster after four years (they also made a pair of forgettable B-movies at MGM). Six years after “The Flying Deuces” was made, Laurel and Hardy’s Hollywood career was over.

The film itself suffered an equally unkind fate. RKO saw no use for the movie and sold it to the small distributor Astor Pictures in the late 1940s. When that company went out of business, no one renewed the copyright on “The Flying Deuces” and it fell into the public domain. Lousy bootleg dupes have flooded the home entertainment market for years. Most of them seem to come from scratchy and faded 16mm prints. Kino on Video, which used a French 35mm print as its source, issued the best quality DVD (and, not surprisingly, the priciest). Since “The Flying Deuces” is an orphan movie, it is unlikely anyone is going to pay for a full restoration. However, its ubiquity has brought it more fans than it might have otherwise generated, and its popularity helped to get it listed in the B-Movie Hall of Fame, which is voted upon by low-budget movie lovers.

While all of this was going on, Boris Morros (remember him?) had more intriguing business taking place. The Russian-born Morros had been working as a spy for Stalin’s Soviet government since 1934. Although the FBI was aware of his espionage role by 1943, the agency kept an eye on him and allowed him to operate freely (he was still producing movies, most notably the Fred Astaire musical “Second Chorus”). In 1947, Morros became a counterspy for the FBI and began passing misinformation back to Moscow. Morros was the rare spy who was able to come in from the cold and profit from his work. He published an autobiography that was later turned into the 1959 movie “Man on a String,” with Ernest Borgnine (of all people!) playing Morros.

It is unlikely that Laurel and Hardy ever knew of Morros’ spy work during the production of “The Flying Deuces,” and they were never interviewed about their Red producer after his cover was finally blown. The bizarre history surrounding “The Flying Deuces” that might actually make a great film, which is ironic since the whole adventure is wrapped around a not-so-great film.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 18, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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