November 13, 2014
Saps at Sea – US, 1940
Watching Saps at Sea must have been like stepping into a time machine – even at the time of its release in 1940. After all, 1940s cinema tended to be narrative, with well established characters and a big Hollywood finale. It was not expected to harken back to the days of short films or take place in a world completely ruled by the topsy turvy rules of slapstick comedy. And yet here is Saps at Sea, a film so replete with bells and whistles that one can’t help wondering whether the film’s writers were trying to one-up one another. In fact, I can imagine them sitting around a card table and saying something akin to, “I’ll see your exploding kitchen and raise you a car going through a wall and a cross-eyed plumber.”
The film begin with a stroke of comedy genius, for after showing viewers a clearly rattled young man carried out of a factory on a stretcher, we are soon whisked inside the factory that employed him and shown the department that precipitated his bout of lunacy – a horn testing department. Yet this is no ordinary department. This is a department where the noise never ceases, where tweets, toots and blares occur in rapid succession and where managers dictate to their employers the exact pitch that a particular horn should register at. It is at this factory that our loveable duo, Stanley and Oliver, work, and in the film’s opening scene, it is Oliver who has finally had enough with horns. The cure for what ails him: some peace and quiet at sea. Just him, the fresh sea air, and, most importantly, no horns.
For the first thirty minutes, Saps at Sea is an utter delight. From time-tested routines involving uncooperative faucets and exploding appliances to a priceless audio gag featuring a balloon, an air pump, and a tuning fork, the film is unrelenting. In fact, I’d say the film hit viewers from all sides simultaneously and then calls for reinforcements. How else can you explain the decision to make Stan have a trombone lesson on the very day that Oliver loses it on account of horns? And the film doesn’t stop there. When Oliver’s doctor advises that he drink goat’s milk, the pair is not content simply to buy some, as normal people would do. No, they have to bring a live goat onto a boat despite the fact that neither one of them knows how to milk it.
It is during this half of the film that James Finlayson makes one of his many memorable appearances, here playing Oliver’s long-suffering doctor. Also appearing are Eddie Conrad as Stan’s music teacher and Charlie Hall as a wise-cracking desk clerk who answers questions with answers laced with ambiguity and sarcasm. That Hall could deliver them with such a straight face is truly remarkable.
The first half of the film ends with Stan and Ollie in one of those situations just rife with comic potential, and yet the second half of the film is somewhat disappointing. Instead of continuing the film’s slapstick theme and taking Stan and Laurel into the wild blue yonder, it introduces one of those standard low-brow comedy criminals for them to contend with. This could have been engaging, yet the character of Nick Grainger (Richard Cramer) is unfortunately so lacking in charisma that he bring the film to a grinding halt. Simply put, his calm, no-nonsense demeanor does not gel well with the frenetic pacing of a slapstick comedy, and not even the film’s entertaining finale can completely re-infuse it with the energy that the character saps it of. We can only wonder what cinematic miracles could have been accomplished had the film’s screenwriters allowed Laurel & Hardy to wake up at sea - alone.
In many ways, Saps at Sea marked the end of an era. It was the last film that Laurel and Hardy made with Hal Roach after he once again allowed their contracts to expire. Subsequently, the film was also James Finlayson’s last appearance in a Laurel and Hardy film. In addition, within two years, some of the film’s Hollywood veterans were gone. Ben Turbin, who appears briefly as a cross-eyes plumber, Harry Bernard, who makes a brief appearance as a harbor patrol captain, and Eddie Conrad all passed away before the start of 1942. To give you a sense of their accomplishments, look at this fact: By the time of their deaths, Turbin and Bernard alone had appeared in over four hundred films. Of course, Laurel and Hardy went on to make other films – nine of them in fact - but something was different about them.
And so, it is with a tinge of sadness that I relay my slight disappointment with Saps at Sea. The film starts with a bang, is slowed by a mediocre center, and closes with a respectable return to form. Through it all, though, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are in top form, and that fact alone makes the film quite a treat. (on DVD as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection)
3 and a half stars