June 4, 2015
Pack Up Your Troubles – US, 1932
I have seen Laurel and Hardy’s Pack Up Your Troubles twice now, and I will say, to the film’s credit, it did improve upon its second viewing. Unlike other films by the comic pair, this one has a visible narrative and helps itself by limiting the number of characters the audience is expected to follow. Also helping the film is its economic running time, and with the exception of one or two scenes, hardly a moment exists that isn’t devoted to moving along the film’s central storyline. If the film has a major fault, it is the underdevelopment of its supporting characters and its dearth of truly laugh-out-loud moments.
At the heart of Pack Up Your Troubles is the bond between friends and soldiers. After a humorous opening bit, during which we see Laurel and Hardy get roped into joining the army after the U.S.’s entrance into the First World War, they make friends with a fellow soldier named Eddie (Don Dilliway). In a nice moment, we watch as Eddie cradles his very young daughter in his hands after reading his wife’s Dear John letter. It’s just you and me now, he seems to be telling her. Tragedy strikes, as it does often in war, and Eddie is killed in battle. Our dedicated duo makes it their mission to find Eddie’s daughter and deliver her to her grandparents. The film’s longest running gag is this pursuit, for, you see, they only know his parents last name, Smith.
The potential in this for laughs is obvious, yet the pursuit of the Smith family never truly takes comic flight. Most of their attempts to locate Smith involve them simply knocking on a door and being told that they have the wrong Smith. Only one of these attempts is given much screen time, and the scene never provokes much more than mild amusement. The film also suffers from its overuse of sped-up physical gags. It’s as if director Greg Marshall thought that what makes pratfalls and zany moments funny is seeing them at twice the speed. It doesn’t. It just makes them harder to engage in.
The film includes many of the stalwarts of a Laurel and Hardy film. James Finlayson makes a brief appearance as a general who gets an unexpected delivery from Stan and Oliver. Also fun to watch is Billy Gilbert, who appears as the overly vengeful father of a seemingly wronged bride on her wedding day. There are also shades of a Marx Bros character in James Mason’s bewildered police officer. He is asked with a straight face if he knows where "Mr. Smith" lives. Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the character of Eddie, who, like some characters in later Laurel and Oliver films, is the straight one in a sea of wackiness. In fact, I can’t recall his having a single comic line in the entire film. This drains the film of some of its energy and prevents audiences from seeing the character in the same way that Stan and Oliver see him.
Pack Up Your Troubles is a bit darker than most of the pair’s films, for in very little time, it touches upon war, domestic violence, infidelity, and the death of a parent. To the film's credit, each of these issues is dealt with in a manner that befits its seriousness. I also admired the way the film depicts the world of 1917 as one comprised of both decent characters and morally dubious ones. Viewers familiar with the films of Charlie Chaplin will also see shades of The Kid in the film's final moments, although what happens here is not nearly as dramatic as the events that Chaplin depicted.
Still, Pack Up Your Troubles works as a whole. Much of the credit for that goes to Stan and Oliver, both of whom display the right combination of humor and sensitivity. Equal credit, though, should be given to Jackie Lynn Dufton, who plays Eddie’s daughter. Dufton, then known as Jacquie Lyn, is a delight to watch, and her interactions with her much more famous co-stars and her mimicking of their trademark mannerisms are quite charming. Interestingly, according to IMDB, Dufton only appeared in six films, her career apparently coming to an end after her stepfather demanded more money than the studio was willing to pay. It’s a shame, really. In the end, I can’t say that Pack Up Your Troubles is one of my favorites of Laurel and Hardy’s films, but the film has heart and moments of sweetness that will resonate with viewers. It also shows Laurel and Hardy in the way that viewers most likely wanted to see them – as both kings of physical comedy and as examples of what is best in all of us. (on DVD)