It’s a beautiful day in the park and Laurel and Hardy are dressed as sailors. All is well with the world.
This sets the tone for the entire film. There may be mayhem, there may be destruction of property, there may be extreme embarrassment – but what there won’t be is ruin, extreme pain, or utter desolation. Stan and Ollie are not going to wreck their own homes or their own livelihoods or their own marriages. The stakes are low.
As I never tire of repeating, there is nothing more exquisite than the spectacle of Stan and Ollie meeting girls for the first time. The fidgeting, the giggling, the simpering and the preening that goes on deserves to be almost indefinitely extended as far as I’m concerned. It would take the pen of a Laurence Sterne to detail the kind of flirtatious embarrassment we have the pleasure of witnessing here. And it would take Laurence Sterne a great many pages to do it justice.
This is a film of three parts. There’s meeting the girls and an amusing misunderstanding involving gloves and underwear. Then there’s the soda buying sequence which is recycled from Should Married Men Go Home (1928). Laurel and Hardy were never shy about developing a somewhat ecological approach to some of their best gags, and Stan Laurel recognised that many of their best silent gags could be reinterpreted for sound. For example, From Soup to Nuts was redeveloped to pad out A Chump at Oxford. The struggle to undress in a sleeper carriage in Berthmarks was integrated into The Big Noise.
Men O’ War, like Two Tars, is a movie about shore-leave sailors arm in arm with two girls with an appetite for chaos.
In this instance, the soda buying sequence is greatly improved by sound. With insufficient funds to buy sodas for themselves and their two dates, Stan is told to refuse when offered. “But you kept asking me” is far better as a spoken line than as a caption. The subsequent joke is even better, when Stan and Ollie agree to share a soda, but Stan has to drink Ollie’s half to get to his own. Best of all is the silence and solemnity before Ollie confronts Stan with drinking the whole glass. “Do you know what you’ve done?” Even the earliest of Laurel and Hardy sound comedies are brilliantly aware that silence is now a comedic weapon if used strategically. This is “silence audible” of a kind that would be impossible in a silent movie.
In addition, the very blessed James Finlayson is behind the till. This ups the double-take quotient considerably.
The sublime D’oh-master is also in charge of renting out rowing boats for the park pond. There’s something pleasantly ludicrous about seeing people in naval costume who can’t handle a rowing boat, although I suppose it’s logical assume that being able to row a boat is no essential accomplishment in a 20th century navy. Having exhausted every conceivable wrong way of rowing a boat, our heroes initiate a tit for tat splash battle (starting with the inevitable Charley Hall) which results in multiple capsizing vessels. Their own boat becomes, paradoxically, the last ship afloat and by the time the closing credits arrive, the wonder is not that their boat will sink, but that it can possibly stay above water for so long, overloaded with so many agitated refugees.
The opening theme is “Running Wild”, so memorably sung by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, thirty years later.
Even more important, this film features the dawn of “D’Oh!” as an exclamation. James Finlayson presumably said it, or mouthed it, many times in the course of his precious involvement with Laurel and Hardy’s silent comedies – but in 1929, “D’Oh!” was heard for the very first time. Let’s pause and muse upon this sacred occasion. The Dawn of D’Oh! deserves our profound respect.
In short, there’s much to love about Men O’ War. It’s a sunny comedy for a sunny day, and it involves some people in Sunday summer clothing getting wet. Nobody really gets hurt here and nothing really matters.