Sunday, May 10, 2015

Laurel and Hardy - THE FINAL TOUR: Birds Of A Feather

Following completion of a British tour of A SPOT OF TROUBLE (a stage sketch based on the 1929 two-reeler NIGHT OWLS) in October 1952, Stan began work on his latest play, BIRDS OF A FEATHER.

When preparations were underway for yet another UK tour, it was discovered that Ollie, as an American citizen, was unable due to immigration laws to work in Britain again until a year had elapsed from his previous engagement there. Luckily, a scrutiny of the small print suggested that, should they enter overland from the Republic of Eire, he would be able to work in Northern Ireland before the year was up.

So with that in mind, Stan and Ollie docked at a small port in Cobh, Southern Ireland on the 9th of September 1953 expecting a low key reception. Things couldn't be further from the truth. Despite minimal publicity, it had somehow gotten around town that the boys were coming, and they arrived dismayed to find the harbour crowded to capacity with men, women and children all cheering for their heroes, with the sound of the "Cuckoo Theme" ringing from the cathedral bells, barely audible amid the cheers and horns blasting from other vessels in the harbour. Stan and Ollie were barely able to keep their emotions under control.

The tour kicked off and had the boys starring as a couple of whisky tasters. With a motto like: "The more we drink - the more we earn", it's inevitable that Stan and Ollie are destined for calamity. And thus, they soon wind up in the mental ward of the local County Hospital!!

This was brought about when a severely drunken Ollie had declared that he was "as happy as a lark", and after claiming that he was so joyous that he felt "fit to fly with the birds", he went on to tumble through a window headlong into an imaginary river down below (with the obligatory "two-buckets-of-water" trick utilised to suggest this effect).

The rest of the play had a very familiar theme. Ollie in a hospital bed, icepack on his head and his arm in a sling!

While enjoying his comfortable rest from the turmoil of everyday life, all is going well - then Stan shows up at visiting time. It's not surprising that he bears a gift of hard boiled eggs - although this time he passed on the nuts of earlier fame. 

"What's that?" asks  Ollie after spotting a brown paper bag under Stan's arm. "I brought you some hard boiled eggs and a nice onion and jam sandwich" Stan explains, to Ollie's horror. "Now why did you bring me an onion and jam sandwich?" Ollie deflatedly asks, "you KNOW I can't eat that!"

"Why not?" asks a frowning, puzzled Stan, "you always said you liked jam, and you like onions too. I remember you said...", being cut off mid sentence by an irate Ollie "Oooooh!"

"I do, but not together!!" Ollie retorts, throwing up his arms in despair. This time, it was the adoring audience who Ollie turned to, rather than the camera, to slow burn his sarcastic, "Onion and jam sandwich... Mmmmmph!!"

After some shenanigans with the eggs, bed pans and water jugs, a nurse enters the ward to check Ollie's chart which reads: "for the attention of Doctor Beserk. Patient think's he's a bird. Advise immediate frontal lobotomy and dissection of the cerebellum."

Ollie gulps in fear of something going tragically wrong in the operating theatre, but the scatty nurse reassures him, "Oh don't worry Mr. hardy, Doctor Beserk's operations are always successful..." Ollie gives a relieved sigh before she adds, "even if the patient dies!"

Ollie's fear turns to terror as Stan nonchalantly gazes on as an undertaker enters the ward with a tape measure to measure Ollie, "Just in case!". 

"That does it!!!" exclaims a more than frustrated Ollie, who's clearly heard enough. "We're getting out of here!".

"I think you're right Ollie," Stan nods in a semi nervous tone before helping Ollie out of bed and through the wards open window. Behind him, the nurse has re-entered and is silently looking on with a scowl. Stan sees her, tips his hat, then continues climbing out to join his pal on the ledge before doing a double take and motioning Ollie back in.

Ollie, all coy and twiddling his thumbs climbs back into bed just before Doctor Beserk comes into the room. Stan is also in bed, having mistaken the nurses instructions to "get in bed" as being aimed at him too.

"And who is the patient?" asks a puzzled Doctor Beserk, Stan smiling his famous tight lipped grin and pointing at Ollie ... who then realises that he's sharing his bed. Ollie angrily pushes Stan out of bed. The doctor and nurse help Stan to his feet, and he tells them, "I'm not the patient! He's the one who's insanitary!"

An enraged Ollie goes into denial, in order to escape his inevitable fate at the hands of the seemingly incompetent Doctor. "How DARE you make such a statement?" he retorts to Stan in an upper class accent. "Why, I've never seen you before in my life!! My name is Ticklebottom!" he hastily adds.

"Then what are you doing here?" asks the doctor. "I came here to visit a relative and got into this room by mistake, " Ollie's lie continues as he gulps at the laughing audience.

The doctor, believing Ollie begins laughing, only to be joined by Ollie and then Stan. They all laugh uncontrollably for a while with Ollie managing to blurt out among his chuckles, "Who ever heard of anyone thinking he's a bird?". The doctor agrees and tells him he's free to go. But as the nurse pulls back the sheets for Ollie to get out, she notices two hard boiled eggs, accidentally dropped in the bed earlier by Stan, and along with the doctor she reverts back to believing the story. Ollie lets out an "ooooh!" as the two staff lumber him back into bed and Stan throws his arms up in bewilderment.

Ollie's cries of "I didn't lay them eggs - he brought them" go ignored and the audience cheer loudly to his timeless retort: "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" followed by Stan's famous sob, "Well i couldn't help it!"

The sketch comes to a surreal end as the doctor gives Ollie a potionto determin "What kind of bird you think you are - a canary or a buzzard!" The potion has a strange effect on poor Ollie who jumps out of bed chirping just as two pigeons covered in egg shells emerge from the bedside cabinet.

Ollie flaps his imaginary wings, Stan frowns as if still trying to figure out why Ollie doesn't like his sandwich and the doctor and nurse double take in disbelief. The orchestra strike up a closing fanfare as the curtain falls and rises to the bowing stars - to a standing ovation.

(below) The boys perform their 'Birds Of A Feather' sketch on stage in 1954

Eventually the tour hit England, opening night being in Northampton before moving to Liverpool, Manchester, London, Newcastle and Birmingham, where John McCabe was in the audience. He met the boys backstage that night and the result was a long friendship culminating in his 1961 autobiography "MR LAUREL AND MR HARDY" and the formation of the still active "SONS OF THE DESERT" fraternity for Laurel and hardy fans worldwide.

The show closed in May 1954 at the Palace in Plymouth, prompting a review in the local EVENING HERALD the following day:

"Laurel and Hardy look a little older and are not as boisterous as they used to be - perhaps because Oliver Hardy was suffering from a chill and had to have penicillin treatment before the act last night - but all their old cleverness and that delightful craziness is still there."

It should have been in Swansea on the 24th May that the tour concluded, but the 17th in Plymouth turned out to be the boys final performance. The following day Ollie was told to cancel by real doctors, most unlike Doctor Beserk of the sketch, as he had suffered a minor heart attack. Worlds away from the fantasy world of laying eggs and chirping...

Stan declined offers from the remaining venues to continue alone. "I am completely lost without Ollie," he told them, "We do comedy sketches - situations. I'm not a gag man".

Ollie recuperated enough to return home a few days later and the tour was terminated. The duo took a leisurely twenty day cruise to L.A. on the 30th May, embarking from Hull aboard the merchant vessel SS MANCHURIA, on a tropical journey over the Atlantic via the Panama Canal.

The boys would never tour again. Stan would never visit his homeland again. It was the fade-out of the performing career of the boys.

One can still see Ollie, bed ridden, most annoyed and muttering, "Onion and jam sandwich ... Mmmmph!!!"

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