Laurel & Hardy's 'The Flying Deuces' in Classic Cool Context

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This Saturday at 9:00 p.m., KCET brings you the 1939 film "The Flying Deuces," a knockabout comedy starring legendary double act (Stan) Laurel and (Oliver) Hardy. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "The Flying Deuces" back on October 20, 1939.

From Abbott and Costello to Chris Farley and David Spade, American cinema has seen its fair share of comedy duos. But the first such pairing to dazzle screen audiences was that of Laurel and Hardy, whose collective career spanned the silent-to-sound era. While it's impossible today to think of one without the other, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had established separate careers in vaudeville and short films before coming together in 1926 at Hal Roach Studios. As a pair, their careers soared to new heights. They went on to play the same iconic Stan and Ollie characters in more than 100 films together over three decades.

Here's a scene from "The Music Box" that demonstrates Laurel and Hardy's comedic brand. This Hal Roach-produced short film won an academy award in 1932.

"The Flying Deuces" was the first Laurel and Hardy feature film not produced by Hal Roach -- the man who brought the two together and worked closely with them. When Roach began with the duo, he was also producing "Our Gang" (The Little Rascals) shorts. In 1939, Roach lent out his star twosome to do "Deuces" with another producer, and was himself likely busy with the acclaimed "Of Mice and Men," debuting months later. Soon after "Deuces," Laurel and Hardy ended their contract with Roach and went to 20th Century Fox. Check out this glimpse of "Our Gang" in the early days of Hal Roach's Culver City studios.

Shot from the filming of "Our Gang" at Hal Roach Studios, Los Angeles, Calif., circa 1922. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.

With Roach, Laurel had played a major part in writing and directing the films. In Roach's words, "Laurel bossed the production," no matter who the formal director was. Laurel's style of doing things caused some trouble on the "Deuces" set. After filming, director A. Edward Sutherland said he'd "rather eat a tarantula than work with Laurel again." Hardy likely had a cheerier experience on the set of "Deuces." He met script supervisor Virginia Lucille Jones on the set and married her soon after. Jones, Hardy's third wife, was with him until his death. None of this drama showed up on screen, and the duo was in top form. See the two in action in this "Deuces" trailer.

While a success, Laurel and Hardy's "Deuces" was no match for some of Hollywood's most iconic films released in 1939, including "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."

Munchkins in costumes at film premiere of Wizard of Oz in Los Angeles, Calif., 1939. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives.

Take a Closer Look Back

In "Deuces," Laurel and Hardy are roped into joining the French Foreign Legion when they look for a way to get Hardy's mind off an unrequited love. All was quiet at their Parisian base, aside from their exploits. In reality, World War II had begun just several weeks before the "Deuces" theatrical debut, and France had declared war on Germany. The U.S. didn't join with France until two years later, but there were some important signs of what was to come. For one, President Roosevelt amended the Neutrality Acts (just after the French and British declarations of war) to allow military aid to be sent to the Allied Powers. Watch this newsreel from early 1939, when Roosevelt addresses the country regarding his neutrality policy.

Also in 1939, the Manhattan Project began. This U.S. research and development program would go on to produce the first atomic bomb--technology that would be used against Japan in 1945. Have a look at this letter sent from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt regarding the possible construction of nuclear bombs.

1939 was a year of several notable firsts. Broadcast television was unveiled at that year's World's Fair, and regularly scheduled broadcasts began in the U.S. Check out this RCA promotional film introducing audiences to the new-fangled idea.

It was also the first time a commercial airplane carried passengers across the Atlantic. Pan American launched the first transatlantic passenger service in June of 1939. A one-way trip from New York to Marseilles, France or Southampton, UK cost $375.

Los Angeles was welcoming a transportation innovation of its own around this time. L.A.'s downtown Union Station opened in May 1939 and has since become known as "Last of the Great Railway Stations" built in the country. Over 1.5 million patrons visited the station within its first three days. Its construction was controversial, as the original historic Chinatown was demolished to make way for the structure.

Los Angeles Union Station's opening day parade, 1939. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.
Man sleeping in chair in the waiting area of Los Angeles Union Station, 1939. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.
On the literary front, two important novels were published in 1939 that became culturally definitive of Los Angeles life. The first was Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust," a pessimistic look at Hollywood during the Great Depression. The second was Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," a hardboiled crime novel that established L.A. as the go-to noir locale. Both were adapted into successful films in later years.

What was the L.A. layout like 73 years ago? Have a look at this map.