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Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy marked the end of their long and fruitful (if often contentious) association with Hal Roach with the release of Saps at Sea (1940), their last feature effort for the esteemed short-subject producer before moving on to ply their trade at Fox. While the film tends to play more like several shorts strung together, there's plenty of energetic physical farce to make it a worthy capper to their tenure with Roach.
The action starts at the premises of the Sharp & Pierce Horn Manufacturing Co., where the boys are employed as testers, and Ollie is minutes away from becoming the cacophonous factory's latest industrial casualty. Finally snapping from the endless blare ("Horns to the right of me! Horns to the left of me! Horns all over me!"), the manic Hardy tosses his workspace (and his workmates) until the supervisor sends him home to relax. With the ministrations left to Stan's care, it goes exactly as well as can be expected, starting with the jamming of their car horn on the drive back.
Things get no saner at their apartment building, where the cockeyed super (silent clown Ben Turpin) has ensured that spigots activate the wrong faucets and gas jets out of electrical sockets. Hardy's doctor (Roach regular James Finlayson) diagnoses "hornophobia, on the verge of hornomania" and recommends an ocean voyage for his shot nerves. Ollie wants nothing to do with going out on the water, but Stan surprisingly offers a reasoned compromise for procuring sea air; rent a docked boat and live on it for a week. Of course, there's more trashing of the premises, including bumping Hardy out of a third-floor window, before the journey can proceed.
Fade to the docks, where the boys pipe themselves aboard the good ship Prickly Heat, Stanley dragging a live goat to address Finlayson's prescription of goat's milk. The jeopardy sets in that evening when escaped saboteur/murderer Nick Grainger (Richard Cramer), running from the authorities, ducks onto their boat to evade capture. Of course, the goat nibbles away the moorings, and Stan and Ollie awake to find themselves adrift and the impromptu houseboys to the dangerous thug. Their efforts to keep him at bay until the coast guard arrives, (including preparing him a "synthetic" meal out of the available household goods aboard), bring the film to its conclusion.
As the last L&H Roach film, Saps at Sea marked the final appearance of many with the boys for their perennial foil Finlayson, as well as for another regular, the diminutive Charlie Hall, here given little to do as the apartment concierge. The durable stock heavy Cramer, who had effectively menaced L&H in Scram! (1932), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) and The Flying Deuces (1939), also made his last appearance with the team in a role that was crafted for him.
A bit of a mixed bag in comparison to Laurel and Hardy's other Roach features, Saps at Sea still offers its share of laughs, and stands as the final example of what the team could accomplish when allowed to improvise and fine-tune their gags, a luxury no longer afforded to them when they left their familiar berth for the constraints of working with the majors. "For the most part, these were poor and steadily worsening features, and Laurel & Hardy admirers were generally of the opinion that they should never have been made," William K. Everson opined of their post-Roach output in The Films of Laurel and Hardy (Citadel). "Laurel himself, in later years, admitted that the films were weak, and blamed their poor quality on the fact that he and Hardy had no control over their shooting and were handed scripts with which they could not tamper."
Producer: Hal Roach (uncredited)
Director: Gordon Douglas
Screenplay: Felix Adler, Harry Langdon, Gil Pratt, Charles Rogers, Stan Laurel (uncredited)
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Marvin Hatley, Leroy Shield (uncredited)
Film Editing: William Ziegler
Cast: Stan Laurel (Stanley Laurel), Oliver Hardy (Oliver Hardy).
by Jay S. Steinberg