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WWII in the Movies: The Homefront
Remind Me

Air Raid Wardens

With Air Raid Wardens (1943), the famous comic duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made their first movie at MGM since their guest appearance in Hollywood Party (1934). Loosed from their long-time association with Hal Roach Studios, Laurel and Hardy were free agents as part of a deal with their new studio, 20th Century Fox. It was a contract meant to give the duo more say in their careers and material than they were allowed at Hal Roach. Unfortunately, their freedom turned out to be an illusion.

Laurel and Hardy had been a success since the late silent movie era and they were still quite popular as America entered World War II. Throughout the war the English Stan and the American Ollie toured the U.S. raising money for the war effort. Just before production on Air Raid Wardens, Laurel and Hardy spent three weeks in a mini-tour of thirteen cities as part of the Hollywood Victory Caravan, a ten-car train full of Hollywood stars including James Cagney, Cary Grant and Bob Hope that raised $750,000 for Army and Navy relief.

When they returned to MGM, every sign seemed to point to another comedy classic. Edward Sedgwick, one of MGM's top comedy directors who had helmed Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (1928) and W.C. Fields' You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), was behind the camera while Jack Jevne and Charles Rogers, longtime gag men for the duo, were behind the typewriters. Also included in the cast was an excellent foil, Edgar Kennedy, the master of the "slow burn."

The story was inspired by Stan Laurel's real-life duties as a civilian airplane spotter for the Civil Defense early in the war. In Air Raid Wardens, Stan and Ollie are bankrupt businessmen who try to enlist, but are turned down by everyone except civilian defense. Kennedy, the town banker, is no friend to the boys, especially when he is assigned the role of a "casualty" during a test air raid alarm and Laurel and Hardy have to bring him in to practice "bandaging."

What could have been a wonderful example of a haughty figure brought low by the none-too-gentle graces of Stan and Ollie was damaged as too many cooks were brought to stir the pot. MGM could not leave the seasoned veterans to get on with their jobs and instead brought in more members of the Metro writing staff to smooth out the rough edges, resulting in a bland but professional produced entertainment. Stan, who usually could guide even a lame script towards the duo's unique brand of humor, was told to stick to the words on the page that had been approved by the front office.

The result was judged another disappointment by Laurel and Hardy's fans. Their move to financial independence by leaving Hal Roach had led to an even greater restriction, keeping them from being as funny as they could be. It was, indeed, another fine mess they had gotten themselves into.

Director: Edward Sedgwick
Writers: Jack Jevne, Charles Rogers, Martin Rackin, Harry Crane
Producer: B.F. Zeidman
Cinematographer: Walter Lundin
Editor: Irvine Warburton
Music: Nathaniel Shilkret
Cast: Stan Laurel (himself), Oliver Hardy (himself), Edgar Kennedy (Joe Bledsoe), Jacqueline White (Peggy Parker), Stephen McNally (Dan Madison), Russell Hicks (Major Scanlon).
BW-67 min.

by Brian Cady



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