Babes in Sherwoodland
Laurel and Hardy in Robin Hood!
PLAY THE NEWSREEL FIRST
On February 10th 1947, Laurel and Hardy arrived in England to begin their theatrical tour for that year, and at Southampton Docks as they left their ship, they were interviewed for Pathe Newsreel. A brief mention was given to the fact that they were planning to make a film while they were over here, with a pastiche of the Robin Hood legend, with Hardy as 'Friar Hardy' and Laurel as 'Little John Laurel'. Other than that, very little is known about the whole project .
UPDATE: The story below has not completely been confirmed by our key Laurel and Hardy experts. So may or may not be 100% factual.....But hey, wouldn't it be a fun concept if proved true...
A brief synopsis giving away a few details of the plot, the casting and the production team has been found, which will hopefully lead to the script itself being located. The work is attributed to Geoffrey Orme, who was a prolific scribe of both thrillers and comedies from the mid 1930' onwards, with the idea coming from Leslie Arliss, who was known for his comedy work in the early 1930's and mid-1940's, and frequently acted as a rewrite 'Doctor' on various scripts of the period.
The Director was pencilled in as being Wesley Ruggles, who had worked the previous year on the critically slaughtered film debut of Sid Field, with LONDON TOWN, which Ruggles had a hand in financing as well. He was behind ROBIN HOOD AND HIS VERY MERRY MEN, as it was called at an early stage, and also planned to Direct. Suggestions certainly exist on paper that the part of Robin Hood was due to go to Sid Field, and that the Sheriff of Nottingham was due to be played by his comedy partner, Jerry Desmond. Ruggles thought that the notion of bringing two of England's most popular stage comedians together with America's cinematic equivalent was paving the box office with gold, but the actual storyline left a lot to be desired. Field himself must have still been smarting from the savaging that LONDON TOWN had received, and found the prospect of risking his reputation again a bit daunting.
The idea was as follows; Whilst Robin Hood and his men are on holiday, the evil Sheriff brings his own doubles in to take their place, to try and destroy their reputation as being the heroes of the common man. When the men return, they find they find they are pelted with rotten fruit and veg, and run out of Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood discovers the truth of what has happened, and disguises himself, along with Friar Hardy and Little John Laurel, as a band of travelling minstrels, who plan to enter the Sheriff's castle and expose their doubles as phonies to the local people....
And that was basically it. It's clear that a lot of natural comedy would have been generated with the sequences where Field and the Boys were disguised as Minstrels, with Ruggles noting that he was keen to try and recreate the kind of naive charm that the Boys had in BABES IN TOYLAND.
The exact reason why it all fell through remains a mystery, although Field was busy on the West End Stage, and the Boys were on a frantic tour, so dates may have been a problem. Though it was clear that the Director was planning to work around this, with all of the Boys' scenes being shot in a two-week period, to allow them to be free for their variety show. It seems that the end of September would have been ideal, with the Boys being centrally based in and around London, so that they could easily have worked during the day at one of the regional film studios nearby, such as Elstree or Bray, but it was not to be.
Geoffrey Orme passed away in 1978, and Leslie Arliss some time earlier. Whether Ruggles is still alive or not is unknown, although he would be extremely old today. Perhaps one of the Sons reading this knows what happened to him?
Orme did, however, return to the Robin Hood theme in 1951, when he wrote a script for Margaret Rutherford called MISS ROBIN HOOD, which was filmed the following year, with Richard 'Mr Pastry' Hearne, as her co-star, who is also noted as being considered for appearing on ROBIN HOOD AND HIS VERY MERRY MEN.
Intriguingly, on the paper work found to date (Just two basic pages) the title of ROBIN ROOD AND HIS VERY MERRY MEN has been crossed out on one page, with the words 'WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD....' written along side he title, indicating a far better play on words than the original. Perhaps this was the start of the influence on the whole project by a certain Mr. Laurel.
There is a script somewhere, and if my research unearths it, the Sons will be the first to know....
When Knights Were Cold'
The Mystery Deepens
It could well have been Sherlock Holmes who told a somewhat befuddled Doctor Watson that in order to solve a mystery, you not only have to carefully examine the immediate evidence, but also the surrounding clues. When you apply this rule to 'When Knights Were Cold! , The unfilmed Robin Hood project crafted for the Boys during the tour of England in 1947, and start to add the increasing number of facts that are emerging to ascertain details from that era, the jigsaw pieces slowly begin to fall into place . . .
Consider these facts; On 11th October 1946, at the Prince of Wales theatre in the heart of the West End of London, Sid Field and Jerry Desmonde opened in a new revue show called 'Piccadilly Hayride', which would go on to run for 800 performances and close in January 1948; Laurel and Hardy, meanwhile, opened for a four week run of their touring show at the London Coliseum from April 14th 1947. Of the handful of memos that survive from the brief period of pre-production on 'When Knights Were Cold!', one indicates that a third meeting between Field and the Boys was due to take place between April 24th - April 28th at a London restaurant. The stars were hardly what you would term as miles apart, so it does seem likely that talks took place at that time, as other evidence shows that the threesome certainly knew each other.
During their stay in England, the boys were inducted as honorary members of the Grand Order of the Water Rats, the legendary private club for members of the variety and entertainment industry. Field was also a member, and met Stan and Ollie over the course of several events run by the club. As noted in an unidentified newspaper cutting from the time, when the Boys joined the Crazy Gang and other stars to help sell programmes at a fund raising event at the Apollo Theatre, 'The comedy giants are no strangers, as is so wonderfully demonstrated in the green room afterwards. Whilst the Crazy Gang and Tommy Trinder discuss jokes to one corner, Sid Fields engages his comedic banter with Laurel and Hardy in the other...' ... But, what of the film project.
Wesley Ruggles, who from those who remember him, seems to have been a rather loud, aggressive American film maker with a winning smile and a quick tongue, which would make his obviously disastrous ideas pave their streets in gold, was coordinating the whole project. So legend has it, he coerced Field into making 'London Town' by following the star around the golf course where he was desperately trying to complete 19 holes, and ruining practically every shot by continually talking with promises of vast wealth from cinematic success, until Field agreed to make the project just to shut him up. 'London Town went on to become one of the most notorious flops of the 1940's, but nothing deflated Ruggles, and the cash register signs were spinning in his eyes from the thought of teaming Field and the Boys.
The scheme was simple. By filming during the day from 12 noon till 6pm, Ruggles planned to average some ten minutes of comedy 'in the can' per day. Drivers would then take the stars back to their respective theatres for their evening shows, while the rushes were processed overnight for editing the next evening, while that days shots were made ready for trimming the following night. Ruggles would have had to act as a human dynamo to complete such a schedule, and by all accounts he seemed capable of doing this, with the imperative being that he had to have the whole thing ready for release before the Boys left for home in America toward the end of Autumn that year.
Films were not as consistently lengthy as they are today, and whereas today an audience is happy to sit through a film two and a half hours long, the main bulk of the material from that era rarely stretched beyond the 90 minute mark. 'When Knights Were Cold!' seems to have been planned as being no longer than seventy to seventy five minutes, and one memo notes the ideal start date for filming as April 21st, with the Boys working on it for a total of fifteen days. This would fit in quite logically with their touring schedule, as they were due to open at the Hippodrome Theatre in Dudley from May 12th. If one thing was certain, the Boys new how to cope with such tight schedules, but Field was not happy. He liked and actually thrived on having a live audience in front of him. Theatre was the medium he preferred, and the one he had made his name in. He was, if you like, a reluctant movie star.
The studio facility selected was definitely Shepperton, in Middlesex, just 12 miles from the centre of London, it was perhaps one of the easiest to gain access to. There was, and still is, a direct rail link to Waterloo from there. There was also a large backlot which offered a sizable area of woodland and a river for the main sequences that would need the three main stars to be seen in Sherwood Forest (most of which has been sold off in the last thirty years to make way for two new housing estates -Ray Andrew). The woodland has been used in recent times for the battle scenes in Kenneth Branagh's 'Henry V' and his 'Mary Shelley's, Frankenstein', while some of the support actors would be taken to Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire for large area woodland scenes, which is ironic, as that was the main location for 'Robin Hood -Prince of Thieves', but, back to the meeting...
A draft of the script was definitely completed, as there are indications that the writer was certainly given his secondary payment for work on the project. After getting an initial payment on signing a contract, writers get the second chunk of cash on their first draft screenplay being accepted by the producers. This was on April 20th, and we can only presume that the material was sent to the Boys and Field thereafter, with the 'third' meeting taking place to see whether the stars thought the material was' workable.
As we all know, Stan was keen to get involved in any film project he worked on from the earliest stage possible, especially with the development of the script - something that had been denied during the Boys recent spell working for 20th Century Fox. Field liked to work extensively on material as well, perfecting it before performance, so there would have been a mutual concern between them on this matter. With every request for studio space, a brief synopsis of the plot of the production has to be included on the paperwork, and for 'When Knights Were Cold!', this is what it said...
'In the heart of merry Sherwood Forest, all is well until Robin Hood, Little John and Friar Tuck are kidnapped by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. In the hope that they will be able to keep up their work to save the poor, the remainder of the Merry Men hire a band of travelling minstrels to take their place, but there is a bit of a problem... Robin 'Sid' Hood, Little John Laurel and Friar Hardy aren't very good at their job, as the Merry Men slowly begin to find out...'
And that's about it! If you take it at face value, it doesn't sound wonderfully promising, but if you were to allow for the possibility for input from the combined forces of Field and Laurel, the results were bound to be something special.
Whatever happened at the meeting, one thing is crystal clear; A draft of the script was returned to Ruggles with notes scribbled in the margins by Stan, suggesting revisions and new gags. It was filed away on April 29th, and this was already eight days beyond the planned starting date for the movie. Obviously, everything was not going to plan for Ruggles.
There is more paperwork in existence, with the distinct possibility of a more detailed story breakdown and even the script itself being uncovered within the next few months. To date, there are twelve memo slips and the studio booking form with the synopsis that have been found, and perhaps more intriguingly of all, the final memo indicates that costume tests were due to be carried out just before the film was abandoned for good on May 9th 1947, when it became clear the project was not going to be made. Now, wouldn't it be intriguing if photographs were taken, and they happened to turn up? Keep reading the magazine, and, to quote, 'Expect the unexpected!'
Written and researched by
ADRIAN RIGELSFORD (C)
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