“Great Guns” (1941)
by A.J. Hakari
Laurel and Hardy seemed to ease from silent-era comedy into the sound age with relative success. They certainly had better luck than poor Buster Keaton, extending their box office shelf life by adapting their act to fit the studio mandate. But some say that when the 1940s came about, Hollywood had no clue what to do with the pair, which, not having seen a lot of their early shorts and features, I can neither confirm nor deny. However, I can say that the 1941 farce Great Guns sure feels less like a film made to benefit the talent that made its stars comic icons than a cash-in on a then-current genre trend.
In an essential reworking of Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates, Stan and Oliver play bumbling valets to sheltered rich kid Dan Forrester (Dick Nelson). Dan’s number has come up at the draft board, and he’s ready and willing to go fight on Uncle Sam’s behalf. But seeing their employer as a sickly young thing, Stan and Ollie sign up as well, with the intention of keeping Dan safe and sound. Of course, ensuing are the requisite hijinks, the guys’ efforts to adjust to life in basic training going over with typically wacky results. But when a drill sergeant (Edmund MacDonald) doesn’t cotton to Dan cozying up to the same photo shop gal (Sheila Ryan) he has his eyes on, a little well-meaning interference from Laurel and Hardy may be what it takes to steer their boss towards a happy ending.
As with Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy always played some form of themselves throughout their career, so it’s not like Great Guns has no personal edge to speak of. The team’s roles are firmly in place: Oliver is the self-important blunderer constantly leading impressionable Stan into trouble, each one the other’s straight man and comic foil. If there’s any mischief, it’s always delivered with the best of intentions, which can make how dense the duo often is feel a little forced sometimes. Still, the mood is good-natured and cheery, and what monotony does emerge is usually broken up by a great, reality-bending gag (watch for the bridge-building scene towards the end).
But as was the case with a number of Abbott and Costello pictures, Great Guns tends to treat Laurel and Hardy as supporting players in their own vehicle. Much attention is given to the romantic subplots, which is sweet and everything, but when we do cut back to the guys, it’s usually for another goofy misunderstanding or dig at Ollie’s gut. Not that none of it is funny, but it all becomes so vanilla after a while; Laurel and Hardy newcomers barely get an idea of what their character types are all about, other than that they’re both kinda dopey. Even the little plot there is (which does crib an awful lot from Buck Privates, right down to the wargames finale) basically throws up its hands and abandons all closure whatsoever once the joke well runs dry.
Great Guns is pretty short, pretty modest, and pretty forgettable. There are some good laughs, no doubt, but lest you be a Laurel and Hardy completist or just a fan of wartime comedies, they’re not worth seeking out. No diamond in the comedic rough here, folks — Great Guns goes out with neither a bang nor a whimper.