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Some footage from 'Nuts in May' (1917) -- Stan Laurel's very first movie -- was salvaged five years on and edited into 'Mixed Nuts', another of Laurel's pre-Hardy comedies (from a different production company), but 'Nuts in May' in its original form almost certainly no longer survives. The obscure production company that made 'Mixed Nuts' obtained clear title to 'Nuts in May' (from an even more obscure production company), and had no interest in letting any prints of the previous movie compete with their revised version.
'Nuts in May' was a right one-off: the one and only film ever made by the Bernstein Studio, an independent endeavour which produced and released just this lone one-reeler before going out of business. Sam Bischoff -- the producer of 'Mixed Nuts', and a notorious tightwad -- bought 'Nuts in May' at a bailiff's auction.
In the last years of his life, I had the great privilege of befriending Joe Rock, a Hollywood old-timer who knew Stan Laurel intimately. (Besides working with Stan Laurel, Rock introduced him to Lois Neilson, and Rock was subsequently best man at their wedding.) Although Joe Rock didn't work on 'Nuts in May', he remembered the film and told me quite a bit about it. This synopsis of 'Nuts in May' is based on Joe Rock's memories (still clear as he approached his ninetieth birthday) and my viewing of 'Mixed Nuts'.
Stan plays a resident of a "Home for the Weak-Minded", apparently a lunatic asylum. There are several gags depicting the inmates' bizarre behaviour. Stan's particular delusion is that he thinks he's Napoleon. (Is there even one genuine case on record of anyone -- besides Bonaparte himself -- actually believing that he or she was Napoleon?) Stan walks the grounds of the cuckoo-hatch sticking his right hand into his shirt (ha ha) and wearing a Napoleonic hat. (Memo to IMDb reviewer Bob Lipton: Napoleon's hat was a bicorn, not a tricorn. And how does Mr Lipton know that Stan is wearing a 'blue' blazer in this monochrome movie?) Stan salutes everybody, including the other lunatics. He thinks he's Napoleon, but he gives the salute of the British army.
Stan has his own personal keeper in the asylum: a taller moustached man who wears a kepi so that Stan will think he's a French officer. French soldiers (and gendarmes) didn't wear kepis until after Napoleon's death ... but don't mind me; I just work here.
Stan gets out and finds some local boys, who eagerly join him in playing soldier. Stan's kepi-wearing keeper pursues him through the film, but at a lethargic pace. Stan hijacks a steamroller (when did Napoleon ever drive a steamroller?), and there's some unfunny undercranking as Stan nearly runs down some navvies in a road crew.
In the surviving footage, the photography's bad and the pacing is awful. Stan Laurel's performance gives no hint of the brilliance to come. Indeed, right up until his team-up with Oliver Hardy (apparently Hal Roach's idea), Laurel on the screen was just one more frenetic comedian, not necessarily imitating Chaplin but working the same trough of knockabout humour with little or nothing to distinguish him from other slapstickers.
Joe Rock did tell me that 'Nuts in May' was financed by Los Angeles impresario Adolph Ramish, who paid Stan Laurel the astounding wage of $75 to appear in it. Ramish screened 'Nuts in May' at the L.A. Hippodrome, where it was seen by Carl Laemmle ... not yet the major producer he would later become. Apparently Laemmle liked 'Nuts in May' enough to sign Laurel to a contract with Nestor Film Company, one of the lesser satellites in the Universal Studios planetary system. However, from what I've seen of Stan Laurel's time at Universal, his work there was not especially funny. He really didn't come into his own until he arrived at Hal Roach's studio ... where Laurel distinguished himself as a director and gag man as well as a comedian before teaming with Hardy.
Purely for its historic value, it would be nice if a complete print of Stan Laurel's film debut eventually turns up in some forgotten bailiff's locker. However, the photography would be wretched even if the print were pristine. Stan Laurel was brilliant elsewhere, but not in the surviving footage of 'Nuts in May'. And I'm positive that none of the 'lost' scenes contain some nugget of hilarity: if something funny had been in there, Sam Bischoff would have included it in 'Mixed Nuts'. I normally don't rate films I've never seen (quiet in the back, there!), but I feel confident that 'Nuts in May' merits just 1 point in 10, and an asterisk in film history for Stan Laurel paying his dues.
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