Monday, 15 February 2016

When did Laurel & Hardy 'jump the shark'?

jump the shark:
(verb) the moment an area of pop culture (TV or movie series, music or performer) is considered to have passed its peak – referring to a scene in the TV series Happy Days when its popular character, Fonzie, is on water skis and literally jumps over a shark.

Ask anyone who loves Laurel & Hardy: What was the turning point  in Stan & Babe’s career? The unanimous answer would be the moment they signed with 20th Century Fox. And, of course, they’d be right – to a point. Because, once that contract was signed, there was no turning back.  But the truth is Laurel & Hardy’s films, careers and on-screen personalities were spiralling into decline before they left Roach, and one has to wonder if the downward trend was irreversible.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are things I love about every Roach-produced Laurel & Hardy film, even the ones I’ll seem­ingly be criticizing shortly. And I’ll be the first to admit the above theory isn’t exactly an original observation. Charles Barr, in his 1967 book Lau­rel & Hardy, describes Stan & Babe’s final Roach films as: ‘…getting away from the real Laurel and Hardy into a more nebulous ‘gag’ cinema, the kind of comedy which it was their distinction a dozen years earlier to transform from within.’

He’s right. Starting in 1937 or so, Laurel & Hardy start to evolve from likable, not-very-bright but very-real people into broad, slapstick clowns. The Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy of, say, "We Faw Down" and the Stan & Ollie of "Saps At Sea" are from two completely different planets.

So what is the exact moment Laurel & Hardy ‘jumped the shark’?

Well, technically, the act of jumping involves hit­ting a peak. And when you think of all the great moments in Laurel & Hardy-dom, perhaps the greatest is the song-and-dance to ‘At The Ball’ in "Way Out West". For two magnificent min­utes, Stan & Babe stop everything to perform a charming musical number, with very obvious rear projection setting the stage.

Genius and magic collide in this scene from "Way Out West". 
But was this the beginning of the end for Laurel & Hardy?

I think the operative word here is perform. Up until this moment, Stan & Ollie had always been somewhat eccentric innocents in a slightly off-kilter world – not counting the occasional sidetrip to Toyland or neck-twisting, belly-ballooning freak ending. But with "Way Out West" a different tone starts to seep in. ‘White magic’ makes its debut, and the slapstick becomes broader (body parts are stretched and snapped not once, but twice: Stan’s big toe and Ollie’s neck). They are beginning to define themselves as clowns. Yet "Way Out West" is undeniably a Laurel & Hardy film, maybe even their best. Now, however, the jump begins its inevitable descent…

Next stop, the Alps. And downhill from here.

What happened here? Did Hal Roach commission 20th Century Fox to produce this film for him? Because "Swiss Miss" has all the trademarks of a Fox film, with a slightly larger budget – present­ing Stan & Ollie as stupid dolts in comedy un­suited to their characters (when did they become so aggressive??), providing them with unfamiliar, unfunny co-stars and an irritating love interest, and the pièce de résistance: dressing them up in funny costumes. All that’s missing are the gangsters and/or Nazis.

So with one film Laurel & Hardy lose their grip on reality, tossed into a grand, glorious, musical comedy where peasants burst into spon­taneous song and gorillas roam the mountains. The boys try to get into the spirit, even sing-songing a few words in rhyme – the remnants of a longer, deleted musical sequence. And while it’s intriguing to think of Stan & Ollie performing (there’s that word again!) in a full-scale produc­tion number, that’s really Wheeler & Woolsey’s domain. When Ollie is given the chance to sing in "Swiss Miss", he sings badly. That’s a first.

Just what everyone wanted: A Big, Lavish, Musical Superfeature! 

Sure, you can blame Roach – "Swiss Miss" was his idea. But the comedy within is strangely…wrong. And you can't necessarily blame Hal for that. Six years earlier in "The Music Box", Stan & Ollie carried a piano up a long flight of stairs. Their ob­stacles included a disrespectful nursemaid and a pompous professor. They carry a piano in "Swiss Miss", too. To a treehouse. Across a rickety rope bridge. Over a mountain chasm. With a drunken Stan. Where they meet the aforementioned go­rilla. Oh, one more thing, there’s supposed to be a bomb in the piano. (A bomb? Yep. Stan shot the footage, Roach cut it out. I know whose side I'm on.) This kind of hey-why-not? gagging is straight out of Sennett – or worse, Larry Semon. Even the uninspired chase finale through the kitchen cupboards was done in three previous Laurel solos. They’ll recover somewhat in their next film, but the delicate balance of their personalities has been tipped.

The Mad Kuku: Block-Heads

"Block-Heads" is generally regarded to be the last of the clas­sic Laurel & Hardy films, and in a lot of ways it is. The first 20 minutes set up Stan & Ollie as inseparable, warm-hearted friends, reunited in one of the finest set pieces ever conceived for them. Ollie mistakenly believes his long-lost pal has lost his leg in the war… a situation that’s not entirely plausible, but definitely possible. It’s perfect old-school Stan & Ollie. But after that? Out come the wacky, ‘white magic’ gags (Stan yanks down a window shade’s shadow. Stan pulls a glass of water – with ice! – from his pants pocket. Stan smokes his fist like a pipe.) – fol­lowed by a breakneck remake of "Unaccustomed As We Are". The music cue for this shift in reality is a new Marvin Hatley composition, 'The Mad Kuku'. It’s loud and frenetic, everything that Lau­rel & Hardy never were but were quickly becom­ing. Compare the last half of "Block-Heads" to its earlier incarnation. Even though "Unaccustomed As We Are" was the team’s first sound film, it’s "Block-Heads" that’s full of shouting, funny noises, and hyperactive music. Who ever thought Laurel & Hardy could be so loud?

A break from Roach: Flying Deuces
There’s a shark. And jumping. ‘Nuff said. (See "Swiss Miss" piano/bridge/gorilla/bomb.)

Oh Gaston, are you really necessary?

Streamlined, screamlined comedy.

Hal Roach’s 1938 switch from MGM to United Artists also marked a change in Laurel & Hardy’s Holly­wood status: from A-list stars to second-feature stalwarts.

Roach had long been toying with the idea of four-reel streamliners to battle the double-feature trend plaguing the big studios. The guinea pigs for his experiment would be Laurel & Hardy. As early as 1935 Roach had announced a four-reel Laurel & Hardy featurette, "The Honesty Racket". It wasn’t until May 1939 that the boys willingly signed a contract calling for four featurettes for 1939-40 release. Why they agreed to this is a mystery – certainly appearing on the bottom half of the bill would lead to a loss of prestige for Stan & Babe. Maybe the boys felt it would bring them closer to their two-reel roots. Or perhaps Stan saw it as a way to escape the love interests and clumsy stories Roach kept saddling them with. Either way, with "A Chump At Oxford", Laurel & Hardy relegated themselves to Hollywood’s B-list. Lavish, musical superfeatures would be re­placed by streamlined, screamlined comedies.

But exhibitors, audiences and foreign mar­kets weren’t interested in Stan & Ollie in four-reel form. So Roach had Laurel & Hardy flesh out "Chump" to feature length with a prologue re-enacting "From Soup To Nuts" (their third remake in a row – Laurel & Hardy started cannibalizing their past long before the Fox writers did). Like their recent do-over of "Unaccustomed As We Are", this lacks the charm, elegant pace, and warm characterization of the original. Ollie, as butler at the Vander Veer’s society soiree, upsets dignity through his ignorance. Not the naïve ignorance we’ve come to expect… just plain stupidity. This isn’t the Ollie we know, trying desperately to maintain decorum at all costs. Here Ollie cre­ates chaos through his own idiocy and belligerence. He tells the guests ‘you sit over there and you sit over there’. He laughs in Finlayson’s face and calls him ‘Pops’ and ‘the old guy’. He says dopey things like ‘bring yer eats with ya’. Who is this stupid man? To me, this is the least funny scene Laurel & Hardy ever filmed – if only because it’s the first time I actually felt embarrassed for Mr. Hardy. He should know better than this.

Ollie as Curly Howard: Saps At Sea

There’s a story about "Saps At Sea": Supposedly Stan walked onto the set on the first day of shooting and tore up the script. Knowing how Stan worked, this seems unlikely. Watching the film, to quote Stan in "Going Bye-Bye", ‘It could happen’. "Saps At Sea" is often said to have been inspired by Chaplin’s "Modern Times". (Assembly line = nervous breakdown.) But take a closer look, and "Saps At Sea" may be the best Three Stooges mov­ie that Laurel & Hardy ever made. The inspira­tion here isn’t Chaplin but the Stooges’ "Punch Drunks" (and "Horse’s Collars" and "Grips, Grunts and Groans" AND "Tassels In The Air"), where ex­ternal stimuli (‘Pop Goes The Weasel’, mice, Wild Hyacinth perfume, tassels) makes Curly ‘fight­ing mad’.

But Oliver Hardy isn’t Curly Howard. Hardy’s work should be subtle, genteel and sym­pathetic. In "Saps At Sea" it’s none of that. His hornophobia-provoked rages lack Curly’s energy and pure comic dementia. He just spends half the film yelling. Everything about "Saps At Sea" is pure Larry, Moe & Curly – right down to the boys chowing down on a synthetic meal, a gag performed with feather pillows substituting for angel cake in the Stooges’ "Uncivil Warriors". The characters are broad, the noise level is high, the plot is non-existent, and the two main sets (boarding house and rickety boat) are unbeliev­ably cheap. The one thing that isn’t Stooge-like: their thick white makeup is as obvious and unre­alistic as Groucho Marx’ greasepaint moustache. They are now officially clowns.

So if you ever wanted to speculate on what would have happened if Laurel & Hardy had gone to Jules White’s two-reel unit at Columbia Studios instead of Fox, look no further than "Saps At Sea". I’m not saying "Saps At Sea" isn’t a very funny film. There's little stuff Stan does in that first half that really makes me laugh. But, for me, the big difference is this: Anyone can eat a banana with three layers of peels. It takes someone special to charm me by eating hard boiled eggs and nuts.

The trailers kept insisting "They're back!". But somehow they always
came back differently. And not necessarily for the better.
They’re back’ – or are they?

So it’s obvious that by 1940 Laurel & Hardy were at a crossroads in their career. "Flying Deuc­es" was a one-shot quickie troubled by unfamiliar production. "A Chump At Oxford" is two films slapped together as one. And "Saps At Sea" screams let’s-get-this-over-with-and-move-on. Could Stan & Babe have recalibrated themselves, returning to the humanity that helped them redefine screen comedy in the late 20’s? In essence, return to their roots? That certainly seemed to be the idea when they signed with 20th Century Fox. A press release for "Great Guns" hailed the ‘new Laurel & Hardy’ as ‘a funny and oddly-assorted pair, but not completely beyond what a person might find in real life’.

We all know the final outcome of that phi­losophy. But, in theory, it’s exactly the right idea. After all, doesn’t that describe the two gentlemen we met in "The Battle Of The Century", "Wrong Again", "Men O’War", etc.?

Where did they go?

An early version of this blog post was originally published in Nieuwe Blotto Magazine


  1. And Roach wanted L&H back after SAPS(for two more films, anyway)so it's funny that the film looks so much like a fulfill-end-of-contract-quickie.

  2. And Roach wanted L&H back after SAPS(for two more films, anyway)so it's funny that the film looks so much like a fulfill-end-of-contract-quickie.

  3. Chris, I love you like a brother, but I disagree with almost everything in this article.
    If Swiss Miss, Block-Heads, The Flying Deuces, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea are examples of Laurel and Hardy having jumped the shark, then they qualify as Olympic-caliber athletes and that shark was very friendly to them.
    You say that “The Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy of, say, ‘We Faw Down’ and the Stan & Ollie of ‘Saps at Sea’ are from two completely different planets.” Exactly right. We Faw Down, more than any other L&H film, has a surfeit of long takes in which virtually nothing happens. This was a pet technique of Leo McCarey, and you can see it also in Wrong Again and in Early to Bed, most of which he re-shot even though it remains credited to Emmett J. Flynn. There is no way that L&H could have retained their popularity with long, slow takes in which they just stare at the camera.
    Laurel and Hardy did not operate in a vacuum. They were aware of and were influenced by trends in comedy. Hal Roach certainly was influenced by trends in comedy and in other kinds of movies. He was trying his hand at screwball comedy as early as 1935 with the unsuccessful Vagabond Lady, but mastered the form with 1937’s Topper. If Laurel and Hardy themselves had not wanted to change with the times, Hal Roach would have made sure that they did.
    As to Swiss Miss, it is well known that Stan and Roach had many battles over this film, more than just about the deleted bomb gag. Roach once again was making a Laurel and Hardy film where he seemed to be embarrassed about the team being in it. This had happened with Bonnie Scotland and would have been the case with Babes in Toyland, The Bohemian Girl and even The Devil’s Brother had Mr. Roach’s original ideas wound up as the final projects. (Babes in Toyland was originally going to star everyone on the Roach roster, and Bohemian Girl and Babes in Toyland each had something like a half-hour of “plot” footage cut from the version first shown to the trade press.)
    You say that in Swiss Miss Ollie “sings badly.” Really? I for one love his rendition of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and when it was released on an LP in 1971 I happily played it multiple times.
    You criticize Block-Heads for the “white magic” gags. I find these gags inventive and charming, and entirely in character for Stan. I don’t see them as a corruption of his character, but rather an evolution. Also remember that film comedy in general was getting to be a little looser and wackier in the late ‘30s. Screwball comedy had almost entirely taken over the genre starting in 1936, and it remained dominant for the rest of the decade. Also, in 1938 radio comedy began to be much more aggressive, fast-paced and insult-oriented, thanks to the Bergen-McCarthy-Fields and Benny-Allen feuds. Bob Hope’s rat-a-tat monologues and a new emphasis on insult humor with Fibber McGee and Molly and their “friends” would ensure that radio humor got more and more aggressive, and this influenced film comedy. If you think Laurel and Hardy were more aggressive between, say, 1933 and 1938, how about W. C. Fields doing an almost complete change of character between It’s a Gift and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man?

  4. You criticize Marvin Hatley’s ‘The Mad Ku-Ku’ for being “loud and frenetic, everything that Laurel & Hardy never were but were quickly becoming.” Well, that is because the Swing Era had started in popular music. Leroy Shield’s bouncy tunes of 1931 reflected the genteel dance music of that era, and Marvin Hatley’s “Mad Ku-Ku” reflected the popularity of Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing).” Again, nobody at the Hal Roach Studios operated in a vacuum, and if they wanted to keep making pictures they had to reflect changes in popular tastes.
    “Who ever thought Laurel & Hardy could be so loud?” Well, let’s see. There is loud, drunken laughter in Blotto, Scram, The Devil’s Brother and Them Thar Hills. There are explosions and yelling in They Go Boom!, Hog Wild and Helpmates. There’s screaming in The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and Oliver the Eighth, and enough screaming for five pictures in Come Clean. The original cut of Pardon Us had ten minutes of unrelieved noise with the prison break sequence, and the most unfortunate re-edit available on the DVD today further pummels our ears with the added ten minutes of the fire sequence. So, by comparison, the domestic squabbling of Block-Heads is actually rather sedate.
    Regarding The Flying Deuces, the shark gag may have been new, but the entire scene of Ollie taking Stan to the dock so that they can commit suicide was originally written in 1934 for The Live Ghost. Also, Alfred Schiller’s original script had Laurel and Hardy really being belligerent, calling Francois a “frog” and insulting everyone within earshot, over and over again. Stan, Charlie Rogers and Harry Langdon omitted every bit of this. I know you find Ollie’s “mauling” of Georgette distasteful but he has to be overt enough to really incite the wrath of Francois, her husband.
    Remember that feature films, by virtue (or disadvantage) of their extra length, demand a more pointed and dramatic story line than do short subjects. Laurel and Hardy could just clean a house, putter in a lumber yard, fix up a boat or put up a radio aerial in a 20-minute short, but a feature film running over an hour demands greater conflict.
    Also, as for Laurel and Hardy being “belligerent” in these later films, one could describe this as a welcome return to form. I won’t, but let’s admit that those guys in Hats Off, The Battle of the Century, Leave ‘em Laughing, The Finishing Touch, You’re Darn Tootin’, Their Purple Moment, Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, Big Business, Double Whoopee, Bacon Grabbers, Angora Love, Berth Marks, Men o’ War, Perfect Day, and later on Me and My Pal, Them Thar Hills and Tit for Tat, were pretty skillful at inciting a ruckus. Being “belligerent” was not foreign to Laurel and Hardy’s characters.
    Regarding A Chump at Oxford and L&H’s being relegated to Hollywood’s B-List, virtually all of Hal Roach’s forthcoming product was going to be thusly relegated thanks to his break with MGM (which could provide lots of funding for his films) and his new affiliation with United Artists (which couldn’t). After the modest box-office returns of Of Mice and Men, One Million B.C. and Captain Fury, you will note that Hal Roach’s product became inexpensive films starring the likes of William Bendix or Sawyer and Tracy. Laurel and Hardy were not the only ones affected by the new budget constraints. As for Ollie being a “stupid man” during the dinner party sequence, remember that the story line casts them as uneducated waiters or street sweepers. I think this is a deliberate reinforcement of the idea of their lack of schooling, to further point up the conflict between their characters and the stately confines of Oxford University, and as such, not a bad idea. Yes, he should know better than this, which is why he’s going to school.

  5. As for Saps at Sea, the “Ollie gets fighting mad when he hears a horn” idea is just the old burlesque chestnut “Slowly I Turned” in a fresh reworking. You cite several Three Stooges films but their most overt use of this routine is in 1944’s Gents Without Cents. (I Love Lucy used it as well in 1952.) The routine had been around for decades before the Stooges filmed it in any form. Again, a feature film demands a more definite conflict.
    You mourn the loss of Ollie being “subtle, genteel and sympathetic.” Well, I think the one scene in all of the team’s films that best expresses those qualities in Mr. Hardy is in Block-Heads, where he visits his old pal at the soldiers’ home. There’s also his not wanting to leave Stan, or vice versa, in The Flying Deuces. As well as his obvious sadness and frustration at not having his old pal Stan in A Chump at Oxford and his delight in Stan’s return at the film’s finish. And Ollie is certainly subtle, genteel and sympathetic at the end of Saps at Sea when he demurs from bragging about his capture of Nick Grainger to patrol captain Harry Bernard.
    As to their “thick white makeup” being “as obvious and unrealistic as Groucho Marx’ greasepaint moustache,” if you look at the 35mm print of Politiquerias, you will see that the white makeup was almost as thick in 1931. If it’s a little thicker in Saps at Sea, it’s because Babe is now 48 and Stan 49, and the lines in their faces were a little thicker, too.
    Everyone is welcome to his own opinion, but I see these later films as examples of Laurel and Hardy making necessary and successful adjustments to changes in popular tastes and trends in comedy, adjustments which were not the outright reversal of their established traits which one finds in Great Guns, A-Haunting We Will Go and Air Raid Wardens.

  6. Other comedians made *major* changes in their characterizations depending upon the plot. Buster Keaton as the wealthy but clueless young man in "The Navigator" is very different from the poor boy who's a movie projectionist in "Sherlock Jr.," released the same year. Harold Lloyd, similarly, is rich and snooty in "Why Worry?" but poor and yearning for friends in "The Freshman." By comparison, the adaptations which Laurel and Hardy made in their material in the later '30s were minor.

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  8. Something else to remember about Marvin Hatley's score for "Block-Heads" - which was nominated for an Academy Award, by the way - is that while it contains the "loud and frenetic" tune "The Mad Ku-Ku," which is perfectly appropriate for the scene which it accompanies, it also has the serene "Soldiers' Home," a beautiful little tune (which Marvin used to play on piano at Way Out West Tent meetings of the Sons of the Desert in the '70s and '80s). It also has the absolutely gorgeous "Sunflower Waltz" (during the scene when Stan is filling his "pipe"), a tune which could accurately be described as poetic and romantic. So, just as "Block-Heads" has the scene which in my opinion shows Mr. Hardy at his most "subtle, genteel and sympathetic" in the entirety of the team's films, it also contains some of the loveliest music.

  9. Regards the "white magic" gags -- don't forget Ollie's expanding stomach in "They Go Boom" (1929) and "Be Big!" (1931), and Stan's trick voice, detachable finger and elastic ear in "The Bohemian Girl" (1936). Also, the doorbell which sounds like an auto horn in "Be Big!" and the pencil sharpener with doubles as a music box in "Chickens Come Home" are similarly "fantastic" gags, so this type of cartoonish humor had been present in the team's work for years.

  10. Also, let's remember the freak endings of several films, gags which are far more cartoonish than the white magic in "Way Out West" or "Block-Heads." Along with the twisted necks of "The Live Ghost," the broken-off legs of "Going Bye-Bye!" and the squashed-elongated Stan and Ollie in "The Bohemian Girl," there was going to be an equally strange gag at the end of "Our Wife." The script proposed that Finlayson be seen hanging from the ledge of a second-story window outside his home, and that we cut back to him occasionally throughout the second half of the film. Right after the marriage ceremony, Finlayson was supposed to burst into the Justice's home, with his arms elongated by about six feet. So -- the white magic/cartoonish gags, while not used frequently in the films, go back as far as 1929.

  11. There's also an earlier, less jarring transition between Stan and Ollie's personalities before they "jumped the shark" in the late 1930s. Before that occurred, around 1935 they begin to rely less on pantomime as the dialogue ramps up, with talk becoming more integral between them. Comparing many of their 1933 shorts (BUSY BODIES, TOWED IN A HOLE, DIRTY WORK, MIDNIGHT PATROL, etc.) to their final two-reelers (TIT FOR TAT, THE FIXER UPPERS, THICKER THAN WATER), The Boys have suddenly become chatterboxes. Perhaps this was the first step the team took to "update" their comedy style.

  12. Chris, your excellent article reminds me of my three least-favorite Oliver Hardy moments: 1) Ollie instructing a carrier pigeon on where to deliver a message in AIR RAID WARDENS; 2) Ollie pawing over Jean Parker at the airfield in THE FLYING DEUCES; 3) Ollie turning obnoxiously belligerent and insulting towards the Chef over a lack of apple pie in SWISS MISS. Overall, Babe tends to come off better than Stan in their post-1940 features. But his totally unfounded nastiness in SWISS MISS is as bad as the worst things in any of the Fox and MGM features.

  13. Ed, agreed. Ollie imposing himself of Georgette in DEUCES is just plain wrong. It feels like even L&H and their creative team were losing track of the characters by '38. So Fox's decision to return them to "normalcy" was great in theory, if disastrous in execution.

    1. Very insightful and entertaining as always Chris, and I've enjoyed all the comments too.
      I just acquired Mr. Skretvedt's marvellous expansion of his essential L&H history, was startled by many new (to me) pieces of information, not least Richard Bann's assertion that SWISS MISS brought about a stunning loss for the Roach organization. That would make for a triple whammy--profound creative differences, Stan Laurel's then-colourful personal life, and an ominous financial bust--small wonder L&H are then bumped out of Roach's A-feature ascendancy.

      And could it be that Roach, slamming the otherwise fondly-remembered BABES IN TOYLAND--"a very bad picture" and a "flop" that put him off their work--has these two films conflated in memory?

    2. Hey Ian, how are you!? :) Haven't chatted in years. Thanks for the kind comments. First of all, I couldn't agree more that Randy's "marvellous expansion" is, indeed, marvellous beyond words, and (as Randy knows) I respect his opinion profoundly. So there's that. Also, the financial disaster of SWISS MISS certainly came from Roach's desire to create "big, lavish, musical, superfeatures" more than Stan's approach to comedy (if only they'd stuck with 'Stan Laurel Productions' like Our Relations and Way Out West). It's mindboggling how quickly the films went from the budgetary heights of SWISS MISS to the penny pinching SAPS AT SEA. Even Monogram might have winced at the production values of SAPS. That said, when you read about Stan's almost insanely erratic behaviour in the late '30s (well documented in AJ Marriott's US Tours book), it's amazing they got a job at any studio post-Roach. And, reality is, if they'd continued at Roach into the '40s they almost assuredly would have cranked out cheap streamliners to diminishing returns as the studio floundered. Essentially, in 1940, they were f*ct.

  14. Matthew Coniam in THE ANNOTATED MARX BROTHERS makes the interesting point that there's a time when a comedian(or comedy team)is "hip" and riding the wave of credibiity and a unique rapport with their audience, when they're "the latest thing". When that goes away with time, something's missing, and as Coniam says, "you can't FAKE it". In defense of Mr Seguin, I felt for years the opening two reels added to CHUMP kind of showed the direction they were going in.