Laurel & Hardy in BLOCK-HEADS (1938) – Plotless, but hardly humorless

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt tells us that Block-Heads came about primarily because producer Hal Roach, trying to complete a financial deal, needed a movie fast — and the movie does nothing to belie its origins. Block-Heads might well be the most plotless thing you’ve ever seen in your life. But from such mere gossamer can charming comedies sometimes be made.

L&H films such as One Good Turn examine what happens to Ollie when his bullying ways are turned back upon him. The start of Block-Heads takes the opposite tack: What if Ollie was relentlessly nice to Stan? The film begins in a World War I trench, with Ollie joining his fellow soldiers to go over the hill while Stan remains to guard the trench. With classic understatement, Stan says to Ollie, “Gee, I wish I was going with you,” as if Ollie was heading off to Disney World. Ollie warmly promises Stan that he’ll return for him.

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Without giving too much away (including some superb reactions from Stan in the trench), suffice to say that Stan and Ollie are reunited twenty years later under circumstances that could only happen to them. And when Ollie makes a mistaken assumption about the returned-from-battle Stan, he is jaw-droppingly indulgent of him — even when he receives the usual physical calamity as a result of Stan’s ineptitude. No camera looks, nothing. Perhaps this is what Stan and Ollie’s ideal world really looks like.

Before long, things are back to normal (or, to paraphrase Ollie’s remark to Stan, things are better now). From there, the movie gets by on what we already know about Stan and Ollie; at this point in their movie career, the relationship between L&H and the audience is like a solid marriage, so that we laugh even when gags are pretty much put across in shorthand. (One wonders what Freudians make of Stan “smoking” his thumb as though it was a pipe.)

Once The Boys return from the war setting, there’s no reason Block-Heads should be as charming and funny as it is (especially when it goes into a bald-faced re-working of their short Unaccustomed as We Are). But the movie sails along like a morning breeze, slightly otherworldly in its tone (check out that lone punch bowl that survives a Stan-inspired explosion), but still not as far removed from reality as their later, cartoony Saps at Sea. It’s a pretty nice place to be, especially with Stan and Ollie as our guides.

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