The following is my entry in MovieMovieBlogBlog’s Laurel & Hardy Blogathon. Visit the Blogathon at https://moviemovieblogblog.wordpress.com, and read what many fine bloggers have to say about some classic Laurel & Hardy comedies!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
(Also, the blogger hereby acknowledges that several of the stills in this blog entry were taken from an invaluable Laurel & Hardy-based website titled Another Fine Mess. Please visit this lavishly detailed site and enjoy all manner of information about L&H films and other Hal Roach-produced comedies.)
Most movie comedians, past and present, are eager to present themselves as wisecrackers with a joke for every occasion. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s modus operandi is the exact opposite — that the cosmos is continually playing a huge prank on two poor souls who never get the joke.
That, no doubt, is an inherent part of their appeal. Eddie Cantor, a wisecracker if ever there was one, once remarked about Laurel and Hardy’s seriousness — that they played every situation as gravely as if they were in Hamlet. Nowhere is this more evident than in their short subject Helpmates, hailed by L&H enthusiasts everywhere in terms such as “the finest short film the team ever did” (L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt) and “an irreducible masterpiece” (British L&H author Charles Barr).
The movie begins simply enough, with one of title-writer H.M. “Beanie” Walker’s insightful prologues —
— followed by a glorious pan across the aftermath of a messy house party, as Leroy Shield’s mournful music editorializes on the soundtrack. The screen then fills with a straight-to-the-camera close-up of Oliver Hardy, chastizing the perpetrator of this indulgent bacchanal. The camera pulls back to reveal Ollie talking to himself in a bathroom mirror, giving the lie to the real Mr. Hardy’s assessment of the Ollie character as “the smart, smart guy who’s dumber than the dumb guy only he doesn’t know it.” Every so often, even Ollie is aware of his excesses.
Ollie is lulled out of his stupor by the continual ringing of his doorbell by a telegram messenger, who nonchalantly leans on the bell until Ollie slaps him to the ground. Ollie signs for the telegram with his usual flourish, wondering who could have sent the message. In a masterpiece of exposition, the messenger boy tells Ollie that it’s from his wife, who will be returning from a train trip at noon that day. With that cheery bit of news, the boy happily waves goodbye, leaving Ollie to stew in his hangover. In an apparent effort to make matters worse, Ollie phones Stan for help.
At this point, Stan Laurel the writer-director-editor milks two minutes of film comedy out of practically nothing, as Stanley mistakes his ringing phone for an alarm clock, a clanging bedpan, and everything but the telephone. Another two minutes of comedy comes from Stan and Ollie’s phone conversation (practically a precursor to similar phone conversations decades later by Bob Newhart, a confessed fan of The Boys), as Stan emphatically tell Ollie that a dog “b-i-it me…bit me!” and presses the phone receiver to his wound to show Ollie where he was bitten.
Ollie begs Stan to come over — which he does, seconds later, fully dressed, to Ollie’s astonishment. This seemingly simple gag is a subtle statement of the movie’s theme (as once expressed by Randy Skretvedt to this blogger): Separately, The Boys work wonders; together, they constitute a recipe for disaster.
Ollie quickly tells Stan of his dire situation, causing Stan to wonder why Ollie’s wife would be upset. Ollie points to his wedding picture, showing Blanche Payson in best Amazonian scowl. “Isn’t she sweet?” says Stan, the poster boy for “Ignorance Is Bliss.” Ollie appeals to Stan’s scruples (and outright ignorance), stating that he’d help Stan out in a similar jam. Stan argues that Ollie wouldn’t help him; Ollie argues why; Stan says, “Because I’m not going to get married.” Cut to a delightful close-up of Stan, giggling in a rare moment of self-awareness.
Having triumphed with his wit, Stan agrees to help Ollie, who mixes metaphors in his eager gratitude — followed by a slip, a fall, and a glance upward to Stan, as if to say, “Is the rest of our day going to be like this?” Why, soi-tainly.
Fade in on Ollie putting the final touches on his Sunday best and Stan actually accomplishing his goal of cleaning all the kitchen dishes. Of course, this can’t last. Ollie slips on a discarded rug vacuum, flies into the kitchen, and destroys the crockery. At this point, Stan does the only thing to be done: He picks himself up and unwraps a cake of butter. (Only a character as dim-witted as Stan could get away with such an obvious sight-gag set-up.) Ollie reaches for something to clean himself up, knocks open an loose chimney tube, and gets covered in soot. He asks Stan for some soap, and Stan gives him…well, you know. A few more bumps on the head from some wayword kitchen utensils, and Ollie seems ready to call it a day.
Through another set of disasters too painful(ly funny) to describe, Ollie is reduced to lighting a gas stove to dry his last good suit, unaware that Stan has already been running the gas for a few minutes hence. Comedy biographer Joe Adamson once went to great pains to describe how 1930’s comedy used “punctuation” for some of its best laughs. What is punctuation? Ollie strikes a match in the kitchen. Cut to the room next door, which rocks in explosion as Ollie is ejected from the kitchen. Ollie crawls out from behind the couch, sees the telltale match in his hand, and flicks it away in resignation. That’s punctuation — a comedic moment I can’t explain, but which makes me laugh helplessly every time I see it.
Ollie gets a phone call from the Mrs., emphatically requesting his presence at the train station, where she has now arrived. Ollie pleads for his suit, which Stan provides — in a number of pieces, having been denuded in the explosion. Ollie initially panics, then comes up with his version of a brilliant idea. He tells Stan to clean up quickly.
Cut to Stan miraculously having cleaned the room in record time (let me reiterate: He did it alone), followed by Ollie’s final suit: a Napoleonic horse-riding costume, complete with sword. After a great double-take, Stan gravely informs Ollie that he can’t wear that suit to meet his wife, for the obvious reason that “You haven’t got a horse!” Ollie hurries out the door, asking Stan to leave as soon as he’s done cleaning up.
Before he leaves, Stan decides to light a cozy fire for the Hardys. But lighting a fire is a Herculean task compared to cleaning up a room destroyed by a wild party and a gas explosion; the fire just won’t take. So Stan douses the single log with a liberal dose of gasoline (accidentally knocking over the gas can for good measure); he strikes the match, and before we can contemplate the ensuing horror, the film fades out.
A title then informs us:
Ollie kindly stops in front of the camera to let us contemplate his black eye and his twisted sword. It appears that Mrs. Hardy will soon be appearing on “Divorce Court,” showing Helpmates as evidence.
Cut to Ollie’s house, which has been reduced to smoldering ashes from Stan’s goodwill fire-lighting. Stan helpfully holds a sputtering water hose on the remains. Ollie is so lost in his own troubles that he doesn’t realize what’s happened until he stumbles on the doorway that’s no longer there.
Ollie does the mother of all double-takes and asks Stan what happened; of course, he might as well be asking Stan for the meaning of life. Stan blubbers out an explanation and piteously understates, “The house burned down and I couldn’t help it!”, followed by the patented Stanley cry.
Ollie knows when to leave disastrous enough alone; he waves Stan away, asking Stan to close the non-existent door on his way out because “I’d like to be alone.” Of course, the cosmos isn’t about to leave Ollie alone; a commentary cloudburst ensues. Ollie sheepishly hides his face as if prepping himself for the press photographers at “Divorce Court.” He notices an errant piece of lint on his horse suit and picks it away. For some reason, this gesture affords him little dignity as the movie fades out.
Besides being two reels of superb ’30s comedy, Helpmates provided a pointed argument on the debits of colorization. In the 1980’s, Hal Roach Studios (a movie studio in corporate name only) picked this movie as one of the first to serve as an example of their watercolor washouts.
First, HRS didn’t even restore the movie’s original titles; instead, they pulled out the generations-removed Film Classics version of the movie and removed even their truncated titles. Then, they colorized as little of the movie as they could get away with; look at the scene in Stan’s apartment, where Stan’s red hair, and little else, is colorized. Finally, in order to be able to copyright the colorized version as a new entity, HRS removed the majority of Stan and Ollie’s delightful phone conversation, as well as an extended sight-gag in Ollie’s bedroom. The Studios’ colorizers, it appears, are direct descendants of the corporate suits at Twentieth Century-Fox who hired Laurel & Hardy to appear in Fox films in the 1940’s and then proceeded to drain most of the comedy from their work. It’s an ongoing lesson that’s yet to be learned: Hollywood suits need to stick to contracts, and leave the comedy to the experts.