Like Helpmates and a handful of their other sound films, Towed in a Hole is 100-proof Laurel and Hardy — methodically paced, but hardly boring; full of funny banter between the duo; and, in a couple of Ollie’s speeches, a brief glimpse at what makes Stan and Ollie (the screen personas) put up with each other. One could hardly ask more of a comedy short-subject.
The movie begins with Stan and Ollie actually happy with their lot in life. They hawk fish from their truck, with Ollie singing to prospective customers as a come-on; Stan provides accompaniment with a razzing horn. Out of nowhere, Stan comes up with the idea that they could make more money by catching the fish themselves. Never leaving well enough alone, Ollie coaxes Stan to “Tell me that again” and gets a garbled version of the same plan. Still, Ollie gets the idea; they should “eliminate the middleman,” little realizing that the middleman is the only thing standing between them and utter chaos.
Ollie purchases a boat in desperate need of repair, the need being all the more desperate when Stan tries to help Ollie repair it. After an escalating series of disasters, Ollie briefly has a heartfelt moment where he touchingly implores Stan’s help and friendship, but the whole episode still ends with Stan imprisoned below deck after Ollie has given him a black eye.
Another delightful example of Stan Laurel the actor making comedy out of almost nothing occurs when Stan is locked up. He draws a voodoo-like picture of Ollie on the wall and pokes it in the eye, then plays a hat-blowing trick on himself, then musically performs on a saw. Eventually, Stan’s boredom gets his head stuck between the mast and the bulkhead and uses the saw to get himself free, not knowing that Ollie had climbed the mast to perform a paint job. This results in Stan’s second black eye.
Finally, Stan and Ollie try to tow the boat out of the repair area with their car, but the boat is too heavy. Stan suggests putting up the sail for wind; Ollie does this, causing the boat to crash into the car, which then crashes into the fence. Stan rushes to survey the wreckage but finds a silver lining in the cloud; he pulls his fish horn out of the mess and indicates to Ollie that it has survived the wreck. Ollie chases Stan off-screen.
Towed in a Hole director George Marshall has said that the film’s original ending was to have shown the boat careening out of control down the highway, but that L&H improvised so much genuine comedy that this elaborate ending was rendered unnecessary. That’s Laurel & Hardy in a nutshell, having distilled their screen characters to the point that a lavish, Hog Wild-type chase scene was no longer necessary to garner great comedy.