Happy New Year, and happy Jane Russell Friday! Times Square’s ball-dropping has nothing on Janie!
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.
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Having been immortalized in print (by author Henry Miller, among others) and film legend, The Battle of the Century comes off as a disappointment when finally viewed. For years, the movie’s final sequence–that of a massive pie-fight–was the only remaining part of the movie. Robert Youngson slightly re-edited it (and preserved it, as he worked on the only known print of it) for his compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy. Then the movie’s opening sequence–showing Stan as a hapless boxer named Canvasback Clump, with Ollie as his manager–was rediscovered in the 1970’s. Now the only missing part is the movie’s mid-section, with Eugene Pallette as an insurance salesman who makes Ollie see dollar signs, if only he can get Stan into an accident.
The film has now been reconstructed (with still photos and script excerpts taking the place of the missing middle sequence), and neither the first segment nor the last seems worth the legend. Knowing that Stan is a boxer, and early-L&H heavy Noah Young is his opponent, tells everything you need to know about the opening boxing match. Some of Stan’s movements are funny enough, but it’s all quite predictable, and Stan-as-inept-boxer was done far more energetically and effectively in L&H’s later talkie Any Old Port (1932).
Then Ollie buys the insurance policy on Stan and continually throws a banana peel in his path to try to injure Stan and collect on the policy. Although Laurel and Hardy were well-established as a team by this point in their film careers, this very concept of this scenario shows that their characterizations still needed tinkering. The whole banana-peel bit is only a set-up for the film’s grand finale, and as such, it seems unusually nasty of Ollie to want to benefit from Stan’s misfortune. (When a similar concept was reworked into L&H’s Twentieth-Century Fox film The Dancing Masters, many L&H buffs derided it as another of Fox’s out-of-character actions for The Boys.)
Eventually a pie vendor (Charlie Hall) stumbles on the banana peel intended for Stan, and the pie fight begins. According to John McCabe’s famous L&H biography, Stan Laurel thought the sequence would be funny, not because of the pies, but because of the famous L&H “reciprocal destruction” sequence of events, where an innocent bystander would be dragged into the chaos and would have no choice but to retaliate. But the kind of hostile interplay that worked so brilliantly a year later in You’re Darn Tootin’ lays pretty flat here. As much as Laurel-the-filmmaker relied on character motivation for his comedy, the only real motive in this sequence is to get thousands of pies flying.
Beyond that, there’s little to enjoy, other than the subtler moments: Stan nonchalantly handing out pies from the pie wagon, as though he was a waiter filling some orders; Anita Garvin’s dainty reactions when she lands fanny-first onto a waiting pie. This sort of comedy was the kind of massive overkill that would be sniffed at in the team’s later Fox films, not to mention “tribute comedies” such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). As was well-proven before and after this film, Laurel and Hardy’s comedy was on too intimate of a level to incorporate such a cold-blooded approach.