(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Am I the only Laurel & Hardy fan on Earth who is a trifle put off by The Music Box? “This is the one everyone remembers,” writes Randy Skretvedt in his great L&H biography — but everyone always seems to remember it for the wrong reasons.
As with most L&H product, the movie provides enough genuine laughter to warrant at least one viewing. But it hardly seems worthy of the Academy Award it received (the only one in L&H’s career, save for a Special Oscar given to Stan Laurel in 1960). Just the image of Stan and Ollie lugging a weighty piano up an infinite flight of stairs is enough to bring a smile to many moviegoers — but much like a similar image in the L&H feature Swiss Miss, the movie that surrounds that image isn’t exactly prime L&H viewing.
The majority of the movie’s first half shows the Laurel & Hardy Transfer Co. (“Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow”) doing their best to deliver said piano. There is a lot of fun to be found in this premise — especially at the end of the movie’s first act, when a delivery man (Charlie Hall) informs them of a short-cut they could have taken (the payoff for this gag is priceless). And when they actually arrive at the piano’s intended destination, there are plenty more gags and payoffs that evolve quite nicely.
Yet the whole enterprise is slightly off-putting. Though Skretvedt’s book informs us that Laurel worked feverishly on the movie’s editing right up to its premiere, the movie seems more like one of those bad TV skits performed by L&H impersonators for countless generations. It’s almost like a Laurel & Hardy movie for (or by) people who don’t quite “get” Laurel & Hardy.
For one thing, the movie is strangely lacking in music. L&H shorts are usually wallpapered with Marvin Hatley’s and LeRoy Shield’s lively scores, so the absence is doubly noticeable here. One reason is probably that a lot of space had to be left on the movie’s soundtrack for the sounds of the piano whenever it rolled back down the stairs or crashed into a room. Yet a lively piano score would seem a perfect accompaniment.
(The colorized version of the movie, released in the 1980’s on home video, tries to rectify the situation, though the Hatley/Shield themes used there are performed by other artists and are thus slightly off-kilter.)
The movie’s most painful debit, though, is Ollie’s constant bullying of Stan. Ollie, of course, is always condescendingly bossy to his partner, but usually it has an air of Ollie trying to protect Stan from the world’s misfortunes. Here, it just seems mean-spirited. Some examples:
* In one scene, a nurse whacks Stan on the head with a baby bottle, and Ollie, rather than helping his partner, laughs derisively (until he too is belted by the nurse). A similar gag (with the tables turned), in the post-Roach L&H film Great Guns, has been derided for years as being out of character for Stan and Ollie, who usually defend each other against outside forces.
* At one point when they are halfway up the flight of stairs, a cop on the street calls up to them. As they are out of earshot, Ollie continually bullies Stan into going down to the street to find out what he wants. Ollie’s continuously harsh tone indicates that he’s too lazy to do it himself, though it’s Ollie whom the cop is after. I suppose that’s part of the gag, but it still comes off in a bitter tone.
* Ollie actually addresses Stan as “stupid” in the movie — again, the same sort of mean-spirited anti-characterization that is maligned by L&H buffs when it comes in the middle of one of L&H’s Twentieth-Century Fox films.
Again, there is a lot to recommend in the film — particularly their encounters with “Professor Theodore von Schwarzenhoffen [L&H veteran Billy Gilbert], M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F.F.F., und F.” But for Oscar-caliber L&H material, I’d sooner recommend Helpmates or Way Out West (which actually was nominated for an Oscar, albeit for Marvin Hatley’s score). As with Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons, Stan and Babe got one of their industry awards for a movie that least deserved it.