(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Charlie Chaplin said in 1957: “Then there’s the gag about the man who goes to a very pompous dinner party. Everything goes wrong for him. The butler gets his name wrong; his neighbor at table drops butter on his coat; the serving maid pours soup down his neck. He suffers it all with a smile and polite reassurances: ‘Oh, please don’t bother — it’s quite all right.” Then finally, after the last indignity, he goes berserk, runs wildly around the room, breaking the china, scaring the guests, and at last, setting fire to the place.”
In a slightly altered form, that sums up Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business. The put-upon man is James Finlayson; the “pompous dinner party” is Stan and Ollie, who can’t hawk a Christmas tree at Finn’s door without getting it and/or their clothing caught in his door a dozen times or so. Just when all parties seemed to have escaped with their dignity, Stan gets a “big business” idea: He returns to Finn’s door and asks him, “Can we take your order for next year?”
This is too much for Finn. He briefly exits and returns with a pair of hedge-clippers, the better to denude Stan and Ollie’s tree. Stan evens the score by removing the street number from Finn’s house, and they’re off to the races.
This movie is a feast for Laurel & Hardy buffs and an acid test for the uninitiated. This mutual give-and-take — known as “reciprocal destruction” to L&H veterans — leave most others wondering what’s so funny. Probably what’s so funny is its single-mindedness of purpose. Each party is so intent on doing violence to the other that they don’t even keep score after a while. Stan throws pottery out for Ollie to bat with a shovel, while Finn tears their car apart piece by piece. Even the cop (Tiny Sandford) who eventually intrudes can’t bring himself to stop the whole thing immediately; the battle is so incredulous and ongoing, he figures he might as well sit and keep score for a while.
Laurel & Hardy rarely got down-and-dirty on a Marx Brothers level, so it’s all the more fun to see them freed of their usual inhibitions and self-imposed sense of dignity. Ostensibly, Big Business is about Laurel & Hardy selling Christmas trees, but in the end, you get the feeling that they’d rather just destroy their customers’ houses.