The following is my contribution to The Animals in Film Blogathon, being hosted May 26-28, 2016 by the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ comments about a variety of contributions made by acting animals to the history of motion pictures!
For this blogathon, rather than talking about a single movie, I chose to discuss the supporting roles that horses have in a large number of comedies starring Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. Horses are so frequently Stan & Ollie’s co-stars that one can’t help but draw the conclusion that it’s because Stan and Ollie appear to share the same level of brainpower as their animal supporting actors.
Surely the peak of Laurel & Hardy’s relationship with horses occurs in Way Out West (1937), where their co-star is Dinah the Mule (who even gets a screen credit, and deserves it). At one point in the movie, in an attempt to get Ollie up to the second floor of Mickey Finn’s Saloon in the middle of the night, they get Dinah up there instead. This scene alone shows that perhaps a single member of the equine community has more intelligence than Stan and Ollie combined. However, there are plenty of other such incidents worth noting in the Laurel & Hardy canon.
First, the more benign examples. In Fra Diavolo (a/k/a The Devil’s Brother; 1933, shown above) and Swiss Miss (1938), horses are simply the sources for transportation, not gags. In the later 20th Century-Fox feature Great Guns (1941), a horse provides humiliation, but not for Stan and Ollie. Instead, it is their commanding officer, Sgt. “Hippo,” who gets bucked off a wild horse when he tries to imitate the rough-riding mannerism of Stan and Ollie’s ward, Dan Forrester; The Boys only laugh at Hippo’s comeuppance. (That’s an adequate illustration of how L&H’s later, Big Studio movies put them on the sidelines and let the supporting players get the laughs.)
In another of L&H’s Big Studio feature films, Jitterbugs (1943), The Boys and their car and wagon are stranded in the desert. Ollie tells Stan to get out and push the behemoth while he steers. Moments later, with the car still moving, Stan idles alongside Ollie and gets into the car beside him. Ollie is surprisingly nonchalant about this — in a Hal Roach feature, Ollie would have reacted to this with a huge double-take — but when he asks Stan about this, he finds that Stan has commandeered a nearby donkey to do the moving. Ollie, in another of his insults that goes over Stan’s head, is philosophical about this: “A mule is just as good as a donkey in this kind of situation.”
In Laurel & Hardy’s Oscar-winning short subject The Music Box (1932), Susie — the horse who is a major part of The Boys’ “transfer company” (i.e., moving van) — is, at most, passive-aggressive. When Stan is trying to unload a crated piano onto Ollie’s back, Susie moves forward just a step too soon, giving Ollie a major backache. Ollie rectifies this situation later when he unchains Susie from the back of the wagon, though this does little to prevent further mishaps with the piano.
One of L&H’s more extended routines with horses appears to have occurred in a long-unavailable feature film, The Rogue Song (1930). As described in the 1975 book Laurel & Hardy, bandit’s assistants Ali-Bek and Murza-Bek (Stan and Ollie by any other name) have major trouble mounting and dismounting their horses with, naturally, the major indignities befalling Ollie.
Besides Way Out West, Laurel & Hardy’s best-remembered horse maneuverings occur in the silent short Wrong Again (1929). Stable workers Stan and Ollie overhear that a local man of means is offering a $5,000 reward for the return of his Blue Boy. The rich man is referring to the famous Gainsborough painting, but unluckily there is a horse in the stable bearing the same name. Of course, Stan and Ollie reach entirely the wrong conclusion, and when they bring the horse to the man’s mansion, the man (who is at an upper floor and unable to see the Blue Boy in question) instructs The Boys to “take him right into the house” and “put him on the piano.”
This results in some outrageously satisfying gags and routines, and more than a little sympathy for the physical sufferings endured by Ollie (who at one point is wedged between an upright piano leg and the piano-topped-by-the-horse). And as Laurel & Hardy biographer Charles Barr succinctly puts it, “Thus, by a completely logical route Laurel and Hardy arrive at an image that irresistably recalls the donkey on the piano in Bunuel and Dali’s anti-logical Un Chien Andalou,” the famed surrealistic short that (as Barr notes) was probably unknown to any of Wrong Again‘s makers, and at whose pretensions Stan-the-filmmaker would surely have guffawed in derision.
The last two instances of Laurel & Hardy & horse are on the cartoonish side, quite literally in one instance. Two years after Way Out West, The Flying Deuces (1939) has Stan asking Ollie how he would like to be reincarnated. Ollie replies that he’d like to come back as a horse. The film’s finale, at first leaving Stan as a lone vagabond wandering the countryside, then grants Ollie’s wish, as Stan comes across “Ollie” (a horse with a greasepaint-y moustache and Hardy’s dubbed-in drawl) once more telling Stan, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”
Finally, Walt Disney’s contribution to this menagerie must be noted. The Disney cartoon Mickey’s Polo Team (1935) has its rivals in the team “The Mickey Mousers” (Mickey and his usual sidekicks) versus “The Movie Stars,” caricatures of many Hollywood celebrities including Laurel & Hardy. As you can see from the above still from the cartoon, Disney got one point right: the horses master Stan and Ollie far more than vice versa.