Be Big! is one of the more maligned short subjects in the Laurel and Hardy canon. L&H buffs have often said that Stan and Babe needed only a couple of props and a movie camera to make people laugh. Be Big! is probably the litmus test of this theory.
Most of this three-reeler is a protracted set piece in which Ollie struggles with Stan’s boots, first to put them on (by mistake, of course) and then to get them off. Because of that scenario, the movie is dimly looked upon even by L&H historians. “Fun is fun, but there are limits,” grunted Randy Skretvedt. “One of their weakest films…rapidly becomes rather tiresome,” sneered William K. Everson.
But there are many other ill-regarded L&H shorts that provide far fewer laughs. Other than Helpmates, few of Stan and Babe’s movies are noted for their witty dialogue, but Be Big! certainly qualifies, right from the moment where Ollie addresses his wife (Isabelle Keith) as “ducky lover” when she asks if he is prepared for their trip to Atlantic City. Ollie then emerges fully dressed but with his hat unusually glistening (even in washed-out Film Classics prints, this gag “reads” pretty well). Mrs. Hardy is used to this; “Did you take a shower with your hat on?” she inquires quietly, as though this happens in every marriage. Ollie sheepishly admits, “I didn’t want to get my hair wet.”
Ollie goes to see if the Laurels, their neighbors across the hall, are also ready — but not before daintily pushing his own doorbell that he can delight in the sound of its chimes. He does the same thing at the Laurels’ door and is treated to the “hooka-hooka” of a raucous car horn. Stan emerges, holding a toy boat and declaring, “I’m ready!”, as well-packed for a family trip as any four-year-old.
Then a member of Stan and Ollie’s lodge phones Ollie to tell him that the lodge wants them to attend “a testimonial for you and Stan” tonight. (One wonders what Stan and Ollie would have done to earn this — did Stan win the lodge’s toy boat race?) Ollie hems and haws, but the lodge brother tells him, “Remember the old saying: No man is bigger than the excuses he can make to his wife. So be big. Get me? Be big!”
Ollie puffs up his chest and gets ready to let his wife know who’s boss — but as soon as Mrs. Hardy comes out, we find out exactly who wears the pants. Ollie immediately launches into a sickness routine about as convincing as your kid’s attempt to play hooky from school. “It came at me all of a sudden…knocked me into a heap!” declares Ollie. Stan enters and, having one of his ill-timed moments of genius, says he’ll call a doctor. Ollie prevents him from doing it, saying it must be “my nerves…they’ve been at the snapping point for days!” (It must be the pressure of all those lodge meetings.)
Ollie says Stan needs to stay with him. Stan doesn’t catch on that a plan is afoot until Ollie kicks him in a shin — at which point, Stan, overeager to please, massages his own forehead instead of Ollie’s. (Stan usually grasps about half of a situation — later in the film, the wives briefly return, Ollie yells at Stan to maintain their alibi, and Stan throws a wet towel over his own head.) Eventually the wives leave, Ollie tells Stan about the lodge tribute, and Stan reminds him, “You can’t go…you’re all in a heap!”
As Stan and Ollie prepare for their outing, the wives arrive at the train station and are informed that they just missed the last train out to Atlantic City. The wives decide they can leave in the morning and prepare to return home, telling themselves, “Won’t the boys be surprised?” As Ollie might reply: Not as surprised as you will be, dear.
In his haste, Ollie puts on Stan’s boots by mistake. He struggles to put them on until he realizes that he has put on his partner’s boots, at which point the darned things suddenly can’t come off. Admittedly, the Stan-not-helping-Ollie-get-the-boots-off bit is a bit protracted, but it results in a few wonderful sight gags and more of their marvelously elementary dialogue. At one point, Ollie sits Stan down to lecture him on the fundamentals of removing the boots. “You don’t have to drag me all around the room,” says Ollie. “It’s most embarrassing!” — a fact Stan evidently couldn’t grasp on his own. “Remember the old adage: A task slowly done is surely done. [I guess they learn these old adages at the lodge meetings.] Do you understand?” Stan replies, “Sure. A cool head never won fair lady.”
By movie’s end, Ollie has gotten burned by a radiator, painfully sat on a thumbtack, and had his lodge outfit stretched beyond repair after being knocked into a bathtub of water. (How does that always happen in L&H movies, anyway? Was the Depression so desperate that people were required to re-use their dirty bathwater?) Ollie motions to the gods and asks, “What could be worse?” Of course, the gods are only too glad to answer him: The wives enter and see that they’ve been duped.
Stan and Ollie quickly take refuge under bedcovers, with Ollie manfully telling Stan, “Be big!” before the angry wives enter the bedroom, Ollie quickly pulls the bedcord, and the bed folds into the wall. The wives yell for Stan and Ollie, and Stan emerges, helpfully telling them that Ollie’s asleep. The wives abruptly wake him with blasts from their omnipresent shotguns. (Never leave home without them!). The End.
Other than some of the minor gags in the boot routine, the only really jarring notes come from the movie’s more exaggerated attempts at gags: the Hardy telephone that makes a slide-whistle sound instead of ringing, some of the overly insistent background music. This type of desperate comedy would reach its annoying height in L&H’s final Hal Roach film Saps at Sea, where cartoonish gags overwhelmed characterization. By contrast, Be Big! demonstrates that even with a thin premise, Stan and Ollie’s characters could carry most of the comedy quite handily.