THE BIG NOISE (1944) – Laurel & Hardy deliver a bomb (No, we don’t mean the movie)

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In his book The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr posits a person who is used to “talkies” must grow accustomed to the deliberate rhythm and pacing of silent movies before one can enjoy them. Likewise, to enjoy the sparse pleasures of The Big Noise, one must get used to what was, by this point in Laurel & Hardy’s careers, the heavily plotted padding of their 20th Century-Fox features. The Big Noise runs a scant 74 minutes, but in that time, screenwriter Scott Darling manages to cram in subplots and sub-subplots involving a potentially devastating bomb, its eccentric inventor, the inventor’s flighty and fluttery aunt, a bratty kid of no known origin, and some surprisedly patriotic gangsters. It’s a miracle that Laurel & Hardy even got any screen time here.

Yet while the quality is typical of L&H’s later Fox features, The Big Noise is worth at least one look. It’s neither quite as terrible as Stan Laurel himself made it out to be (in a letter to a fan, documented in Randy Skretvedt’s L&H biography), nor as outright hilarious as L&H biographer Scott MacGillivray seems to think it is. The movie is so busy establishing its hoary plot that it seems to take forever for L&H to get on-screen. But when they do — as janitors masquerading as detectives to puff themselves up — they yield a fair amount of laughs.

The biggest laugh in the movie comes when the bomb is being tested and Stan, looking for a place to sit, plops himself down on the detonator. Even as elementary a screenwriter as Darling could have made more of the potentially comic situation of bumbling Stan and Ollie being put in charge of a sensitive bomb. Yet even though a couple of L&H’s routines here are bodily lifted from earlier short subjects, Ollie’s usual condescension and The Boys’ dainty body language yield a fair share of laughs. It was sometimes said that all Laurel & Hardy needed to be funny were an empty room and a couple of props. This movie is the acid test of that theory, and it passes — barely, sometimes, but it passes.

Of greater interest is the game Spot the Weird Casting. Philip Van Zandt, who played one of L&H’s typical late-era gangsters in Air Raid Wardens, does some more con time here. Robert Dudley, a veteran of Preston Sturges comedies (he was “The Weenie King” in Sturges’ great The Palm Beach Story), merits a few chuckles as a mouthy grandpa. (This movie is almost weighed down with Palm Beach Story vets, including Esther Howard as Aunt Sophie, the woman with designs on Ollie, and perennial drunk Jack Norton, who did his sloshed bit for both movies.) And the bratty kid is none other than Robert Blake, then known as “Bobby” in Our Gang and later to become a Hollywood Babylon wannabe for allegedly killing his wife.

Also, the ending comes from very contrived circumstances, but charming it is — Stan playing “Mairsy Doats” on the accordion to a group of enthusiastic fish. It’s small praise, but between this and The Bullfighters, at least Fox got L&H’s freak endings right.

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