BE BIG! (1931) – Laurel & Hardy and a boot

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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.

Laurel & Hardy in BLOTTO (1930) – A hostile wife negates much of the laughter

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So here’s this woman (Anita Garvin) married to a man she obviously has nothing in common with. But nevertheless she won’t let him go out with his friend when she herself has nothing better to do with him. And when her husband sneaks out on false pretenses, she quickly makes her way to the local gun shop for a rifle and ammunition. I’m no psychologist, but wouldn’t you say she has issues?

Unfortunately, we’re meant to accept such behavior as quid pro quo in Laurel & Hardy comedies. The premise is that Stan manages to sneak out for a night on the town with Ollie, holding a bottle of what he thinks is his wife’s bootleg liquor. Unfortunately, Mrs. Laurel got wind of the situation and replaced the booze with cold tea, tabasco, and other assorted droppings. So she’s so eager to catch her husband in a lie that she dumps a bottle of Prohibition hootch to catch him? Wouldn’t you say she has issues?

The nightclub scene does yield some laughs, as Stan and Ollie get into one of their infamous laughing jags. But then there’s that wife, sitting right as rain, waiting for the chance to blow off some steam as well as that shotgun. Wouldn’t you say…

A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940) – Routine Laurel & Hardy comedy with an amazing finale

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The following in my contribution to The Back-to-School Blogathon, being hosted Sept. 2-5, 2016 by Robin at her blog Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of school-themed movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

If I had to choose one average Laurel & Hardy movie to watch just for a single, extraordinary sequence, the hands-down winner would be A Chump at Oxford. The movie’s premise is that Stan and Ollie inadvertently thwart a bank robbery, and the bank president rewards them with a scholarship to Oxford. The movie’s college setting, and its title, are a spoof on the then-current movie A Yank at Oxford, but otherwise, there’s little reason to think that a comedy written and performed by men who probably never set foot in a college will be at all relevant to collegiate life then or now. (The Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers suffers from the same defect.) Indeed, knowing what one knows about Stan and Ollie, one would think that a lifetime scholarship to night school would be far more appropriate.

The movie was Laurel & Hardy’s penultimate film for Hal Roach, a producer who was far more sympathetic to their characterizations and work methods than later “big” studios would prove to be. Knowing this in hindsight offers a certain retrospective tinge to the movie, which is emphasized by the movie’s primary opening sequence, where Stan and Ollie get a job as maid (disguised, of course) and butler. This sequence was added to the film when Roach realized that the movie’s four-reel length was insufficient to satisfy L&H fans. L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt characterizes this sequence as, “in essence, their first two-reeler since [their final short subject] Thicker Than Water,” and it is fairly self-contained. The scene’s nostalgia is further underlined by the use of old L&H cohorts such as James Finlayson and Anita Garvin. And when Ollie comes out to announce, “There’s everything from soup to nuts, folks,” invoking the title of the L&H silent film from which this sequence liberally borrows, the movie is awash in nostalgia.

As fun as it is, though, this is not the extraordinary part of the movie. Neither is the middle (or is it “middling”?) section where Stan and Ollie go to Oxford and have juvenile pranks played on them by a drearily pretentious group of British students (one of whom is played by Peter Cushing).

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The Boys with Cushing (4th from left).

Just before the students attempt a nasty revenge on Stan and Ollie for “snitching” on them, a butler named Meredith mistakes Stan for the college’s legendary scholar, Lord Paddington. It seems that Lord Paddington had a windowpane fall on his head one day and wandered out of Oxford, never to be seen again — and Stan has an uncanny resemblance to Lord Paddington. Ollie poo-poos the whole thing, saying “Why, I’ve known him for years, and he’s the dumbest person I ever saw. Aren’t you, Stan?” Stan illustrates the point by agreeing heartily.

But Stan and Ollie go through an open window to try and escape along a ledge, and wouldn’t you know it, the windowpane falls down on him, and he becomes Lord Paddington. This opens up some interesting questions (and potential plot developments) that the movie doesn’t begin to touch. First off, is it possible that Stan really is Lord Paddington, and if so, what happened between the time he first lost his memory and the time he met Ollie in America? Or is it possible that Stan’s subconscious absorbed Meredith’s Lord Paddington story and allowed his other side to break out in best Freudian style? One could almost imagine one of H.M. Walker’s priceless subtitles prefacing this sequence, such as…

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But back to the plot. Stan-as-Lord-Paddington’s ears twitch furiously (which has been foretold as a sign that he means trouble), and he dispatches the mobbing students through the open window, while an incredulous Ollie looks on from the ledge. When Ollie enters back through the window, he is thrown out as well. Normally, Ollie would have been infuriated by Stan’s presumptuousness, but here he’s more amazed by Stan’s strength and his forgetting their friendship. Ollie’s appeal to Stan’s emotions is met with Paddington’s frosty query to Meredith: “Who is this coarse person with the foreign accent?” When Ollie is informed that he is beneath Paddington’s station, the old Ollie returns to inform Paddington and Meredith that he will not bow to this simpleton, whereupon he is dispatched through the window again.

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Fade in on Lord Paddington, returned to his former status at Oxford, and Ollie, who is now Paddington’s manservant and is addressed by Paddington as “Fatty.” Just the beginning of this sequence is delicious enough, as we imagine Ollie having to pay for all those years of his condescending treatment of Stan. Paddington is informed that he has an appointment to talk with Albert Einstein, who is “a bit confused about his theory.” This is one instance where a silent look to the camera just isn’t enough. Ollie looks straight at us and blurts, “Einstein! Before that bump on the head, he wouldn’t know Einstein from a beer stein!”

The next sequence rewards one’s anticipation. Paddington tells Ollie that he needs a bit more poise in his appearance. He directs Ollie to stand up straight and lift his chin. Ollie resignedly lifts his chin, but Paddington demands, “No, no, no, both of them!” L&H biographer Charles Barr suggests that this sequence might have been close to real life, where Stan Laurel, the uncredited writer-director of the L&H comedies, directed Oliver Hardy, who was content to go through his paces and then rush to the golf course at the end of filming.

Ollie tries to follow Paddington’s directions and succeeds only in tripping himself, whereupon Paddington denounces his clumsiness. Ollie can take no more. He blows up at Paddington and announces he’s packing his bags and leaving for America. Paddington, unperturbed, shrugs off Ollie as “a witty old stick-in-the-mud.”

Outside, a group of students sings “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to Paddington, who unfortunately never had the window repaired or his memory checked. He sticks his head out to hear the tribute, and boom! he is Stan again. He turns and asks Ollie why he’s leaving. It takes a few moments before the situation sinks in for Ollie, but when it does, he happily hugs his old friend — briefly looking down at his double-chin and then realizing that it is no longer of any consequence.

As much as we want to see Stan and Ollie in any form, it’s tempting to wish that this final scene had been their farewell to movies. It wraps everything up nostalgically, retrospectively, and with an air of finality. And had this been the coda of their film career, we would have been spared the below-average antics of their last Hal Roach film Saps at Sea, not to mention the painfulness of their final studio films and the foreign-made disaster Utopia. Indeed, Charles Barr closes his comprehensive look at Laurel & Hardy at this very point. That’s bad movie history, of course — but after all, everyone loves a happy ending.