Laurel & Hardy in COME CLEAN (1931) – Kind of a drawn-out dirty joke


In Come Clean, Ollie tells Stan to divert their wives by telling them a joke. The camera later cuts to Stan giving the punchline — “…and the farmer shot the traveling salesman!” — and the wives’ outrage at the blue humor.

Unfortunately, Come Clean itself almost inspires that kind of reaction. The crux of the movie is that Stan and Ollie thwart the attempted suicide of a woman (Mae Busch) whom, until movie’s end, comes off as a plain old floozie. This characterization is only furthered when the woman insists that, since Stan and Ollie saved her life, they’ll have to take her home with them or she’ll scream bloody murder.

Up to that point, the movie has been fairly funny, with a reprise of a routine from Should Married Men Go Home? where Ollie and his wife try to convince the visiting Laurels that they’re not at home, and a great scene at an ice-cream parlor with Charlie Hall as the sneering vendor.

But when the movie tries to milk Stan and Ollie’s hide-the-floozie routine for ever-diminishing humor, the fun starts to leak out of the movie. At one point, Mae, locked in another room, turns on the radio to a blaring broadcast of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” (Coincidentally, that same march, also blaring from a radio, hampered the schemes of burglars Harpo and Chico Marx in Duck Soup. Was there a Los Angeles radio station that played the march non-stop in the ’30s?) The best that Stan and Ollie can do to cover up the noise is bang pots and pans and march around the room like little children. Characters this child-like should not be asked to milk a blackmail scheme for comedy.

The movie closes with a semi-“freak ending” where Stan, taking a bath while fully clothed, gets the plug pulled on him by Ollie and goes down the drain (suggested via sound effects). It’s as if the movie’s players are as eager to get rid of their sordid situation as the audience is.

Laurel & Hardy in BUSY BODIES (1933) – A factory full of laughs


Laurel & Hardy’s track record in “talkie” shorts isn’t as consistent as in their silent films, but Busy Bodies surely tops the list of their best-ever comedies. “Laurel & Hardy in a workshop” is about all you need to know in order to smile in anticipation.

The movie’s most inventive scene comes when Stan — in retaliation for Ollie hitting him on the head with a saw — knocks Ollie into a wall with a glue-filled paintbrush. The brush sticks to Ollie’s chin, giving the appearance of a huge goatee with a wooden handle. Stan, having gone from anger to helpfulness in the blink of an eye, uses workshop tools to transform himself into a barber to “shave” Ollie’s beard. Chaplin couldn’t have done it any better.

This eventually leads to a stupendous physical-comedy climax that looks as though it provided the template for most of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther comedies. (Babe’s wife Lucille Hardy once told of the sympathy she felt when she first saw Babe’s black-and-blue physique, which he said came from the elaborate pratfalls he’d endured in his movies. A majority of them probably came from this film alone.)

There’s also a moment of genuine emotion — fleeting, but it’s there for anyone who looks — when Ollie thinks that Stan has deserted their friendship to score points with a co-worker (Charlie Hall) who has been harassing Ollie. For all of Ollie’s bluster and condescension towards Stan, it’s moments such as this that make us realize how much Ollie needs his friend.

Unlike some of L&H’s sound shorts that offer nice gags here and there and then sputter for a while, Busy Bodies, as befitting its assembly-line setting, fits together perfectly from start to finish.

SAPS AT SEA (1940) – Laurel & Hardy blow their own horns


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

As the final film of Laurel & Hardy’s Hal Roach era, one wants to like Saps at Sea more than one eventually does. It’s not as painful as, say, Utopia, but there’s certainly an awful lot of filler here — no small feat for a movie only 57 minutes long. Critics of L&H used to say that their weaker features suffered from “padding.” This one has enough padding to serve as L&H’s exploding mattress in They Go Boom!

The, er, story here is that Stan and Ollie work at a horn factory, and the loud noise from the horns eventually drives Ollie to a nervous breakdown. Reaching, maybe, but still plausible. But as soon as Ollie’s boss tells him to go home and relax, and Stan and Ollie leave the factory, laboriousness ensues. Stan and Ollie’s car horn gets stuck, and Stan semi-wrecks the car in his efforts to stop the horn, while a crowd of onlookers laugh at his antics.

(It’s an unwritten law of cinema that the harder on-lookers laugh at the on-screen comic, the less funny his antics are; witness Jerry Lewis’s Hardly Working, where dozens of extras seem to have been hired for the sole purpose of guffawing at The Star.)

The situations at Stan and Ollie at their apartment are pretty mechanical, too. Ollie’s doctor (James Finlayson!) makes Ollie use his “lung tester,” a balloon that you know in a second is there only to explode the apartment. Then the apartment gadgets go haywire — water comes out of the left faucet when the right one is turned on, the refrigerator plays music while the radio freezes over, etc., etc., ad nauseum. L&H seem to be rehearsing some unsung 20th Century-Fox writers for future material here.

Things get a little livelier when Stan and Ollie board a dockside boat to calm Ollie’s nerves. An escaped killer named Nick (Rychard Cramer) hides out on the boat, which is inadvertently set to sea, and Nick “shanghais” Stan and Ollie. Cramer, whose best-known previous L&H stint was as the hostile judge in Scram!, is definitely one of the most memorable L&H villains ever. His scenes provide suspense and hilarity.

Even for its offhandedness, Saps at Sea provides some nice moments of nostalgia, including the final L&H appearances of Finlayson, Charlie Hall, and Ben Turpin. It even ends with Ollie telling Stan, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” (You think this is a nice mess, Ollie? Wait until you get to Twentieth Century-Fox!)


Laurel & Hardy in ME AND MY PAL (1933) – ‘Tis a jigsaw puzzlement


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Me and My Pal is hardly Laurel and Hardy’s greatest short subject, but it’s a pretty good acid test as to whether you “get” L&H or not. At the conclusion of this slight but funny L&H piece, my wife said, “Why is Ollie kicking the puzzle around, like it’s the puzzle’s fault?” Due to statements like this one, I try not to watch L&H movies with my wife.

The movie revolves around two plot elements: (1) Ollie’s impending marriage, which will make him a son-in-law to a rich oil magnate (James Finlayson!) and secure his future wealth; and (2) a jigsaw puzzle that Stan gives to Ollie as his idea of a big wedding present. (This is, after all, the man who brought hard-boiled eggs and nuts to a bedstricken Ollie in County Hospital.) Stan’s rationalization is, “Well, you’ll be at home nights more, and I thought it would be something for us to play with” (emphasis mine).

Ollie, of course, dismisses the thought of “such childish folderol” — until Stan starts working on the puzzle and Ollie gets caught up in it. Eventually, the puzzle draws in the cab driver, a policeman, the future father-in-law, and a telegram delivery boy, whose “important telegram for Mr. Hardy” Stan shoves into his pocket so that he can continue with the puzzle.

Eventually the puzzle-puzzling ends in a free-for-all, with everyone carted off to the hoosegow save Stan and Ollie, who found good hiding places. Stan happens to remember the telegram and hands it to Ollie; it turns out to have warned Ollie to sell some valuable stock immediately. Ollie turns on the radio just in time to find out that the stock’s value has plunged to zero. But Stan finds a bright side; just as he’s leaving, he finds the final missing piece of the puzzle. Ollie responds by throwing Stan out on his ear and kicking the puzzle all over the room in frustration, causing L&H illiterates to wonder why he’s blaming it all on the puzzle.

Again, it’s not L&H’s greatest work, but Me and My Pal has that comedic gift for taking the mundane and turning it into an obsession — the sort of thing we like to think we have risen above, until we actually succumb to it…kind of like Laurel & Hardy, I suppose.

Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX (1932) – Not a completely happy tune


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Am I the only Laurel & Hardy fan on Earth who is a trifle put off by The Music Box? “This is the one everyone remembers,” writes Randy Skretvedt in his great L&H biography — but everyone always seems to remember it for the wrong reasons.

As with most L&H product, the movie provides enough genuine laughter to warrant at least one viewing. But it hardly seems worthy of the Academy Award it received (the only one in L&H’s career, save for a Special Oscar given to Stan Laurel in 1960). Just the image of Stan and Ollie lugging a weighty piano up an infinite flight of stairs is enough to bring a smile to many moviegoers — but much like a similar image in the L&H feature Swiss Miss, the movie that surrounds that image isn’t exactly prime L&H viewing.

The majority of the movie’s first half shows the Laurel & Hardy Transfer Co. (“Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow”) doing their best to deliver said piano. There is a lot of fun to be found in this premise — especially at the end of the movie’s first act, when a delivery man (Charlie Hall) informs them of a short-cut they could have taken (the payoff for this gag is priceless). And when they actually arrive at the piano’s intended destination, there are plenty more gags and payoffs that evolve quite nicely.

Yet the whole enterprise is slightly off-putting. Though Skretvedt’s book informs us that Laurel worked feverishly on the movie’s editing right up to its premiere, the movie seems more like one of those bad TV skits performed by L&H impersonators for countless generations. It’s almost like a Laurel & Hardy movie for (or by) people who don’t quite “get” Laurel & Hardy.

For one thing, the movie is strangely lacking in music. L&H shorts are usually wallpapered with Marvin Hatley’s and LeRoy Shield’s lively scores, so the absence is doubly noticeable here. One reason is probably that a lot of space had to be left on the movie’s soundtrack for the sounds of the piano whenever it rolled back down the stairs or crashed into a room. Yet a lively piano score would seem a perfect accompaniment.

(The colorized version of the movie, released in the 1980’s on home video, tries to rectify the situation, though the Hatley/Shield themes used there are performed by other artists and are thus slightly off-kilter.)

The movie’s most painful debit, though, is Ollie’s constant bullying of Stan. Ollie, of course, is always condescendingly bossy to his partner, but usually it has an air of Ollie trying to protect Stan from the world’s misfortunes. Here, it just seems mean-spirited. Some examples:

In one scene, a nurse whacks Stan on the head with a baby bottle, and Ollie, rather than helping his partner, laughs derisively (until he too is belted by the nurse). A similar gag (with the tables turned), in the post-Roach L&H film Great Guns, has been derided for years as being out of character for Stan and Ollie, who usually defend each other against outside forces.

At one point when they are halfway up the flight of stairs, a cop on the street calls up to them. As they are out of earshot, Ollie continually bullies Stan into going down to the street to find out what he wants. Ollie’s continuously harsh tone indicates that he’s too lazy to do it himself, though it’s Ollie whom the cop is after. I suppose that’s part of the gag, but it still comes off in a bitter tone.

Ollie actually addresses Stan as “stupid” in the movie — again, the same sort of mean-spirited anti-characterization that is maligned by L&H buffs when it comes in the middle of one of L&H’s Twentieth-Century Fox films.

Again, there is a lot to recommend in the film — particularly their encounters with “Professor Theodore von Schwarzenhoffen [L&H veteran Billy Gilbert], M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F.F.F., und F.” But for Oscar-caliber L&H material, I’d sooner recommend Helpmates or Way Out West (which actually was nominated for an Oscar, albeit for Marvin Hatley’s score). As with Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons, Stan and Babe got one of their industry awards for a movie that least deserved it.

TWICE TWO (1933) – Two Laurels and Hardys, but not twice the fun


The gimmick in Twice Two — and a very gimmicky gimmick it is — is that Laurel & Hardy play not only Stan and Ollie, but also their own sisters, each of whom is married to the other’s friend. (Considering the exasperation that Stan continually brings to Ollie, one wonders why either he would want to marry Stan’s sister or Ollie’s sister would want to marry Stan, but let it pass.)

The split-screen effects (by Roy Seawright, Hal Roach’s F/X man) are seamless. But the novelty of, essentially, two Stans and two Ollies wears thin very quickly. Whereas in Brats and Our Relations, Laurel and Hardy’s dual roles are more enjoyable due to superior characterization and gags, here L&H are content to play broadly female versions of their usual personas.

Naturally, the “women’s” voices are dubbed, too: Carol Tevis for Mrs. Hardy, and May Wallace for Mrs. Laurel. Wallace sounds plausibly like Ollie raised a few octaves, but Tevis’ voice just gets on the nerves. After a while, one identifies with Mrs. Laurel’s fervent desire to smack Mrs. Hardy upside the head.

The movie’s funniest moments owe nothing to the double-gimmickry. Stan steals the show just by bollixing up a simple ice-cream order, or trying to tuck a napkin under his chin while his wife (Hardy) glowers at him.

Probably due to the necessary dubbing, the movie feels less improvised and more earthbound than L&H’s usual lot. Despite its comedic intent, Twice Two fails to double one’s pleasure simply by “doubling” its cast.

Laurel & Hardy in TIT FOR TAT (1935) – Pom-pom!


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Tit for Tat spotlights the best and the worst of Laurel & Hardy at this point in their short-subject canon. Their status had grown to the point that one of their last short subjects could sport an elaborate set, including an electrical shop run by The Boys whose windows’ lettering looks like Art Deco. On the other hand, the fancy setting served only for some predictable, reciprocal slapstick, some of it funny, but not much of it terribly original.

The movie begins on opening day of the shop, with Stan causing continual frustration to Ollie via a sidewalk elevator than Stan keeps using while someone is using the sidewalk above. When Ollie decides to say hello to their business’s next-door neighbor, the neighbor turns out to be Charlie Hall and Mae Busch. Stan and Ollie had earned Charlie’s undying enmity when they innocently got Mae drunk (in Them Thar Hills [1934]), whose memories Mae rekindles when she sings a bit of “The Old Spinning Wheel” and Stan replies, “Pom-pom!”

Charlie refuses to let bygones be bygones, so Ollie elects not to speak to him from now on. Unfortunately, thanks to Stan’s machinations with the elevator, Ollie ends up outside Mae’s second-story window. (When Stan asks Ollie what he’s doing up there, Ollie replies with sarcastic aplomb, “I’m waiting for a streetcar.”) Mae helps Ollie through the window, and Charlie happens to overhear his enemy coming down his stairway and saying, “I’ve never been in a position like that before!”

Eventually, of course, this devolves into the tit-for-tat routine that served as the climax of the first film and now serves as the “story” for this second film. The funniest bit is provided by the punctuation to each new humiliation, as Stan and Ollie hang a “Will Be Back Soon” sign on their door and completely ignore a diminutive man (Bobby Dunn) who is handily shoplifting their goods.

Pretty soon the entire street is drawn into observing the battle, including a policeman (L&H veteran James C. Morton) who seems more of an ending than a character. (By contrast, witness Tiny Sandford’s policeman in Big Business who humorously takes notes as though he’s about to enter a war.) Charlie reluctantly shakes hands with Ollie, the little man drives away his haul in a moving van, and the policeman eats an alum-covered marshmallow that Charlie had intended as a revengeful snack for The Boys. Fade-out.

It seems a pity that the movie’s elaborate set-up leads only to the kind of tired routine that L&H impersonators do when they can’t think of anything better. Ironically, this led to Tit for Tat earning The Boys a short-subject Oscar nomination. Go figure!

TRIVIA NOTE: John McCabe’s 1975 plot-synopsis book on L&H quotes an unnamed source which claims that Frank Tashlin contributed gags to this and a couple other L&H shorts. As Tashlin was still earning his stripes as a Looney Tunes cartoon director in 1935, this seems unlikely.

Laurel & Hardy in THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (1927) – Much ado about pie-fighting


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Having been immortalized in print (by author Henry Miller, among others) and film legend, The Battle of the Century comes off as a disappointment when finally viewed. For years, the movie’s final sequence–that of a massive pie-fight–was the only remaining part of the movie. Robert Youngson slightly re-edited it (and preserved it, as he worked on the only known print of it) for his compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy. Then the movie’s opening sequence–showing Stan as a hapless boxer named Canvasback Clump, with Ollie as his manager–was rediscovered in the 1970’s. Now the only missing part is the movie’s mid-section, with Eugene Pallette as an insurance salesman who makes Ollie see dollar signs, if only he can get Stan into an accident.

The film has now been reconstructed (with still photos and script excerpts taking the place of the missing middle sequence), and neither the first segment nor the last seems worth the legend. Knowing that Stan is a boxer, and early-L&H heavy Noah Young is his opponent, tells everything you need to know about the opening boxing match. Some of Stan’s movements are funny enough, but it’s all quite predictable, and Stan-as-inept-boxer was done far more energetically and effectively in L&H’s later talkie Any Old Port (1932).

Then Ollie buys the insurance policy on Stan and continually throws a banana peel in his path to try to injure Stan and collect on the policy. Although Laurel and Hardy were well-established as a team by this point in their film careers, this very concept of this scenario shows that their characterizations still needed tinkering. The whole banana-peel bit is only a set-up for the film’s grand finale, and as such, it seems unusually nasty of Ollie to want to benefit from Stan’s misfortune. (When a similar concept was reworked into L&H’s Twentieth-Century Fox film The Dancing Masters, many L&H buffs derided it as another of Fox’s out-of-character actions for The Boys.)

Eventually a pie vendor (Charlie Hall) stumbles on the banana peel intended for Stan, and the pie fight begins. According to John McCabe’s famous L&H biography, Stan Laurel thought the sequence would be funny, not because of the pies, but because of the famous L&H “reciprocal destruction” sequence of events, where an innocent bystander would be dragged into the chaos and would have no choice but to retaliate. But the kind of hostile interplay that worked so brilliantly a year later in You’re Darn Tootin’ lays pretty flat here. As much as Laurel-the-filmmaker relied on character motivation for his comedy, the only real motive in this sequence is to get thousands of pies flying.

Beyond that, there’s little to enjoy, other than the subtler moments: Stan nonchalantly handing out pies from the pie wagon, as though he was a waiter filling some orders; Anita Garvin’s dainty reactions when she lands fanny-first onto a waiting pie. This sort of comedy was the kind of massive overkill that would be sniffed at in the team’s later Fox films, not to mention “tribute comedies” such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). As was well-proven before and after this film, Laurel and Hardy’s comedy was on too intimate of a level to incorporate such a cold-blooded approach.

Laurel & Hardy in THE LIVE GHOST (1934) – Unusually morbid for Stan and Ollie


Detractors of Laurel & Hardy’s later Twentieth Century-Fox features are quick to emphasize the morbidity in the storyline of A-Haunting We Will Go (1942). For my money, that movie has nothing on L&H’s short subject The Live Ghost.

The movie starts out with Stan and Ollie hanging around a seedy waterfront and getting hired by a burly captain (Walter Long) to shanghai some men for his crew. Even at a dollar a head (the captain’s going rate per shanghaied sailor), it seems unusual that the usually helpful and thoughtful Stan and Ollie think nothing of earning some bucks by enslaving some men for a ship.

Later, after The Boys end up shanghaiied themselves, the movie tries to milk comedy from Stan’s mistaken impression that he has shot and killed a sleeping sailor — not exactly fun for the whole family. (As if that wasn’t enough, Mae Busch does a bit role as a waterfront woman. While the movie [as befits the ’30s Production Code] never comes right out and says she’s a prostitute, Busch’s role was risque enough to have it cut out of early TV prints of the movie.)

It’s a bit odd that Laurel, usually openly conscious of his family-oriented audiences, went for laughs in such a randy setting. (Our Relations has a somewhat similar setting at movie’s end, but at least there the seediness is not dwelled upon so much, and The Boys aren’t the ones making bucks off it.) The rundown quality of everyone and everything in the movie tends to curtail many of its laughs.

Laurel & Hardy in THE HOOSE-GOW (1929) – Prisoners of cliche


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Most of The Hoose-Gow is prime Laurel & Hardy, which is all the more depressing when it succumbs to a food fight at the finish. Maybe generations of endless broadcasts of Three Stooges shorts have inured me to the comedic glories of food being hurled. But Laurel & Hardy rarely relied on this kind of thing for laughs, instead generating most of their laughter from their characters. So the rare occasions when they resort to this method (e.g., Battle of the Century) stick out like sore thumbs.

The movie begins with Stan and Ollie being taken to jail as the result of a raid that they swear they were “only watching.” Ollie has been given two apples by a fellow con — when one of the apples is thrown over a wall, it will be a signal for an escape plan to take place. Of course, Ollie’s overconfidence and Stan’s dim-wittedness threaten to ruin the plan, but in spite of themselves, they manage to escape — until the warden (Tiny Sandford) blasts them with his shotgun and they return, properly chastened and buckshotted (in their behinds).

Stan and Ollie are then subjected to hard labor — the hardest part of which is that Stan’s pick-axe keeps getting caught in Ollie’s prison coat. When the dinner bell rings, the boys cannot find a seat. One of the convicts points to an empty table, and Stan and Ollie treat themselves to it, unaware that it is reserved for the warden. After they are ejected, a cook tells them to chop some wood — the more wood they chop, the more food they get. Stan brandishes a small twig in triumph, but Ollie aims for bigger game–a huge tree to be chopped down–not realizing that a prison guard (Charlie Hall) is stationed at the top of the tree.

L&H biographer Charles Barr says that the French and Italian versions of The Hoose-Gow end here, but that this is where the American version “takes off.” Unfortunately, it’s a set-up for the food-throwing climax. The governor (James Finlayson!) visits the jail grounds, and unbeknownst to him, Stan’s ubiquitous pick-axe ends up in the radiator of the governor’s limousine, causing a geyser-like leak. A fellow convict advises them to plug the hole with rice to stop the gusher. At first it seems like a good idea; the gusher stops. But as the governor prepares to depart, cooked rice spurts from the radiator. The warden, guessing the culprits, calls Stan over and pushes him into a pile of the spurted rice, thus starting a tremendous food fight.

This is all meant to be hilarious, of course. But unlike the team’s usual tit-for-tat sequences, where each set-to is carefully justified by the previous one, this seems little more than a by-the-book set-up for a slapstick climax. Somebody gets hit with rice, an on-looker laughs, and then surprise! the on-looker gets it, too. Compare this with the pants-ripping climax of L&H’s silent short You’re Darn Tootin’, where the hostilities begin with just two people and spread, with glorious inevitability, to everyone unfortunate enough to get sucked into the melee.

Lastly, the governor and his group prepare to drive away but back into a paint truck, splattering white paint into this limo’s back seat — and onto Stan and Ollie, who were hiding there. Stan and Ollie stand quietly in resignation while the governor glares at them. Just how many indignities to Stan and Ollie have to spark before they get thrown into maximum security, anyway?