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

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(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

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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

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(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?

Buster Keaton in COLLEGE (1927) – Gets an “A” for effort, a “D-” for execution

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(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)

College is by far the weakest of Buster Keaton’s independent features, and for far too many reasons. After seeing his pet project The General get critically and financially pummeled, Keaton caved on all counts with his next movie.

The first strike against College is that Keaton allowed others to handle the writing and directing. Strangely enough, some of those personnel, such as director James Horne and writer Carl Harbaugh, later became associated with Laurel & Hardy’s best features. (L&H nemesis Charlie Hall can also be seen briefly, as the coxswain of the college rowing team.) For College, that unfortunately results in Buster’s usual industrious persona being turned into a Stan Laurel-like simpleton, seemingly incapable of handling menial tasks.

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Then there’s the movie’s titular subject. Keaton plays Ronald, a high-school bookworm who embarrasses his girlfriend Mary (Anne Cornwall) by giving a valedictorian address on “the curse of athletics.” Mary goes off to college with her more athletic fellow graduate Jeff, informing Ronald that she will have nothing more to do with him until he gets more athletic. Predictably, Ronald follows Mary to college and fouls up in every collegiate sport at which he competes.

The second strike against the movie is – never mind the curse of athletics – the curse of movie comedians who never made it through high school trying to conjure up a credible comedy about college life. The Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy also fell victim to this malady, resulting in some of their most middling movies.

Strike Three is that the movie’s premise just doesn’t ring true for Keaton. Having seen his physical agility clearly demonstrated in all of his other movies, it’s downright painful to watch him getting outrun by two little kids on a track field, or proving himself completely ignorant in even the basics of sports. It doesn’t help matters to continually cut away from Keaton to shots of other college athletes guffawing over Ronald’s ineptitude; if everyone in the movie thinks he’s a zero, why should the viewer sympathize with him? The moment Mary tries to blow off Ronald at the high-school graduation, we’re meant to root for Ronald making the grade in college sports, but you’re more likely thinking that if all Mary wants is a dumb jock, she’s getting what she deserves.

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The movie is far more “gaggy” than Keaton’s previous features, which means that instead of having a stake in Buster/Ronald’s outcome, we’re left to judge the movie on the basis of its individual gags, most of which are quite predictable.

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The absolute nadir of the movie, and perhaps of Keaton’s independent movies, is a blackface scene in which Ronald, desperate for as job on campus, impersonates a “colored waiter.” This demonstrates the movie’s absolute dearth of characterization; even if the scene was funnier to segregated 1920’s audiences than it is now, it’s the kind of “comedy” that any nondescript comedian could do. And needless to say, it almost makes the racial stereotypes of Keaton’s Seven Chances look downright benign.

(Even Snitz Edwards, who provided funny support in Seven Chances and Battling Butler, has little comic material here, save one brief moment where he hilariously recalls a lost love and cries over her photograph.)

The movie’s climax shows Ronald, laboring to save Mary from the brutish athlete who has locked her in her room, suddenly has the impetus to succeed at every athletic task he had previously bollixed up. This scene, too, is lacking for a couple of reasons. Keaton, resigned to trying to do a more crowd-pleasing movie than The General, could not give himself to train for months for the shot in which Ronald pole-vaults into Mary’s room to save her. Instead, he hired Lee Barnes, an Olympic pole-vaulting champion, to double for him in long-shot. It was the only time that Keaton caved to fakery in a movie stunt; previously, it had been a matter of pride for him to do his stunts “on the level.” This alone shows how dispirited Keaton was by The General‘s failure.

Then when Ronald reaches Mary’s room, he throws objects at Mary’s bully in a fit of rage. This is obviously an attempt to reprise the dramatic climax of Battling Butler, but even in that mid-level comedy, Keaton’s milquetoast character gave us more to root for, thus the dramatic conflict was more satisfying. Here, it seems to happen in a void.

Weirdest of all is the Cops-like black-comedy ending, where Ronald and Mary go from marriage to parenthood to squabbling to separate graves in eleven seconds. Why did Keaton, who copped out at every other level of the movie, suddenly decide that such a “personal” touch was necessary for the fade-out? One imagines that it left 1927 audiences scratching their heads.

The movie’s most bittersweet touch was to have the rowboat for Ronald’s rowing team bear the name of Damfino, lifted from Keaton’s short The Boat – a movie that would be a far worthier investment of your time than College.

PARDON US (1931) – Laurel & Hardy, shackled into feature films

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

At times, you have to cut Pardon Us even more slack than you do for Laurel & Hardy’s later Twentieth Century-Fox films. Stan Laurel went on record several times as having regretted the inevitable move from short subjects to feature films, and if Laurel & Hardy had remained at the Pardon Us level for the rest of their careers, the jump to feature-length would have remained tragic indeed.

Pardon Us puts Stan and Ollie behind bars as a result of them having been caught making bootleg liquor (the movie came before the lift on Prohibition, of course). It’s a pretty bad sign when a movie starts out with Stan and Ollie — who are usual reverent towards, if not downright fearful of, the law and its power — nonchalantly trying to break the law just to earn a quick buck.

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Once Stan and Ollie get put into prison, the movie becomes merely a collection of set pieces — The Boys deal with a menacing con (Walter Long), The Boys muck up a prison-school session, etc. But the set pieces lack the charm of the similar approach taken by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (also frequently set in a prison); instead, they meander even more than some of L&H’s lesser short subjects, to the point where The Boys are all but shrugging their shoulders at the paucity of the gags.

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There are also some protracted scenes where The Boys briefly escape from prison and hide out at a plantation by wearing blackface. While the tone of these scenes isn’t as hostile as, say, similar scenes in Buster Keaton’s films, the scenes probably won’t convert any African-American viewers to the L&H camp. (The best part of this section of the film is that it allows for one of Ollie’s always-delightful vocals, as he sings “Lazy Moon.”)

The only part of the movie that really catches fire is its finale, when Stan and Ollie inadvertently stop a prison riot. Up to this point, the entire movie has been overwhelmed by its sheer scale. (The movie came about to start with because Hal Roach wanted to use an elaborate prison set constructed for an M-G-M feature.) The hilarity of the movie’s climax comes from these two little guys overpowering a huge legion of prisoners who basically want to throttle them. It’s a pity the entire movie couldn’t have made fun of its own elaborateness in such a manner.

Pardon Us has been described as episodic, but even the episodes of later L&H flights of fancy such as Block-Heads have more charm and humor to them. As befits the film’s prison setting, at times the entire movie seems to be attached to a ball-and-chain.

Laurel & Hardy’s THEM THAR HILLS (1934) – Strong brew

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

From funny to silly to violent, Them Thar Hills runs the Laurel & Hardy gamut. It begins with Ollie suffering from gout and Ollie’s doctor (Billy Gilbert) making lofty philosophical pronouncements that of course go over Stan’s head. The doctor finally recommends that Ollie go to the mountains and drink plenty of fresh water.

After some slapstick where Stan tries to transport Ollie down to their car, a purely expository scene shows some moonshiners being hauled away by federal agents after having to dump their illegal brew in the local well, where Stan and Ollie arrive shortly afterward.

Then comes a hilarious scene with Stan and Ollie setting up shop in a trailer at the mountains. Ollie announces that dinner will be a plate of beans and a pot of hot coffee. Stan, ever Ollie’s cheerleader, replies, “Swell! You sure know how to plan a meal!” While preparing dinner, Ollie begins humming “The Old Spinning Wheel” to himself. When Stan can’t resist adding an occasional “Pom-pom” note to the song, it grows into an ever-escalating game of one-upsmanship, until Ollie finally clonks Stan on the head with a pot and declares, “I’m singing this song!”

Then we are shown an unhappy tourist couple (Mae Busch and Charlie Hall) who are forced to walk after having run out of gas in their car. They come across Stan and Ollie’s trailer and retrieve some gas from them. While Charlie walks back to the car, Mae partakes of more and more of the “water” (which, know-it-all Ollie informs everyone, tastes so great because of “the iron in it”). They all sing a few thousand choruses of “The Old Spinning Wheel” before Charlie returns and demands to know why the boys got his wife so snockered.

The argument evolves into a tit-for-tat sequence, with Stan and Ollie running roughly ahead until Charlie dumps some nearby kerosene onto Ollie and sets him ablaze. (Like such delicate issues as death and suicide, such incidents were treated as black-comedy oddities in L&H comedies but probably wouldn’t pass muster in these more sensitive times.) Stan suggests that Ollie jump into the well so that the water will put out the fire. Ollie thanks him, jumps into the well, and is blown sky-high before he, and this painfully climactic movie, are brought back to earth.

What was probably the weakest part of the movie — the tit-for-tat sequence — served as the inspiration for Laurel & Hardy’s only sequel, inevitably titled Tit for Tat. That’s a sad fact, but I guess that’s the irony in it.

Laurel & Hardy’s TWO TARS (1928) – Two tars and a car-lot of targets

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

Even more so than their short Big BusinessTwo Tars demonstrates how Laurel & Hardy used the “reciprocal destruction” device in a way that “makes sense,” where other comics used it just for cheap laughs.

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It all comes about when Stan and Ollie, as sailors on shore leave who have picked up two good-time girls, get stuck in a long and frustrating traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. If ever there was a comic device aimed at venting frustration, this one is tops. The various drivers (one, with a prim moustache, is Edgar Kennedy; the guy with dark glasses is an L&H prop man who engineered the sight-gag cars) have plenty of reason to be burned up before Stan and Ollie ever get there.

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Of course, for Laurel & Hardy, a line of cars with frustrated drivers is like ducks in a shooting gallery. Let’s see, we’ll tear the headlights off of this one; we’ll knock the guy’s belongings off of that one; and heck, we’ll take the wheels out of this one altogether. And don’t forget that guy with the tomatoes!

The penultimate shot of molested cars chasing after Stan and Ollie at a policeman’s behest is even funnier than the final shot. It’s like watching Laurel & Hardy get personally escorted into the ninth ring of hell.