Laurel & Hardy in THE FINISHING TOUCH (1928) – Comedy carpentry

Finishing

Anyone who saw Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business in 1929 wouldn’t have been surprised at how adeptly L&H could denude a house. In The Finishing Touch (1928), they try to build a house and can hardly even get it started.

This short subject is not counted as one of their greatest, but it’s full of delightful little touches. The byplay between Stan, Ollie, the local hospital nurse (Dorothy Coburn) who demands quiet, and the poor cop on the beat (Edgar Kennedy) who is forced to make Stan and Ollie acquiesce to the nurse’s wishes. The expert pantomime of Stan Laurel just about every time the camera is on only him. Ollie, trying to carry a load of nails in his mouth and of course swallowing them every time. And the first appearance of the L&H paradoxical proverb, “If you must make a noise, make it quietly.”

The film’s ending was initially to have shown L&H’s truck driving straight through the house, leaving a huge hole through it. But the house collapsed inward before the truck had a chance to plow all the way through. But it’s quite appropriate the way it is, considering that most of Stan and Ollie’s plans collapse upon themselves.

Laurel & Hardy in FLYING ELEPHANTS (1928) – Comedy for rockheads

images

With a title far wittier than anything contained with the movie, Flying Elephants is typical of the Laurel & Hardy/Pathe short subjects. It has a few laughs, but knowing that L&H have been a full-fledged team before the making of this film (in Duck Soup) and shortly after (in The Second Hundred Years), watching this half-hearted short amounts to comedicus interruptus. Laurel and Hardy are on the screen, and we know what heights they are capable of reaching, yet here they are, acting like the second-billed performers you endure before the main attraction.

The movie is another attempt to mine comedy from the Stone Age, an area already raked over by Charlie Chaplin’s His Prehistoric Past and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages. The premise is that the local king has decreed all men to be married, and there are a pair of cavemen who can’t quite cut the mustard. Hardy plays Mighty Giant, a Bluto-like character who fancies himself quite the ladies’ man. Laurel, in his attempts to milk effeminism for ever-decreasing comedy, plays Little Twinkle Star, a neanderthal who flitters hither and yon. Twinkle Star first tries to subdue a pretty girl (Dorothy Coburn, later to battle The Boys herself in The Finishing Touch). Failing at this, he eventually sets his sights on the king’s daughter–the very woman Mighty Giant is already trying to land.

The two cavemen, in their own ways, make friends with the woman’s father (James Finlayson), leading to the rare sight of Finlayson cordially introducing Stan and Ollie and shaking hands with them. (A friendly Finlayson, introducing Stan to Ollie just a few minutes before movie’s end — how many incongruities can fit into one frame?) The rivalry is conveniently ended when a goat butts Ollie off a nearby cliff, but then a bear chases the remaining trio for a final fade-out.

That’s about it. Stan has a nice piece of pantomime when he shows Finlayson how skillfully he can catch a fish, and Ollie’s bluster provides a glimpse of his future condescending treatment of Stan. Other than that, the movie plays to all of their weaknesses. It’s easy to see this in hindsight, of course, and it’s not quite so painful to watch when you know that better things are on the horizon.

PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP (1927) – Laurel and Hardy, but not really Laurel & Hardy

puttingpantsonphilip

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

For decades, until Laurel & Hardy biographer Randy Skretvedt set the record straight, Putting Pants on Philip was hailed as “the first official Laurel & Hardy movie.” Actually, it falls somewhere between their bonafide “team” efforts and their lackadaisical Pathe releases. Laurel & Hardy are certainly the main headliners in this movie, but the short hardly coincides with Stan and Ollie’s later “us against the world” viewpoint.

In fact, at the risk of reading too much into it, Putting Pants on Philip has an awfully ethnocentric spin to its comedy. Hardy plays Piedmont Mumblethunder, a respected local man who worries about protecting his reputation. Unfortunately, said reputation suffers as soon as Piedmont has to meet his Scottish nephew Philip (Laurel) at the dock and teach him American ways.

Thus, Hardy is brutally condescending to Laurel for the entire movie — not in the usual “Let me protect you” Ollie way, but more like a dog scratching away at an annoying flea. In fact, a good part of this movie’s viewpoint consists of, “Look at the silly foreigner!”, as crowds of passers-by apparently have nothing better to do than follow a Scotsman around town and laugh at his kilt. Imagine Laurel in blackface instead of in a Scotsman’s garb, and you start to see that this kind of comedy leads to a dead-end street.

Then there’s Philip’s supposedly quaint quirk of losing control of himself every time he sees a pretty woman. And wouldn’t you know it, the same short-skirted woman (Dorothy Coburn), who wants only to avoid Philip’s leers and chases, nevertheless manages to walk right by Philip about a half-dozen times.

Then there’s the non-ending. Hardy falls into one of those ubiquitous six-foot mud puddles so beloved on the Hal Roach lot, and then the “End” title pops up. Well, I guess that taught him never to fall into a mud puddle again, didn’t it?

At least after this, Laurel & Hardy’s comedies, for better or worse, put them together as a team against the world, rather than against each other. (Well, there’s still Early to Bed, but let’s not get into that right now.