Laurel & Hardy in UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE (1929) – Their first talkie

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Just as the silent-film Laurel & Hardy went through fits and starts before becoming a bonafide team, so the team’s early “talkies” went through an uneven stage. Judging from the staginess of Unaccustomed as We Are (their first talkie, which explains the movie’s title), one would never guess they would so quickly adjust to sound in their second and third talkies (Men ‘o War and Perfect Day), only to slip back again with They Go Boom .

The movie’s premise has been worn thin by decades of unimaginative sitcom copies of it. Ollie brings Stan home for dinner, leading Stan to believe that he’ll get a hero’s welcome, only to have Mrs. Hardy (Mae Busch in full shrew mode) complain about having to fix dinner for another of Ollie’s friends. Through labored circumstances, the woman across the hall (Thelma Todd) tries to help Ollie, only to get accidentally undressed via Stan and Ollie’s blundering, paving the way for a confrontation with the woman’s irate husband, a cop (Edgar Kennedy).

L&H buffs well know that their later movie Block-Heads (1938) was a feature-length reworking of this situation, but despite the feature’s extra length, the situation plays better nine years later. Here, the stagy “talkie” atmosphere lays bare the story’s contrivances. Some of the individual gags are cute, especially those that play with the movies’ newfound sound (as when Mrs. Hardy argues with Ollie to the rhythm of the music playing from a phonograph). But the fitful nature of the movie emphasizes the dud gags as well as the funny ones.

The best thing one can say about the movie is that it showed Laurel & Hardy adjusting to sound far better than some of their peers. Much of this nit-picking comes from hindsight; in 1929, nearly any movie with sound was a hit. But even Laurel & Hardy themselves could and would do much better in the near future.

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Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin THE KNOCKOUT (1914) – Doesn’t have as much punch as it should

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The Knockout is not a Chaplin short per se. It is also not a knockout by any means.

It’s primarily a vehicle for Roscoe Arbuckle. He plays “Pug,” a genial sort who, for reasons I still haven’t sorted out even after seeing the movie, gets talked into a boxing match against a prizefighter named Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy).

Chaplin has a very brief role as the fight’s referee. The running gag of Chaplin’s appearance is that, by being in the middle of the fight, he endures the brunt of the punches. Mild as that sounds, it’s probably the funniest thing in the movie.

The movie’s finale involves the Keystone Kops and makes even less sense. Chaplin would work the boxing ring himself to far greater effect years down the road, in City Lights (1931).

Laurel & Hardy in FROM SOUP TO NUTS (1928) – Long live Anita Garvin!

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If anyone doubts Laurel & Hardy vet Anita Garvin’s place in film-comedy immortality, witness her comedic contributions to L&H’s From Soup to Nuts, in which she develops an entire routine out of a tiara and a maraschino cherry. Most of the time when Stan and Ollie rub elbows with rich folk, the rich folk are dismissed as one-note snooties who snort at L&H and move on. Here, Garvin shows a rich snootie who nevertheless gives indications that she doesn’t fit into the rich world any better than L&H. Laurel & Hardy historians tell us that Garvin briefly served in her own L&H-type comedies for Hal Roach (though they didn’t catch on). This movie amply demonstrates why.

Of course, this is all with the benefit of hindsight. At its original release, From Soup to Nuts was viewed simply as another funny L&H comedy, and so it is. Long before the days of “high concept” (in which a movie’s appeal could be captured in a single sentence), “Laurel and Hardy are waiters” was all you needed to know in order to laugh just at the premise. If you want some iconic images of The Golden Age of Film Comedy, watch Ollie continually try to serve a huge cake, or Stan serving the salad undressed.

The directorial credit for this short goes to E. Livingston Kennedy, better known as L&H’s perpetual nemesis Edgar Kennedy. It’s usually a given that Laurel was the uncredited director of the L&H comedies, but one could do worse than having From Soup to Nuts and You’re Darn Tootin’ on one’s film resume.

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

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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 LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING (1928) – A dental visit was never so funny

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From Charlie Chaplin in Laughing Gas (1914) to Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), for decades movie comedians have known that you can’t go wrong exploiting comedy from people’s fear of dentists. It was inevitable that Laurel & Hardy would try their hand at it, and that the results would be as funny as Leave ‘Em Laughing.

Once their characterizations were firmly grounded, L&H’s best format was the three-parter. Here, the three settings are: their apartment (where Ollie tries to nurse Stan through a painful toothache); the dentist’s office (where both Stan and Ollie get overcome with laughing gas); and the city streets (where L&H disrupt cause a traffic jam and ruin the day of a traffic cop [Edgar Kennedy]).

It’s a simple set-up, to be sure, but the gags pay off due to L&H’s solid characterizations. There’s the scene where Ollie offers Stan a hot-water bottle to ease his pain, but Stan falls asleep and lets the bottle leak into the bed, causing Ollie to think that Stan has a control problem bigger than his toothache. Or witness Ollie’s glorious minute of screen time when he wakes up in the dentist’s chair to discover that his tooth was pulled instead of Stan’s.

This was also the first movie where L&H milked laughs from simply laughing their heads off. (Later examples occur in Fra Diavolo and Way Out West.) Funny thing, though, about the doctors in L&H movies–in this one and County Hospital, doctors let Stan and Ollie get back on the street under the influence of mind-numbing drugs with nary a shrug. If medicos really were that cavalier back then, no wonder the litigation industry is the giant that it is today.

Laurel & Hardy in NIGHT OWLS (1930) – How not to break into a house

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Laurel & Hardy were “high concept” 50 years before the concept. The funniest L&H situations are the simplest, and “Stan and Ollie burglarize a house” is the highest of high concepts.

A cop named Kennedy (played by, conveniently, Edgar Kennedy) has to get in good with the chief of police, so he coerces vagrants Stan and Ollie into breaking into the chief’s house so that he can ostensibly catch them and be the hero. Woe to any cop who has Stan and Ollie on his beat.

This is one of L&H’s early talkies, but unlike the staginess of Unaccustomed as We Are or They Go Boom!, Night Owls makes the most of both sound and visuals. The sight gags are endless, as it takes Stan and Ollie most of the film to even get into the house. As for sound, Ollie is forever “ssh-ing” Stan, practically guaranteeing that the duo will make the most noise possible. And who else but Stan could get a running gag out of going “Meow”?

Best of all is the movie’s ending (SPOILER ALERT!) — not quite one of Laurel’s coveted “freak endings,” because the situation at hand is almost plausible. But you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Stan skitter away like a cockroach, with Ollie in his underwear throwing garbage at him.

Laurel & Hardy in ANGORA LOVE (1929) – This movie gets my goat

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Angora Love was Laurel & Hardy’s last silent film (not counting The Tree in a Test Tube, the ’40s Government short in which they appeared without dialogue), and it’s another of their shorts in which their winning characterizations overcome a sitcom-like script. (The device that sets the plot in motion is that a pet-shop owner’s goat chews through its leash and escapes, and the owner mistakenly tells a cop on the beat that his goat was stolen, which info the cop takes in a straight-faced manner. Even back in 1929, didn’t L.A. street cops have more important things to do, like issue citations to jaywalkers or something?)

The goat latches on to Stan and Ollie and their morning donuts, and suddenly they can’t get rid of him, which makes for some tracking shots that are pretty elaborate considering they’re from a goat’s point of view. They eventually try to hide the goat in their apartment under the suspicious eye of their distrusting landlord (Edgar Kennedy).

This set-up provides the template for every L&H hide-the-animal scenario forever after (e.g., Laughing Gravy, The Chimp). The most memorable gag is when Stan, trying to repeat Ollie’s earlier subterfuge of sticking Stan’s head in the washbasin so the landlord won’t think they’re bathing a forbidden animal, sticks Ollie’s head in the washbasin after the landlord has already seen the goat. (Stan is always about half a beat behind a given plan. At one point when they’re trying to hide the goat, Ollie lifts up the end of the bed and motions to Stan, whereupon Stan tries to hide himself under the bed.)

Angora Love isn’t their most memorable short (particularly with its unassuming organ score on the soundtrack), but it’s a fittingly simple farewell from L&H to silent movies.