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

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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.

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Laurel & Hardy in THEIR PURPLE MOMENT (1928) – Another nice mess # 2,122

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The premise of this film is that Laurel & Hardy hide a lot from their wives, and their wives know all the secrets. Again, not one of their more feminist-oriented movies.

Stan thinks he is able to stash a few bucks out of his paycheck and hide it in a supposed “family photo,” but of course his wife knows all and replaces the money with cigar coupons. Stan and Ollie go out to wine and dine on the supposed stash and are hoisted by their own petard. (A similar premise, of course, later propelled their talkie Blotto.)

As this sort of thing was repeated in countless sitcoms generations hence, some of the nicest moments come from Stan and Ollie’s reactions when they realize they’re in over their head. After that comes a slapstick finale that has practically nothing to do with what went before it. Stan and Ollie’s wives have come to catch them in a lie, and Stan and Ollie’s erstwhile dates await them with a shotgun and a knife. And what happens at the end? Stan and Ollie throw pies and soup at each other when Ollie tries to accuse Stan of dragging him “into this den of vice.” So what? If all I had to endure to get out of sure death was a pie in the face, I’d take it in an instant, too.

BIG BUSINESS (1929) – Laurel & Hardy can’t see the forest for the Christmas trees

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Charlie Chaplin said in 1957: “Then there’s the gag about the man who goes to a very pompous dinner party. Everything goes wrong for him. The butler gets his name wrong; his neighbor at table drops butter on his coat; the serving maid pours soup down his neck. He suffers it all with a smile and polite reassurances: ‘Oh, please don’t bother — it’s quite all right.” Then finally, after the last indignity, he goes berserk, runs wildly around the room, breaking the china, scaring the guests, and at last, setting fire to the place.”

In a slightly altered form, that sums up Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business. The put-upon man is James Finlayson; the “pompous dinner party” is Stan and Ollie, who can’t hawk a Christmas tree at Finn’s door without getting it and/or their clothing caught in his door a dozen times or so. Just when all parties seemed to have escaped with their dignity, Stan gets a “big business” idea: He returns to Finn’s door and asks him, “Can we take your order for next year?”

This is too much for Finn. He briefly exits and returns with a pair of hedge-clippers, the better to denude Stan and Ollie’s tree. Stan evens the score by removing the street number from Finn’s house, and they’re off to the races.

This movie is a feast for Laurel & Hardy buffs and an acid test for the uninitiated. This mutual give-and-take — known as “reciprocal destruction” to L&H veterans — leave most others wondering what’s so funny. Probably what’s so funny is its single-mindedness of purpose. Each party is so intent on doing violence to the other that they don’t even keep score after a while. Stan throws pottery out for Ollie to bat with a shovel, while Finn tears their car apart piece by piece. Even the cop (Tiny Sandford) who eventually intrudes can’t bring himself to stop the whole thing immediately; the battle is so incredulous and ongoing, he figures he might as well sit and keep score for a while.

Laurel & Hardy rarely got down-and-dirty on a Marx Brothers level, so it’s all the more fun to see them freed of their usual inhibitions and self-imposed sense of dignity. Ostensibly, Big Business is about Laurel & Hardy selling Christmas trees, but in the end, you get the feeling that they’d rather just destroy their customers’ houses.

DOUBLE WHOOPEE (1929) – Laurel & Hardy undress Jean Harlow

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Following is the first of two contributions I am making to “The Pre-Code Blogathon,” sponsored from March 31 through April 3 at the movie blog Shadows and Satin. Click on the banner above, and read blogs about racy Hollywood movies created from 1930 through 1933, prior to the enforcement of the censoring Production Code!

(BTW, the movie I am about to describe was released one year before the time period that is being covered by the blogathon. My thanks to Shadows and Satin for letting me squeeze it in.)

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Laurel & Hardy were not known for cinema eroticism, but 85 years after the release of Double Whoopee, there is one highly charged moment that is more than adequate to rev me up. Stan and Ollie, doormen at a posh hotel, open a taxi door for Jean Harlow (essaying one of her first movie roles at the ripe old age of 18).

With his usual finesse, Stan closes the door on the train of Harlow’s dress, and an unaware Ollie escorts Harlow, stripped to her underwear, through the hotel lobby for a glorious thirty seconds of film.

Before and after.

Before and after.

Of course, she’s not completely nude, and in these more explicit times, this scene could probably be shown intact on The Disney Channel. Nevertheless, watching Harlow wiggle her barely-covered physique across the screen…well, let’s just say that Mae Busch couldn’t carry it off this well.

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(An unintentionally funny moment comes when Harlow feigns shock when she realizes her dress is gone. An actress known for rubbing ice cubes on her nipples before a take should never be asked to act shocked that most of her dress is missing.)

The rest of the movie isn’t that erotically charged, but it’s almost that good. Just the thought of Stan and Ollie disrupting a snazzy hotel brings a snicker to mind. And from their opening scene of mistaken identity (the hotel manager thinks L&H are a prince and his lackey, who are due to arrive), to their signing of the hotel register (the first appearance of the routine where Ollie signs his name with a flourish, while Stan has trouble scrawling an “X”), to the letter of introduction from their boss (“There is some reason to believe they may be competent”), the movie pretty much makes good on that promise.

They also manage to knock the real prince (played by Erich von Stroheim’s double) down an elevator shaft more than once, and get into a contretemps with both Charlie Hall and Tiny Sandford. (Prime L&H moment: Ollie grabs a tip away from Stan, but Sandford the cop catches him and says via inter-title, “Give the boy back his quarter!”)

Jean Harlow isn't the only one to lose some clothing here.

Jean Harlow isn’t the only one to lose some clothing here.

Beware the “talkie” version of this short, dubbed over in 1969 with the help of Sons of the Desert co-founder Al Kilgore and L&H impersonator Chuck McCann. With the personnel involved, it was obviously done with the best of intentions, but it has all the flair of New Coke. In any case, with Jean Harlow parading around half-naked, who needs sound?

Below is the complete movie. The Jean Harlow scene begins precisely at the 14-minute mark.

(If you enjoyed this blog entry, click here to read my second “Pre-Code Blogathon” entry, on the Marx Brothers comedy Horse Feathers.)

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.

Charlie Chaplin in MODERN TIMES (1936) – The end of an era

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Modern Times has a special place in my heart, because it was the first Charlie Chaplin movie I saw in an actual theater (when it was re-released in 1972). On top of that, despite its overall theme (the effects of the Great Depression), I find it a very bright, cheery movie. It’s as though even the bleak themes of the story (the Tramp’s nervous breakdown, the gamin’s losing her sisters to the state, etc.) aren’t enough to tamp down the happiness of which the Tramp convinces himself at movie’s end.

In his review of Modern Times, ’30s movie critic Otis Ferguson cynically stated that the movie was such a series of set-pieces that it could easily have been chopped into a series of two-reelers titled The Waiter, The Prisoner, and so forth. One could make a case for that, but even so, what delightful set pieces! In just his first few minutes on-screen, Chaplin, as a put-upon factory worker, bursts forth with more manic energy (as actor) and vivid imagination (as writer/director) than ought to be expected of him by this time in his career (he was 46 when the movie was released). The bit with the nut-tightening (everything that looks like two bolts eventually gets his attention, which causes trouble for a couple of buxom women), the scene with the automatic food-feeder, the Tramp getting caught in the factory’s cog workings – any of these scenes alone would be regarded as a classic in any other comic’s movie career.

It’s also interesting to see the compromise that Chaplin made at this point between silent and sound movies. The movie does use talking figures, but only as necessary – a voice on the radio, the factory’s boss on a Big-Brother-like TV screen (How prescient was that in 1936?), and a delightful bit involving nothing but the Tramp and a prim minister’s wife sipping tea on empty stomachs. Long after Buster Keaton had been used up and spat out by the Big Studio system, he spoke of making movies where his comic lead character, or others on screen, wouldn’t speak any more than necessary. Here, Chaplin showed how seamlessly this could have been done if silent movies had continued. (One of the biggest treats for Chaplin fans of the time was hearing his voice on-screen for the first time, when the Tramp does a nonsense number as a singing waiter. There would be many critics who would wish that had been the last time Chaplin had spoken in a movie.)

With its themes of unemployment and strikes, it’s also obvious that Chaplin had Something to Say here, which has been another sore point among his critics who think he should only be funny. But I’d say that Chaplin’s points are subtle and worth making: The lovely opening shot, where a flock of sheep metamorphose into a crowd of factory workers heading for work; the bit where a red flag falls off a construction truck, and the Tramp, trying to get the truck driver’s attention with it, inadvertently leads a crowd of hostile strikers. And you can’t help but identify with the Tramp’s look of puzzlement when he’s told he’ll be going on strike after only a single day back at work.

The other major actor in the movie is Paulette Goddard (soon to become Mrs. Charles Chaplin) as the streetwise gamin who eventually partners with the Tramp. Visually, the camera loves her, but she tends to overdo her part a little. Luckily, the storyline gives her to us in very small doses until she meets the Tramp, so she’s not hard to take. (It gets a little worse in The Great Dictator, especially with sound.)

Perhaps never before or since has such a bitter social statement gone down so smoothly in a movie. Modern Times is a truly worthy farewell to Chaplin’s silent career.

”At the end he [the Tramp] and his yearnings must go down that road again. As they do, in Modern Times, they take silent film with them.” – Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

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?