“The Hoose-Gow” is not the first time Laurel and Hardy play convicted felons. And nor will it be the last.
I think the special thing about seeing Stan and Ollie doing time is that they are never brutalised by their experience. They may squabble among themselves, but they never lose their innocence. Despite their hideous situation, they continue to take people at face value and Ollie in particular, never loses his exquisite manners. Neither do they lose their optimism or their expectations of reasonable treatment. They retain notions of decency no matter how cruel and arbitrary their environment.
(A Hoose-Gow, incidentally, was originally slang for a court house, but became more often applied to any place associated with penal incarceration. Thank you Merriam-Webster.)
As always, Stan and Ollie arrive to begin their sentence protesting their innocence. Ollie has, however, friends on the outside with a plan to help them escape, a plan involving thrown apples and a rope ladder. The scene where Stan swallows one of the signal apples whole is rather disturbing. It looks like a truly horrible way to choke to death, and Stan’s superb performance only makes it worse.
As it happens, thanks to a hopeless mix up on the part of Tiny Sandford’s warden, Stan and Ollie find themselves accidentally outside the wall. Although Stan, predictably, is ready to ring the front bell to let them both in again, they do belatedly remember run for freedom, only to be taken down by just two shots from Tiny’s firearm. This being a two reel 1920s comedy, the only effect of firearms is to neatly remove the seats from trousers.
After various mishaps with shovels and pickaxes, the pair are directed to the prison officers’ table at lunchtime, end up with no food, and end up felling a tree for firewood that just happens to contain a sentry post, complete with sentry.
Then James Finlayson shows up as Visiting Important Person, along with two ladies whose fancy get up seems both bizarre and offensive in the context of visiting a prison work detail. As their pick-axe punctures the posh folk’s posh car’s radiator a waggish felon suggests that pouring rice into it will fix the problem nicely.
The predictable result is that a seemingly infinite supple of evil looking oil flavoured grey rice pudding starts to bubble up from the car. A version of pie fight then takes place, involving this disgusting looking foam.
I’ve become a belated fan of a good pie fight. Someone throws, someone ducks – an innocent is pied and then becomes a participant. Thus the circle widens. There’s something about the obscenity of the swanky elite peering at the dregs of society through lorgnettes that is crying out for some version of a pie fight. Pie fights are equalisers. They reduce us all to the same level, a truly liberating version of social equality. Pie-encrusted bare forked animals is what we all are. Stan and Ollie forget about whatever infinite extension might be put on their lengthy sentence and go on a spree.
Perhaps this is not the most inventive or ground-breaking of Laurel and Hardy films, but it deserves honourable mention. It speaks a kind of truth to power.