The image of a baby in a pram rolling down steps has been one of the most influential visual tropes of the past ninety years. Eisenstein’s vision of a pram rolling down the Odessa Steps – Battleship Potemkin (1925) has become one of the most painstakingly copied kinetic clichés of the twentieth century and beyond. In fact the particular Czarist atrocity which it depicts is completely fictional. It’s not that Czarist troops were incapable of such cruelty, only that Eisenstein concocted that particular massacre for his own cinematic purposes.
I think I may have identified the very first parody of the scene. A Laurel and Hardy silent short called Sailors Beware (1927) shows Stan Laurel pushing a baby in a pram down a flight of steps on board and ocean liner. The scene is funny because Stan knows that the “baby” is actually an adult mudget confidence trickster. Is this a witty homage to Eisenstein and an astute commentary on the constructed nature of cinematic atrocity? I like to think so. If anyone can find an earlier parody of the Odessa Steps sequence, I will doff my notional hat to them. I say notional hats because I don’t really do hats. When I put on a hat I look like Oliver Hardy when he’s put on Stan Laurel’s hat by mistake.
Compared to the sublime economy of the Laurel and Hardy short, De Palma’s slow and obvious reworking of the scene in The Untouchables is merely tedious and insulting to everyone’s intelligence.
A baby in a pram rolling down steps gives us the juxtaposition of fragility and innocence with the absolute pitiless necessity of gravity. We get the idea that everything that we are biologically hotwired to protect and nurture is subject to physical forces that reject every anthropomorphic construction. Such scenes evoke every definition of sympathy and then confront us with the limits of sympathy.
But the real purpose of this discussion is to showcase this delicious mash up. This is the funniest thing you’ll see all week and should go viral. Odessa Steps fused with Last of the Summer Wine.