Laurel and Hardy

Block-Heads: The Music Box review – five-star absurdity from Laurel and Hardy

Two classic comedies put Stan and Ollie through the wringer yet again – in the aftermath of the first world war and as piano deliverymen scaling perilous heights

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s Block-Heads is their 1938 gem, now rereleased as a double bill with the sublime The Music Box. It is an anarchic succession of vignettes and catastrophes: the sheer absurdity of their connection is part of the comedy.

We start in the trenches of the first world war, where Stan is ordered to guard the trench when his comrades, including Ollie, are sent over the top. On the signing of the Armistice, Stan is simply left behind and guards this trench for 20 years in a peaceful meadow. But when he is finally discovered and reunited with Ollie, it is as if precisely nothing has changed at all, and they soon return to their tense domestic bickering.

A series of stunning disasters … The Music Box.
A series of stunning disasters … The Music Box. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

The sheer dreamlike surreality of this situation is made more extraordinary in the inevitable succeeding calamities: Stan inadvertently imitating a disabled veteran; Stan tipping a ton of sand on to Ollie in his car; Stan actually wrecking Ollie’s car to the accompaniment of Ollie’s unmistakable throaty howls of astonishment and despair. Oddly, and in spite of its opening premise, the film seems never to suspect the impending second European war. There is a pristine innocence.

The Music Box (1932) is one of the great comedy shorts they made for producer Hal Roach. It is an extraordinary Sisyphean nightmare, written by Roach veteran HW Walker, and like so many of Laurel and Hardy’s escalating disasters, it can only be watched from between your fingers.

Stan and Ollie are running a delivery business and one day it is their job to carry a crated upright piano up a steep outdoor flight of steps in Los Angeles, and this results in a series of stunning disasters. But the comedy consists in their superbly performed grumpy stoicism. Although naturally irritated and mildly dismayed, they appear basically impervious to what is surely their utter physical and commercial ruin: a catastrophe that should by rights have annihilated them.

When they arrive at the top for the umpteenth time, and are informed that there was no need to carry it the way they had been doing, their reaction stuns me every time I watch it. A kind of masterpiece.

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