This is a rather elegant and chilling little film that reminds me of a classroom poem we used to chant about the kingdom being lost all for the want of a horseshoe nail. We first meet Oliver Norville Hardy in a luxurious looking living room with a butler in attendance while a very supercilious radio announcer gives us his entire “onwards and upwards” back story. He’s about to be married (today) to the only daughter of a wealthy Cucumber (James Finlayson) thereby becoming one of the most powerful oil magnates in all the land.
What could possibly go wrong?
Now normally in this situation, Stan would wreck Ollie’s marriage (and life) as a consequence of complex sequence of mistakes and mishaps. Everything would go wrong with everything. Clothes, house, transport would all be successively destroyed. But in this film, the wedding is ruined by one simple and innocent looking circumstance – Stan brings Ollie a jigsaw puzzle.
One unusual feature of this film is that Stan and Ollie are not especially stupid in it – insofar as the jigsaw exerts the same malign influence over everyone who gets within a few feet of it. Stan and Ollie are too fixated by the puzzle to get into the taxi. The taxi driver is too absorbed by it to get into the taxi either. The cop who arrives to give a ticket to the cab driver for parking too close to a fire hydrant is similarly afflicted. There is something about this puzzle that is more debilitating than any known drug.
As someone who hates being late for anything for any reason, I do find this film a little difficult to watch. Not only does Ollie lose his bride and his oil-magnate promotion – but his refusal to read a very relevant telegram in time results in his inability to sell all his stock in time to avoid a big crash. More money is lost in this film than in any other.
Stan does eventually find the last missing piece – which of course makes everything worth while from his point of view. Stan and Ollie’s clowning is as superb as ever, when the rigidity of the plot gives them lee-way. There’s something about Stan being asked what’s under his arm – simple and silly as this joke is – that never fails to make me smile. But as the demented jigsaw players pile up in the house, and once Cucumber arrives (the only person immune to the deadly siren song of the puzzle), Stan and Ollie are part of an ensemble cast of idiots rather than a classic double act.
Ollie’s calmness in despair is of course always delicious to watch. As he sits in the fireplace, having been painfully blipped on the head by a falling bust of William Shakespeare, he is able to survey the extent of his ruination with something like admirable detachment. Helpmates (1932) demonstrates this kind of tragic nobility better yet, however.