It is 1944. At Los Alamos New Mexico, a weapon of unimaginable destructive power is being developed. Meanwhile, in the small laboratory at the family home of crackpot inventor Alva P. Hartley, a weapon of unimaginable destructive power is being developed. He calls it “The Big Noise”. It is a perfect black sphere about the same size as a small Christmas pudding.
Hartly is duped into thinking Washington are very interested in this bomb, so he phones a detective agency. Only the cleaners (Stan and Ollie) are in the office to answer the phone, and since they are rather keen on being detectives themselves one day, they take the assignment.
Stan and Ollie move in and are initially bewildered by the wacky inventor’s house, together with its eccentric inmates. As it happens, on the same street live a gang of criminals, some of whom are horrible enough to steal the bomb so as to sell to a foreign power and some who aren’t. The more horrible ones overpower the less horrible ones. Somehow though, Stan and Ollie manage to outwit and trap these villains and escape by train. They think they are carrying a dummy bomb in Stan’s concertina, but Alva P. Hartley has got the bombs muddled up and they’re carrying the real one. After adventures involving trains, planes and automobiles, the bomb is dropped on a Japanese submarine (whose crew speak English and say “Heil Hitler”) while the film ends with our heroes clinging to a harbour buoy with Stan playing the concertina while the fishes of the sea come out of the water to dance.
There’s a great deal of recycling taking place here, in this most ecological of movies. It is full of the ghosts of earlier stories. Ollie climbs a lamp post looking for a street sign only to find a sign saying “Wet Pain” (Habeas Corpus). The long painful struggle to get undressed in a small railway berth is revisited from Berthmarks, this time with the addition of a drunk third who is, unfortunately, not played Arthur Housman – who had died a few years earlier. Ollie even deploys the same wrist-twisting gesture he had used to describe the essential screwiness of very rich people in Wrong Again only this time to demonstrate the screwiness of wacky inventors.
It’s actually a film with rather too much going on and rather too many “characters” running around. There’s a cursory effort at a love plot for Alva. There’s the insufferable prankster of a little boy running around, a boy played by Robert Blake – subsequently famous as a TV actor and real life murder suspect and one of the very few people still alive (at time of writing) to have appeared in a Laurel and Hardy film.
What else is going on? Well, this being a hi- tech household of the future, the family eat pills rather than real food so as to save on washing up (though they still retain domestic staff to serve up these pills). Oh, and there’s a creepy black widow materfamilias who is looking to wed again offering a reprise of some of the comedy of Oliver the Eighth. She turns out to be a knife-wielding somnambulist.
This rather cluttered dramatic context bespeaks a fundamental lack of confidence. This is comedy by committee, a headless committee with no collective sense of what’s really funny and what isn’t. When Stan had effective editorial cut over films, there was always a complete commitment to whatever joke was being played out. Here, there isn’t.
As with other of the Fox films, it’s not really an especially bad film, but what makes it feel rather worse than it is, is the fact that it keeps reminding us films that are funnier than it. Its moderately entertaining original elements are constantly being fractured by poignant reminders of A World We Have Lost. In some ways, the poor reputation of this film is a kind of back-handed tribute to the films that keep being referenced. Imagine if Steve Martin or Rowan Atkinson were to make movies in which they occasionally retrieved characters and situations from the early 1980s, when each of them was very funny indeed? That would be even more painful to watch than the films they are currently making, wouldn’t it?