This is one of the most fascinating paradoxes articulated anywhere in Stan and Ollie’s body of work. It is an echo of Caliban’s famous speech from The Tempest. It is only when we are awake that we can define and identify what a dream is. As soon as you know that a dream is a dream, it ceases to be one.
Stan’s philosophical aphorism serves the purpose of taking the edge off the rather desperate “it was all a dream” ending of this film, an ending recycled from The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930) which Oliver the Eighth resembles in a number of ways.
In both films, Stan and Ollie are not the craziest characters in the story. In both, there’s a creepy old house and a deranged looking butler and the threat of grisly murder. The incomparable Mae Busch, in one of her best L&H roles, plays a black widow who has seduced and slaughtered seven Olivers already and is happy to add Hardy to her tally. At times I wondered whether Mae Busch’s performance here didn’t inspire Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. “I’m still big – it was the Olivers that got small…”
Stan and Ollie both reply to the same advertisement in the hope of bagging Mae Busch, but Ollie throws Stan’s letter away. When Stan finds out, he angrily gate-crashes Ollie’s courtship. “What is that?!” says Mae Busch, staring at Stan – but Stan is soon accepted into this insane scenario. Stan has sold the Laurel and Hardy barber shop – or rather swapped it for a brick painted gold (and labelled “gold brick) and a small bag of nuts.
The cast is finished off by Jack Barty as a butler so unhinged that he plays imaginary cards and serve imaginary soup.
As Stan and Ollie endeavour to ensure that someone stays awake to prevent throats being cut, this brick is elegantly suspended above the bed and attached to a candle. If Stan fails to stay away to adjust the candle string – the brick will descend upon him. Of course we all know that it is Ollie rather than Stan that will be hit with the brick.
Perhaps this one isn’t an absolute classic, but it’s worth it for small shared moments between Stan and Ollie. As indeed, they (nearly) all are. Stan and Ollie are not as scared as they ought to be about being locked in a room in a house owned by a serial murderer. They are nowhere near as scared in this film as they are in the Murder Case. But perhaps at its best this is a film about not quite knowing what’s real and what’s not – what’s a dream and what’s reality.
This is a nightmare that only really becomes a nightmare when Ollie wakes up and realises that he’s just had one.
I’ve some thoughts about some other Laurel and Hardy films.