Laurel and Hardy

Knowing where the bodies are buried: Laurel and Hardy in Habeas Corpus (1928)

Some two reelers pretend to make a sort of sense and some don’t. This one doesn’t.

There’s a mad scientist (who lives far more luxuriously than most mad scientists) who needs a brain and needs it now (as mad scientists will and do). He’s musing with his butler about how to acquire a body that might have a brain in it when Stan and Ollie knock at the door, destitute, asking for the merest scrap of food.

Incidentally, there is nothing more delightful than the spectacle of Stan attempting to knock at the door, before being elegantly put in his place by Ollie’s far more eloquent and sprightly door knocking, replete with rococo flourishes. Ollie had such delightful hands. His hands could act “southern gentility” all on their own.

The audience’s first thought is that the “scientist” will make an ill-advised attempt to harvest Stan and Ollie for brains but instead this amiable lunatic offers them the princely sum of $500 dollars to collect a fresh body from the graveyard. Given their state of penury, they don’t feel they can refuse – or rathere (more accurately), Ollie doesn’t feel they can refuse.

The butler is actually a police informer, and is soon on the phone to inform local law enforcement that the Prof is off his head again. The cops soon arrive to drag the scientist kicking and screaming to whatever secure unit for the criminally bewildered he is regularly despatched to, while to butler is told to “take care” of Stan and Ollie who have set out with a torch and a shovel.

By “take care of” – this butler-cop hybrid – seems to mean “scare the living bejaysus out of”. Butler-cop makes no real effort to apprehend Laurel and Hardy and just plays Halloween pranks on them – pranks which forms the remainder of the film until one of those deep muddy holes that infest Culver City opens up to conclude the film.

There are some nice little routines along the way, some of which would be recycled and improved in later films. Ollie shimmying up a signpost to get a sense of where they are only to discover a “wet paint” sign at the top is enjoyable. Watching Stan or Ollie try to climb over a wall is always enjoyable, and the variety of ways in which Ollie can get hurt in the process seems inexhaustible. (Ollie crashing straight through the wall is well timed.) There are also some very elaborate “spooky” jokes on offer in this film which seem to rely on a very implausible concatenation of circumstances. What are the chances that when Stan puts his lamp down on the ground, he’s actually putting it on top of a tortoise that will slowly proceed towards the white sheet that wrapped around butler-cop and set the sheet on fire?

At one point Ollie has his leg buried in soil and is scared by his own toe wriggling out of it. He only recognises the toe as his own when he bashes it very hard with the shovel. This is an anticipation of one of my most cherished of later Laurel and Hardy scenes – the “not knowing” where one’s own body starts and ends. Generally speaking, however, these later more successful examples of bodily estrangement involve not knowing where Stan ends and Ollie begins – and vice versa.

You get the feeling that this film only ends because the spools of film in the camera run out. It’s enjoyable enough, but nobody I know would put it in any list of top ten, or top twenty of their most cherishable Laurel and Hardy efforts.

Thoughts regarding some other early Laurel and Hardy films…?

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