And finally they’re off. This is the first Laurel and Hardy movie in a continuous sequence of Laurel and Hardy movies. From now on – they are together. Oliver made a few film appearances without Stan Laurel, largely as a result of the craftily asynchronous contracts that Hal Roach made them both sign, but from now on they are a double act.
Fittingly enough, this sequence begins, in 1927, with a prison movie. They are sentenced to each other as it were. Their heads are shaved and their clothes are striped and they’ve been given truly retributive sentences.
The Warden is, surprise surprise, James Finlayson, who is excited by the prospect of visiting French Government officials who are coming to study his prison so that they can adopt some other penal system. Meanwhile, Stan and Ollie have nearly completed their tunnel. Unfortunately, having pick-axed their way through a water pipe, they are forced to detour and emerge in the Warden’s office. The comedy in these situations always consists of those few precious second preceding and then including the moment where they recognise the enormity of their error. At least the burst pipe does eventually end up flooding the office – which is at least one version of “sticking it to the man”.
They escape by pretending to be painters. The suspicious eye of law enforcement following them around leads to them painting everything in sight – rocks, houses, shops, people, lamp-posts and finally a flapper. This is the last straw. You can’t paint a flapper and the alarm is sounded. A chase in underway. Somehow they manage to change clothes with the very same French delegation that was due to visit the prison and they are chauffeur-driven back into their very own prison as honoured guests.
Watching these two out of their depth in High Society is always a joy. Stan has no concept of etiquette while Ollie is always convinced that he knows exactly how to behave in any given situation. Ollie is by far the more deluded of the two. Stan hasn’t had a decent meal in years, and is incapable of behaving with restraint and delicacy at a dining table. A cherry from his starter goes awry and he is compelled to pursue it, wheresoever it may go – eventually extricating it from the back of a lady’s dress.
The final scene is the saddest, as they are compelled to tour to the prison and are instantly exposed not only by their erstwhile (and future) block-mates but also by the two French penal delegates who have been arrested for public indecency and are now (still in long underwear) incarcerated in Stan and Ollie’s very own row of cells. The resignation with which our heroes realise that the game is up and trudge back in line to complete their many decades of prison is almost heartbreaking.
In many ways Laurel and Hardy films are far bleaker than most modern comedies. In mainstream 21st century Hollywood – good-natured idiocy is always to be rewarded. In Laurel and Hardy films, idiocy is always punished, although often by other idiots. There’s no indication that Laurel and Hardy are dumber that Warden Finlayson in this film. They’re certainly not dumber than the guard who gives Stan a rifle to hold while demonstrating an exercise move. There are merely lucky idiots and unlucky idiots, and for unlucky idiots, merely clinging on to an unhappy status quo is the best that can be hoped for.
There is something very melancholy about seeing Stan and Ollie with their heads shaved – especially Stan, whose hair was a thing of crafted wonder.