Laurel and Hardy

Oh the Grimacing Butler! The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930).

“Think of the most ludicrous over the top way of overplaying a cartoon version of the stereotype you’re playing. Then take it up a notch. A bit higher. Higher still. You’re still not quite there yet.”

I’m trying to imagine how the supporting cast of The Laurel -Hardy Murder Case were sensitively advised about to play their respective roles. This film is funny even in the scenes where Stan and Ollie aren’t present since we’re treated to delicious ensemble display of grotesque murder mystery stereotypes. A spooky old house with at least one murderer and the additional possibility of ghosts is the setting for nearly all this film.

It begins however, with Stan and Ollie sitting on the dock of the bay attempting to fish. A newspaper blown back into Ollie’s face reveals the decease of the the millionaire Ebeneezer Laurel. Stan, of course, is just about the most rootless people on the planet – completely unclear and strangely incurious of where he came from. In one of the funniest purely verbal jokes Stan ever tells, Ollie asks if Stan’s uncle is still alive… only to be told that he fell through a trap door and broke his neck. “Was he building a house? – No – they were hanging him.” Ollie, meanwhile, is convinced that there’s a reasonable chance that Stan might be heir to this fortune and that their subsistence fishing days may well be over.

This film is a notable example of Ollie’s recurring conviction that whatever comes to Stan comes to Ollie too. If Stan is to be rich, then Ollie is to be rich. If Ollie is to suffer, then Stan is to suffer too – a logic of absolute co-dependency which achieves sinister and extreme expression in The Flying Deuces (1939). Stan is less than convinced by this logic, and at one point claims the Laurel fortune as his own. Later, in bed, he recants tearfully and wants to give it all to Ollie.

If you see this film at an impressionable enough age, you will be genuinely frightened by it. The house is lit and designed superbly. The cinematography would do credit to a German expressionist horror movie. Of course, it’s a spoof of a scary movie, but a spoof that is accurate enough to be funny is also accurate enough to be scary. Stan and Ollie are given the murder bedroom, a room covered with enough white sheets to create any number of accidental phantoms.

Frank Austin plays a butler so grotesque that it goes way way past the job description of parodic spooky butler and becomes something barely human – something that is spooky sui generis. His grimaces at the bedroom door are seared into my childhood memory.

Any horror movie depends ultimately not on special effects but on actors who can play characters you care enough about to empathise with while they are scared. We love Laurel and Hardy and Laurel and Hardy are extremely good at acting scared. So we too are scared with them.

This three reeler (they didn’t make many three reelers) can’t be ended any other way than having them both wake up on the dockside where they started, grappling with one another until they both roll into the sea.

… which is another version of extreme co-dependency when you come to think of it. Stan and Ollie dream the same dreams.

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