This is one of a number of films which can plausibly designated “as good as it gets”. It is also one of the most tragic, not in terms of any quantitative assessment of pain inflicted or damage done, but in terms of its representation of fall from grace.
The film begins surveying a scene of chaos – the morning after evidence of a party of almost unimaginable depravity and destructiveness. A shaky Oliver delivers a penitential monologue to his own reflection in the mirror.
A telegram delivery guy arrives. Like all telegram delivery guys in Laurel and Hardy films, he’s already read the telegram and informs Ollie that Ollie’s terrifying wife is returning early from Chicago. With the house a disaster area and unthinkable retribution looming, Ollie is reduced to a desperate expedient – he phones Stan to help.
After a series of elegant mishaps which result in every single suit of clothes in Ollie’s possession being ruined with the exception of a bizarre costume for one of those lodges which the boys repeatedly favour. By the end of the film, Ollie has destroyed his own marriage and Stan has destroyed Ollie’s house. And it starts to rain heavily.
There are some exquisitely detailed jokes included in this very simple story. The impossible speed with which Stan arrives fully dressed at Ollie’s door following a predictably confusing phone call is one. Every conceivable mistake that can be made with an open and shut window and a bucket of water is represented. Stan’s mangling of proverbs is especially good in this film and the slowness with which he tries to figure out whether or not he’s being insulted or not is a joy to watch.
Some Laurel and Hardy films conclude with a random gag and a sense that nothing more decisive has happened than a second reel of film has run out. And those films are fine and work perfectly well on their own terms. The conclusion of Helpmates on the other hand is magnificent and slow and decisive. Ollie returns from an encounter with his wife at the train station that is better imagined than represented. His wife has left him. His eye is blackened. The ceremonial sword attached to his foolish outfit has been bent out of shape in a clear emasculatory gesture. Meanwhile, Stan is calmly hosing down the blackened outlines of a house – a house Stan had decided in one last foolhardy gesture – to light a fire in. Ollie’s resignation is sublime at this point and he calmly sits down in a chair which as somehow survived the inferno. After conceding Stan’s point that there’s probably “nothing more” for Stan to do, he insists that Stan shut the door of Ollie’s non-existent house behind him. Then the heavens open.
This careful and slow conclusion is the supreme extrapolation of Ollie’s famous looks straight at camera. The final scene offers a commentary not just on Ollie’s life as represented by this film, but Ollie’s life and folly as demonstrated by the totality of the Laurel and Hardy oeuvre. So I would go further. The ending of Helpmates represents the most powerful and effective conclusion to any Laurel and Hardy film – long or short.