In terms of one particular issue, film comedy tends to be be far more squeamish than it was eight or nine decades ago. Economic destitution.
There are some Laurel and Hardy films that I find hard to watch, and they are all the better for it. These films treating descent into abject penury have a kind of courage and integrity to them. Whereas modern comedies seem to take the view that good-natured idiocy should always be rewarded, in the 1920s and 30s, no such improbable consolation was generally afforded.
You’re Darn Tootin’ resembles the later and even bleaker Below Zero (1930), insofar as it dramatises the story of two struggling musicians (a french horn player and a clarinetist) who find themselves deprived of the very means of life.
There are three scenes to this film. We begin with a wind band concert, in which Stan and Ollie are unable synchronise with each other, let along twenty other musicians. They stand up when they should sit down and vice versa, just for starters. Stan is unable to keep the sections of his clarinet in order and their music flies everywhere. Eventually, they somehow manage to topple the chairs and music stands of everyone involved. Of course they are fired.
Back at their boarding house (where they are many weeks overdue with rent), they attempt to enjoy a meal. There’s time for a couple of elegant salt and pepper shaker jokes involving loosened lids before a horrible horrible child (there are a number of these in the Laurel and Hardy canon) squeals on Stan and Ollie – exposes their sacking and they are instantly shown the door. They strike a heroic posture on the way out, but of course they are wearing the wrong hats.
Like on the street is hard – not least because of the many open manholes. They are teased by a drunk and persecuted by a cop who wants to see a licence (“we don’t have a dog”). Both instruments are destroyed – Ollie’s by one of those untimely (or timely?) steamrollers that always arrive whenever something valuable is left in the road for even a split second. The look on Ollie’s face as he scrapes his two-dimensional horn from the pavement and even blows into it is as sad and funny as the eventual inevitable captioned punchline – “flat”.
Deprived of jobs, a place to stay, and their means of employment, they resort to kicking and punching one another. Others are drawn in and the street corner fills up with men clutching their wounded shins and bruised stomachs. Reduced to the clothes on their backs, then then lose those. Trousers are torn off (presumably only fastened with some primitive form of Velcro) left right and centre. The trouser removal spreads and spreads and proves very satisfying. Apparently when someone rips your trousers off your first instinct is rip someone else’s trousers off, especially if your debagger is already themselves untrousered. The cop wades in, with predictable results. Eventually our heroes stride off into an unknown future wearing the same pair of trousers, debagged from an enormous victim.
Like a pie fight, a trouser fight is about reducing everyone to the same embarrassing yet liberating state of equality. This particular trouser fight is sort of protest against the horrible things that have happened to Stan and Ollie over the preceding thirty six hours. Man (and we do mean ‘man’) is but a bare forked animal and it takes a state of extreme distress to be reminded of it. We are all the same under the trouser (at least – half of us are).
In this film, Laurel and Hardy begin by hovering just above destitution and plummet further and further into it as the movie progresses. This is the darkness that defines some of their funniest movies. Very little twenty-first century prime time comedy wants to stare into the face of economic ruin. When people talk of the “innocence” of Laurel and Hardy, a certain tough-mindedness is often forgotten. If Laurel and Hardy avoided sexual topics for entertainment purposes, our own generation tends to avoid economic ones. Which is really more squeamish?
I have a few thoughts about a few other Laurel and Hardy silent movies…