Laurel and Hardy

These boots aren’t made for walking. Laurel and Hardy in “Be Big” (1931).

The plot of this three reeler would be retailored to provide the core of Sons of the Desert, my favourite full-length Laurel and Hardy feature.  It’s a marital comedy in which the Laurels enjoy an apartment opposite to the Hardys and live presumably as one big dysfunctional family.  All four are about to set off by train to Atlantic City for a holiday when Ollie receives a phone call from a sort of boys club lodge where everyone wears boots and riding breeches.  A special party is to be held in Ollie’s honour.  Ollie can’t go of course.   Then the sound is cut off and we’re just left with Ollie’s facial reactions in order to extrapolate the sheer scale and variety of the dissipation on offer at the lodge party.  Ollie instantly decides to feign illness so the wives can go ahead to Atlantic city while the boys join them next day.

After some hiccups, the wives depart for the train.  Which they miss.  They therefore determine to return home, ensuring that a clock is definitely ticking on the spousal deception.  Of course, when they do get home they find Stan and Ollie plainly in good health and in lodge costume, hiding inside a fold-away bed.  In what might conceivably be regarded as an overreaction, they grab two instantly available and fully loaded shotguns and blast away at the hapless pair – sending them both, and the bed, and much of the exterior wall – crashing into the street below.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Oliver Hardy more innocently and completely happy than he is for the first two minutes of this film, when he’s making simple preparations for his holiday and trading flirtatious gestures with his beloved wife.  His mood only starts to sour when he presses Stan’s vulgar doorbell – which contrasts so unfavourably with his own mellifluous chimes.

But the really interesting thing about this film is its almost heroic simplicity.

If you compare Laurel and Hardy movies with those made by many of their comic contemporaries, you’re struck by the fact that nobody (with the possible exception of Buster Keaton) knew how to really commit to a gag like Stan Laurel.  A great deal of film comedy consists of throwing as much stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.  When Stan Laurel was convinced that something was funny, he devoted as much careful screen time to that joke as possible – there’s nothing hit or miss about a classic Laurel and Hardy film.  And this very slow and selective approach to comedy is the most courageous comedy there is.

By my reckoning, nearly 13 minutes of this film is devoted to wrestling with boots.  That’s nearly half the film.  Who else would make such a proportionate investment of comedic time?  In fact most of these 13 minutes is not even spent putting boots on – but rather in removing Stan’s boots from Ollie’s rather larger feet.

This effort to remove Stan’s boots from Ollie’s feet results in a kind of bizarre wrestling that ends up fusing the two of them together, into a sprawling wriggling two headed eight-limbed beast.  Given that they are dressed in identical lodge costume, this produces a truly sinister effect.  Not for the first or the last time we’re left wondering when Stan ends and Ollie begins.

Is this extraordinary investment in boot-removal comedy justified?  I think when I first watched the film I would have said – no it isn’t.  Ollie’s frustration rubbed off on me and I was anxious for them to move on and do something else.  But this film is funnier on repeated viewings – partly because you know in advance that the film is really about boots and you can pace yourself accordingly, indeed, break down the scene into its constituent elements.  Best of all is the moment where Ollie pauses for breath and insists that there’s a calm, slow, intelligent way of proceeding.  It’s an anticipation of the brilliant island of sanity in the middle of Towed in a Hole.  Such windows of rationality, such eyes of the storm, only serve to make the succeeding chaos funnier.

Two married men destroyed by boots that are too tight.  That’s all you need for a comedy isn’t it?  Provided you commit completely to the concept?  And when it came to stunt arranging and film editing – Stan always did commit.

I’ve a few thoughts about some other Laurel and Hardy films…

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