Along with Brats (1930), this is the only Laurel and Hardy film to feature only Laurel and Hardy. OK there’s a dog.
This is a strange film insofar as for most of its duration, Stan is closer to being the adult in the situation. Most of Laurel and Hardy’s films were made during Prohibition which means that alcohol features prominently throughout their body of work, a circumstance which has much to do with this role reversal. It’s also unusual in that the camera spends more time looking at Stan’s face full of sorrowful resignation than Ollie’s. (Their Purple Moment is another rare example where this happens.)
The plot is very simple. Ollie inherits a fortune and then employs Stan as his butler. Ollie comes home one night full of champagne and spends all night and the following morning playing childish and spiteful tricks on Stan. When Stan announces he’s quitting, Ollie refuses to accept Stan’s resignation so Stan tries to force Ollie to fire him by smashing everything he can see in the house.
Some of the captions in this silent two reeler are a little disturbing. Ollie teases Stan by saying that the lady he (Ollie) is infatuated with has a beautiful maid…. “But she’s Chinese”. When some misplaced cake cream is winds up on Stan’s face this is interpreted as foaming at the mouth – a suggestion that the desperate and enraged Stan actively encourages by shouting “I want blood – warm blood!” In the final pursuit of Ollie by Stan you can see Stan’s trademark scissor shaped leap in the air – provoked by violent rage rather than by excitement. There is some elaborate physical comedy based on Ollie’s impersonation of a decorative head on a fountain – a joke which only highlights the rather unwieldy enabling circumstance of Ollie owning a fountain decorated with Oliver Hardy heads.
Ollie’s casual cruelty to Stan is unlike anything you see in any other Laurel and Hardy movie. In every other Laurel and Hardy movie, Ollie’s attacks on Stan are based on exasperation. In this film, Ollie is laughing throughout, even in the morning scenes when he’s presumably sober. In Early to Bed, the cruelty is based on the sheer sense of entitlement that wealth incurs. The change in their relative economic circumstances has suddenly dehumanised Stan in Ollie’s eyes – reduced him from a human to a toy.
Ollie’s pranks are not especially funny. It’s not that sort of film. What is striking is quite how funny Ollie thinks these very childish and old-fashioned japes are, devoid of anything resembling wit or invention. We’re not laughing with Ollie at Stan. For much of the time we’re not laughing at all, though we’re completely absorbed.
In most Laurel and Hardy films, economic and/or marital disaster looms. In this film, neither of these threats exist. Indeed, although Stan at the end has broken a great many valuable objects, he hasn’t come close to reducing Ollie to his original penury. Yet this is one of the scariest of all Laurel and Hardy films because of its depiction of what wealth – inherited and unearned – can do to someone.
I have a few thoughts about other silent Laurel and Hardy films…