Laurel and Hardy know how to show girls a good time. At least, in this film they do. This double date turns out to be just about the best day out ever as far as Stan and Ollie’s partners (Thelma Hill and Ruby Blaine) are concerned and they are screaming with energetic mirth for much of the film. These girls are fond of retributive violence you see, and a road trip with Laurel and Hardy offers irresponsible hilarity on a grand scale. Only when the Law (Edgar Dearing) shows up do they give up and go home.
It’s been pointed out that there’s no particular point to their being sailors in this film. I disagree. Quite apart from giving them the initial attraction of being men in uniform, the shore leave context of the film adds to the sense of carelessness that persists throughout. These boys will be back on board ship tomorrow and nothing that happens today will have long-term consequences. For them at least. Their own homes and livelihoods are not being threatened, their car is a rental and their relationships with these two girls were obviously going to be equally temporary anyway.
Stan and Ollie have rented a small car for the day, which they are clearly incapable of driving. After a couple of mishaps they spy a couple of young ladies having trouble with a gumball machine. We pause for some priceless shy grinning and preening. Such is Ollie’s ingrained southern gentility that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that he will not promise do to accommodate a lady in distress. Whether or not he is remotely qualified to perform the task he promises to undertake is irrelevant. He’d volunteer to perform open heart surgery if a lady fluttered her eyelids and requested it of him.
Predictably, his efforts with the gumball machine lead to gumballs spread all over the sidewalk – some of which he tries to pocket before the store owner (predictably, Charley Hall) takes issue with his behaviour. Since Charley Hall is much smaller than Ollie, the girls assume that Ollie doesn’t want to hit him, so Stan is dispatched to deal with Shopkeeper. Stan repeatedly slips, slides and falls on the gumballs before any such contest can take place so the girls have to beat up Charley Hall on their own. They are spirited young ladies who like nothing more than a scrap so this task is soon accomplished.
With two couples happily squeezed into a small vehicle, spirits are high, as evidenced by the fact that Stan and Ollie are wearing their partners’ bonnets while the girls are the sporting the sailor caps. This happy mood of high speed flirtatious intimacy is only briefly checked when roadworks and one stranded vehicle lead to a long tail-back of stationary traffic. Needless to say our heroes are instrumental in some bashing of cars fore and aft leading to some classic tit for tat destruction, egged on by their temporary girlfriends, for whom no date is complete without a good fight and extensive destruction of property.
The vehicular devastation follows the central law of tit for tat: no defensive gesture is possible. As my brother has pointed out to me, “tit for tat” is like a game of chess. All you can do while someone is making their move is plot your retaliatory strategy. There is no way of block, checking, evading, or mitigating your opponent’s move while it is in process. People just stand there while headlights are smashed, fenders rearranged and clothing ruined.
One thing you learn from silent comedy is that you could apparently tear most cars apart with your bare hands. These cars are not just crudely vandalised, they are mutated in bizarre and inventive ways. There is artistry involved in the way in which they are reshaped. Even after the boys have been arrested, they can’t help but laugh at the ludicrous procession of impossible vehicles that somehow passes by after the motorcycle cop has taken charge.
The cop’s motorcycle having been flattened, he initiates a full scale mob pursuit of the two tars (now minus their girlfriends) which involves chasing them into a railway tunnel and then rapidly retreating out of it to avoid an oncoming train. Stan and Ollie, having failed to avoid the train, find their car squeezed to impossible thinness. There’s a recurring challenge in a number of these films, incidentally, to determine precisely how much violence can be done to a vehicle while still allowing it to somehow sort of move.
Two Tars is rightly considered a classic. It’s Laurel and Hardy at their most ludicrous and carefree. You don’t get the pathos and the sombre close ups of some of their other classics and nor is this film especially about the relationship between Stan and Ollie. But a two reeler can’t do everything, and everything that this little film does – it does splendidly. In the catalogue of Laurel and Hardy’s misadventures, Two Tars does what its title suggests – offers us a bit of shore leave.
Here are a few thoughts on some other Laurel and Hardy silent shorts…