Laurel and Hardy

Laurel and Hardy nearly plummeting to their deaths, over and over again. Liberty (1929)

This is a short film of two halves. The first half offers trouser comedy, the second vertigo comedy. We move from the familiar nightmare of being exposed partially dressed in public, to the familiar nightmare of endless falling.

After a short montage of historical reminders of liberty as the noblest of human (specifically American) aspirations, the film shows jail-breaking Laurel and Hardy in full flight from a less than efficient pursuing prison guard. They are picked up by friends who have brought them some of their clothes to wear. But as they change in the close quarters of the back seat of a vehicle, while being pursued by the forces of law and order, they’re going to get somewhat and something confused.

So when they jump out of the car, Ollie’s circulation is being cut off by Stan’s pants and Stan is having trouble holding Ollie’s pants up.

Sometimes it seems that there’s nowhere in Culver City you can change your trousers. And in one of their many attempts to change, a crab slips into Ollie’s pants (now Stan’s pants). Stan Laurel’s skills as a double take artist come into play at this point. Having paused to destroy much of a store owner’s (James Finlayson) stock as a consequence of the constant nipping Stan suffers but does not think to investigate, our heroes, espying again an understandably suspicious cop, find themselves running into an elevator that sends them to the top of a skyscraper still under construction. High above the city, they change trousers once more, with the crab being transferred to Ollie’s hindquarters.

I am not sure how this skyscraper sequence was filmed. It is enough of a tribute to say that it looks real. In terms of its compounding of successive near death experiences, Liberty is a masterful exercise in credible terror. Ladders swing back – ropes run out – girders are lifted out of place – and our heroes are always a fraction of an inch a way from plummeting to their doom. Liberty deserves, therefore, to be seen alongside the legendary Safety Last (1923) by Harold Lloyd as an example of high-wire ballet.

And just when we think we’re done with the crab – it reappears.

Stan and Ollie eventually find their way back to the elevator, crushing their persecuting cop as it descends upon his head, and leaving him a midget.

Perhaps this sort of vertigo comedy is the opposite of slapstick violence. Instead of escalating and improbable destruction, we’re watching the escalating implausibility of staying alive. As these two cling to girders and each other, every second of screen time in which they’re NOT splattered all over the pavements of Culver City seems hilariously bizarre. Vertigo comedy is about the elaboration of that which doesn’t happen (but which surely ought to).

It’s the kind of film in which the concept of “Liberty” becomes synonymous with “Life” itself. And at the end of the film, they’re both somehow still alive and still running. Hooray for life and liberty.

There are a few other silent Laurel and Hardy film’s I’ve been thinking about…

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