The idea that Stan and Ollie are indeed married to each other is variously entertained over the years. In Our Wife (1931), they are actually tied together legally by Ben Turpin the cross-eyed judge. In Their First Mistake, this very plausible notion of Stan and Ollie as wife and wife is taken further than ever, as the Laurel-Hardys bicker about broken promises and neglected marital obligations.
I have to say I find this one a little hard to watch. I worry about the state of child protection laws in the 1930s and about the fact that a baby can just be handed over to Laurel and Hardy within about half an hour of them wandering into an adoption office to make an inquiry. It’s one thing for Stan and Ollie to wreck each other’s lives on something like a monthly basis, but is it really fair or humane to drag a helpless infant into their strange and violent world?
Mae Busch is Mrs Hardy (again) in this one. The film starts with her haranguing Ollie for the time he spends with Stanley. At the most inopportune moment, the phone rings and Ollie pretends that Stan is not at the other end of the line – but rather his boss – “Mr Jones”, someone who promises social advancement for the Hardys and whose very mention causes Mae Busch to beam with a sense of rare excitement at the promise of a husband she doesn’t have to be ashamed of.
When Stan shows up in person, the retribution that is meted out by Mae Busch is so extreme it almost defies representation. Later on, when Stan and Ollie are sheltering together, Stan comes up with what might be the very worst idea that he’s ever had. Naturally, Ollie thinks it’s a stroke of genius. If Ollie were to adopt a baby (reasons Stan), all would be well between the Hardys (and Stan). All would be well not so much because a child would inspire love and reconciliation but because Mrs Hardy would be preoccupied with maternal care in the evenings, freeing up Ollie to go out with Stan every evening.
No sooner have Stan and Ollie returned (with shocking speed and lack of background checks) from acquiring a baby than they are confronted by a legal envoy in the shape of Billy Gilbert who tells them that Ollie is being sued for divorce and Stan is to be sued for alienating a husband’s affections. Stan and Ollie are now left, literally, holding the baby. Stan makes a very funny sudden bolt for the door, but to no avail. They are now, truly, manacled together.
The remainer of the film involves some reasonably amusing jokes. Their First Mistake has less of an actual ending to it than any Laurel and Hardy film I have ever seen. There are no explosions, no stunts, no injuries or even punchlines at the end of this one – just a camera running out of film in the middle of an impossible situation.
There are some nice visual moments in this one. After Ollie has repeatedly called Stan “Mr Jones” on the phone, Stan feels he has to stare at himself in the mirror to make sure he is who he thinks he is.
Perhaps best of all is the moment when Ollie tells Stan to feed the baby and Stan actually starts unbuttoning his shirt, to Ollie’s understandable astonishment. (Stan has a bottle secreted under his shirt, as it happens.)
Their First Mistake offers Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy clowning at the very height of their powers – but in a rather shapeless way and in a truly bizarre narrative context that a mere twenty minutes of film cannot begin to make any sense of. Perhaps the bizarre horror of an apartment being destroyed amid dangerous misapplications of electricity while a tiny baby has to be warmed and comforted and fed gets to me a little too much. Perhaps I’m just unable to stop worrying about babies. Perhaps I don’t find this film relaxing to laugh at. Perhaps I shouldn’t find comedies relaxing to laugh at.