Laurel and Hardy

Repo Men. Original and Best. Laurel and Hardy in “Bacon Grabbers” (1929).

I suppose everybody has their favourite bit of obsolete slang. I believe mine is “Bacon Grabbers” – a term used in the 1920s and 30s in the United States to describe those with legal authority from the Sheriff’s Office to repossess property if monthly payments are long overdue. “Bacon Grabbers” is a far more distinctive and memorable term than “Repo Men”.

To live a functioning life existing involves the felicitous synchronicity of a variety of skills. Stan and Ollie are standing examples of the sheer slowness and awkwardness of life where just a few of these motor skills are out of kilter. Found asleep in the Sheriff’s Office it takes them forever to just to get out of the office with the correct hats, the papers to be served, and the address of the place they are going to.

Imagine, incidentally, how different Laurel and Hardy films would have to be, were they produced in an era in which hat wearing was not mandatory?

Every conceivable mistake with hats and directions and papers is served before they can get out of the door, and getting the car started and out of a tight parking spot is similarly laborious, but it’s a chance to meet habitual antagonist Charley Hall.

When they finally reach the house of the radio they are to repossess, it’s owned by another habitual antagonist – Edgar Kennedy. The first stage of their job is handing him a piece of paper. It’s astonishing how many separate elements this superficially simple part of the job consists of. If just one of these constituent elements fails – the job fails. Edgar Kennedy is chased in and out of his house by Stan and/or Ollie and somehow the paper is never quite to hand. At one point the errant radio owner is handed half a sandwich instead. Edgar Kennedy owns a small fake dog, which somehow manages to terrorise an enormous real dog which Ollie has borrowed for the occasion. The paper is eventually served, but actually getting the radio is another matter.

In one of the most dangerous looking stunts since “Liberty” earlier the same year, Ollie ends up holding a ladder that Stan is atop of reaching for a window while Edgar Kennedy prods first a mop and then a shotgun in Stan’s face, while a dog tugs at Ollie’s braces. With the help of a cop (on this very very rare occasion, the law is an ally of Stan and Ollie), the radio (an enormous and awkward piece of furniture) is secured. Unfortunately, it gets left in the middle of the road while retributive arse-kicking is meted out.

Culver City seems infested with steam-rollers. They’re always around when you don’t want them. The radio is of course deftly flattened by the roller leaving its former owner laughing. Then platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow shows up (inexplicably married to the much older and uglier Edgar Kennedy) to say that she’s made the final payment on the radio and they own the radio outright. It is Stan and Ollie’s turn to laugh before the steam roller continues on its inexorable path and flattens their car.

Do 1920s and 30s Culver City stream-rollers have drivers? Is there any steering mechanism on those rollers whatsoever? How do they turn corners? Are steam-rollers legally exempted from any and all damage they cause in pursuance of their flattening duties? All we know is that in the world of Laurel and Hardy, anything left in a road for even a few seconds will inevitably meet a steam roller of doom.

“Bacon Grabbers” is not quite a classic of its kind, but it has plenty of assured details to keep it going. It is midway between the kind of film with joke after joke after joke, and the kind that commits absolutely to the same brilliant joke. It may not make you guffaw but it will make you smile.

Little things like Stan turning the ladder 180 degrees to see if it becomes longer as a result will make you half close your eyes and go “oh bless”.

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