Laurel and Hardy

Retributive Perfection. Laurel and Hardy in Big Business (1929).

Stan and Ollie are selling Christmas Trees in California, wearing heavy coats just to reinforce the Yuletide spirit. It doesn’t work.

After embarrassing and irritating one lady and Ollie being blipped on the head with a hammer by another unseen homeowner, they meet a familiar nemesis in the shape of James Finlayson. He too refuses to buy a tree, but there’s some confusion involving coats and the tree getting repeatedly stuck in his door as he slams it requiring repeated bell-ringings. Then at some point, the irritation turns into reciprocal destruction and a full scale tit for tat exchange is on, involving the wrecking of items of clothing and Finlayson’s doorway.

Eventually James Finlayson annihilates Laurel and Hardy’s car, while Stan and Ollie wreck every aspect of Finlayson’s house. A cop patiently watches the scene, only intervening when he is accidentally hurt himself in the exchange. It all ends in tears, an insincere sequence of handshakes, and the cop chasing our two heroes off into the dreamy distance.

There’s no plot summary can begin to do justice to why Big Business is so funny. It comes down to a peculiar joy in devastation. The film deserves to have James Finlayson sharing top billing with Stan and Ollie and the frantic energy he devotes to reducing every aspect of that car and its contents to atoms is a sight to behold. He would tear individual pine needles in half if he could. Wrecking the house from the inside out, Stan pitches out items for Ollie to smash with a shovel with a unique sense of joy.

Titfortatism is a kind of addictive fever, you see. The destruction is, on the face of it, without reason, purpose or advantage. Everybody loses. But the sheer intoxicating delight of it sustains it. Big Business suggests that you’re never “living in the moment” as purely or as completely as you are when you are smashing a car headlamp through the same car’s windscreen or when you are felling a chimney stack with a single well aimed missile.

It seems that the peculiar energy rush that you get from smashing stuff is well worth all the hours of labour that you’ve devoted to acquiring the stuff that is doomed according to the reciprocal logic of the escalating exchange.

Perhaps a Laurel and Hardy tit for tat movie is a kind of rebellion against a sort of work ethic – a Dionysiac reaction to the slow Weberian protestant capitalism that creates a culture where “stuff” is created and distributed in the first place. There’s a primal rebellion at foot when Stan and Ollie and Jimmy get to work.

And just by watching them surrender to this joyously violent war on the universe of “things”, we know that we ourselves don’t have to. We can go home in our intact cars and shut an intact door behind us, relaxing into our intact homes – knowing that Stan and Ollie and Jimmy have performed something on our behalf. Big Business offers a great vicarious thrill.

Here are some other early Laurel and Hardy films I’ve pondered…

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