Laurel and Hardy

They should never have ended Prohibition. Laurel and Hardy in “Blotto” (1930).

Prohibition is rich in comedy potential. All sorts of hilarious situations almost write themselves in a context of furtive drinking. Indeed, Prohibition would provide the context for their first full length feature film, Pardon Us (1931).

I wonder what booze tastes like if you haven’t tasted any in ten years?

More relevant in the context of this film is the question of what you think booze might taste like if you haven’t had any in ten years?

Anita Garvin was one of the most delightful and expressive of Stan and Ollie’s co-stars and she’d worked with them since before Laurel and Hardy were “Laurel and Hardy”. As the tyrannical Mrs Laurel, she perfects an eye twitch of barely suppressed rage that would not be equaled on film for many decades (by Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther films). She’s the sort of performer you can’t take your eyes off. She’s beautiful, scary, and hilarious in equal measure. And she was just shy of 23 when she made this film, with an astonishing record of achievement behind her.

The Laurels are at home. Stan (who sports quite a posh voice in this film, in keeping with his rather luxurious looking house) is phoned by Ollie who wants coax him out to the Rainbow Club for a night of dissipation. There’s some familiar comedy involving Ollie rummaging for coin after coin as Stan keeps hanging up on him. There’s some surreal comedy involving blowing through the telephone receiver – illustrating the fact that Stan and Ollie can have a tit for tat spat even when they are miles apart. Ollie suggests that Stan fake receipt of a telegram demanding his presence at work – a stratagem that his wife instantly sees through.

Mrs Laurel has an additional trick to play. Overhearing that Stan is planning to smuggle their last remaining pre-prohibition era bottle of booze out to the club, she empties the same bottle into the sink and tops it up with cold tea and a variety of other intriguing ingredients.

So it is that at the club, Laurel and Hardy are in the unusual position of playing characters who think they’re drunk but aren’t really. Of course, all drinking is more exciting if it’s transgressive and requires a “scheme” of some kind to enable it and it is the sense of “getting away” with something that makes the evening so fun.

Ollie quaffs his inhuman concoction and pronounces it to be good liquor. Stan drinks it and his ears start to wiggle. Essentially, these two guys are determined to be intoxicated, and therefore are so. It’s a convivial placebo effect. They hoot with mirth and vigorously applaud the cabaret. Like all good drunks, they become emotionally vulnerable, and when a crooner starts to sing a woeful ballad they become over-invested in the lyrics, Stan in particular being reduced to a blubbering mess.

Anita Garvin has not been idle in the meantime. She has popped out to purchase a really really big gun, which is wrapped in brown paper – barely disguising its obvious shape and function.

As soon as Mrs Laurel informs them that they’ve been drinking cold tea all night they “sober up” instantly. Stan and Ollie flee the building and grab a cab to “anywhere”. Anita Garvin destroys the entire cab with a single superbly aimed shot.

There’s much to love in this three-reeler. Perhaps it feels a little prolonged after a steady diet of two-reelers but there’s nothing here that I’d be anxious to cut. The confused way in which Stan attempts to plant the telegram and then talk to an imaginary courier is worth the price of admission alone. And, needless to say with any great Laurel and Hardy film, there’s the delight of wordless facial expressions. You can watch Stan, Ollie and Anita Garvin react to extreme circumstances all the live long day.

Blotto is not only funny, but original and intelligent. Not only is it a commentary on the kind of desperation that Prohibition creates, but it explores the question of how much of so-called “intoxication” is actually contextual.

Perhaps the idea of “getting out of your head” is, after all, “all in the mind.”

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