I don’t have a contrarian’s insistence on defying popular wisdom just to sound clever. Usually I don’t. And when it comes to most cherished Laurel and Hardy films I must affirm that the acclaim that The Music Box, Way out West, Sons of the Desert, Busy Bodies, and Towed in a Hole have received is eminently deserved. But when I want to throw the name of another film into the mix for consideration, just to broaden the discussion, I often throw in Come Clean.
When I was about ten years old, Come Clean may well have been my all time most cherished Stan and Ollie comedy. I think it still has one of my all time comedy moments in it. It’s when Mae Busch is staging her melodramatic “suicide” attempt and declaims her “goodbye cruel world!” speech and Stan offers a cheery “goodbye!” in reply.
The film opens upon a scene of snug privacy and domestic bliss in the Hardy apartment. As soon as the presence of the Laurels is intuited in the hallway, the tranquility is shattered. If the next few minutes involving the Hardys pretending they’re not home recycle some of the gags from Should Married Men Go Home (1928), then these jokes benefit a deal from careful refinement and the strategic intervention of sound effects and dialogue. There are some delicious fights with swing doors, and thanks to creative sound effects, you don’t have to instantly see the consequences of a good door shove. Nobody understood how to let the audience use their own imaginations better than Stan Laurel (who was of course responsible for both arranging gags and editing their duration). In his own specialised way, Stan Laurel had what Keats would call “negative capability”.
Even by his usual standards, Stan is wonderfully thoughtless and insensitive in this film. He demands ice cream, and when told there’s none in the apartment – asks if the Hardys (or at least one Hardy) could go get some. Selling the ice cream is of course Charley Hall, and there’s a further familiar routine about flavours (chocolate is unavailable – along with “mustachio”) before the boys find themselves confronting the supremely wide-eyed, scary and abandoned Mae Busch – in perhaps her most striking and memorable performance in a Laurel and Hardy film.
After some kerfuffle in the water involving a life belt, an anchor, and Ollie coming much closer to drowning than “Kate” (as we eventually learn her name is), the boys find themselves in a singularly unfair predicament. Kate decides that Stan and Ollie, having saved her, are now obligated to take care of her, and she enforces this claim by repeatedly screaming and threatening to denounce them as attempted murderers.
The rest of the film consists of desperate attempts to evict Kate from the Hardy apartment, or at least hide her from the wives for as long as possible. Eventually, she is found by a cop in the bathroom where Stan is taking a fully clothed bath. Kate’s crimes are clearly numerous and notorious and her recapture results in Stan being granted a $1000 reward. When he announces his intention to spend the entire sum on chocolate ice cream, Ollie removes the plug from the bath and Stan (the thin but surely not that thin one) is sent down the plughole. (“He’s gone to the beach.”)
Nothing about this film drags. I wouldn’t want it a moment shorter. The jokes are timed to perfection, the relationships are assured and the reactions are delicious. There’s also a silliness to it that makes it remarkably relaxing to watch.
Also notable is Linda Loredo as Mrs Laurel, who had been regularly employed making helping to make Spanish language versions of Laurel and Hardy classics. In this film she delivers a remarkable shriek of “Stan-LEE!” (I know, I’m already thinking of the Marvel comics editor) which makes you wish she’d been more variously and extensively employed. She died shortly after Come Clean was first released.
Laurel and Hardy films are often described as “innocent”. I’d only partially agree. The characters of Stan and Ollie might be innocent – seemingly incapable of entertaining a transgressive libidinal sentiment – but the world they inhabit is not innocent. How can innocents function in a world of jealous wives? How can innocents function in a world of Kates?
It’s one of the very rare film with Stan and Ollie which concludes with contented smile on the face of Oliver Hardy. For that alone, it deserves special recognition.
I’ve some thoughts about some other Laurel and Hardy films.