Tonight on TCM: A Laurel and Hardy Smorgasbord

Tonight on TCM! A tremendous line-up of some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comedies (only one turkey in the bunch — see if you can guess which). Here’s what they have planned:

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8:00pm (EST): The Music Box (1932)

Considered by many to be the greatest comedy of all time. It’s a movie about two idiotic working stiffs moving a piano up the longest outdoor staircase in the world. Its virtues are primarily formal: it is delightfully well-constructed, in pacing and the organization and proliferation of gags. As always in the best Laurel and hardy comedies, it builds and builds. You constantly figure the concept has to be exhausted, but nope. They keep topping themselves. The beauty is how MUCH comedy they milk out of this simple premise, and how it builds and escalates, and continues to keep on giving all the way through. The repeated obstacles, setbacks, and heartbreaks all the way up the hill. And then when they reach the top, the heartbreaks don’t stop. The customers aren’t home and the door is locked — but that doesn’t stop Laurel and Hardy. They succeed in destroying the house, the piano, and the hope of any future business. Directed by James Parrott, this movie won an Oscar for best short in 1932 — one of the few times in history an American comedy masterpiece has gotten the kind of recognition it deserves.

8:45pm (EST): Busy Bodies (1933)

This movie has perhaps the best comedy sequence ever. Laurel and Hardy are working in wood shop. It starts very slowly—pretty much all silent?  Laurel accidentally goes over Hardy’s butt with a rasp. This leads to a battle with boards and tools, culminating with Hardy getting sucked out a ventilator shaft and stuck in an opening 60 feet off the ground. Laurel climbs a tall ladder to help him. The pair eventually fall to the earth crushing a shed containing their boss. Then they attempt drive off in a car that has been cut in half by a buzz saw. This is masterful. There’s nothing like it in the work of previous silent masters. A symphony.

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9:15pm (EST): Way Out West (1937)

This charming western spoof has Stan and Olllie delivering the deed to a mine to a young girl (Rosina Lawrence), only to be swindled out of it by an unscrupulous saloon keeper played by Jimmy Finlayson, and his cohort the dance hall girl Lola (Sharon Lynn). The movie contains one of my favorite moments of cinema, and (as an abject lesson) it has nothing to do whatever with the plot. The boys are passing by the front of the saloon, hear some music (sung by the Avalon Boys), and just start dancing. Sometimes this little scene makes me laugh; sometimes the beauty of it just shakes me. The moment evolves so organically and naturally, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Then they go about it with a kind of dignity and majesty, with steps both simple and beautiful, yet ridiculously elaborate for something that is theoretically improvised (in the context of the story). And it is important enough to them that they do every last step, even as the world is going about its business on the street around them. That is how we must do all our dances — as though they were the most important thing in the world, and with a proud little smile.

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10:30pm (EST): Sons of the Desert (1933)

This one remains one of the all-time favorite Laurel and Hardy films among fans. As they often do, Laurel and Hardy play hen-pecked but rebellious husbands on a tight leash. Their wives here are played by Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy. In this film the boys are not literal “Sons of the Desert” (which can be a little confusing because in a couple of their comedies their characters join the French Foreign Legion). In this case, the “Sons of the Desert” refers to their fraternal lodge and the boys are just itching to their annual convention in Chicago. Naturally their wives won’t permit this, so the boys claim that Hardy is sick and must go to Honolulu for his health. (A hilarious irony — who wouldn’t prefer to go to Honolulu than Chicago?). In Chicago they woop it up with Charley Chase, at his comical best as an obnoxious drunken lodge brother from Texas). Then the newsreels begin to cause trouble. The wives learn that the ship their husbands were supposedly on has sunk. They grieve. Then later they see newsreels that show their husbands drunkenly cavorting at the convention in Chicago. They fume. The boys are busted. The wives allow them to hang themselves with lies upon their return before they throw them out. Their is an extended climax with Hardy on the roof at night during a rainstorm, just one of many Hardy rooftop sequences. The premise of this film (and similar Laurel and Hardy comedies) had an extended reach, for it was much emulated by Jackie Gleason in the The Honeymooners in the early 1950s, and then later by Hanna Barbera on The Flintstones in the early 1960s.

Sons of the Desert is best known today for supplying the name of the international Laurel and Hardy society, one of the largest and heartiest of all movie star fan clubs. Learn more about the group here.

11:45pm (EST): Tit for Tat (1935)

A sequel to their short Them Thar Hills. Laurel and Hardy own a store adjacent to a man with whom they recently had an altercation during a camping trip. They take turns humiliating each other. This phrase, “Tit for tat” is what the team called their perennial routine of one-upsmanship going back to their earliest days as a silent comedy team. One guy accidentally sits on the other’s hat; the other guy puts his fist through the first guy’s hat in response. This film is entirely built of such exchanges, resulting in the total destruction of their stores.

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12:15am (EST): Swiss Miss (1938)

Swiss Miss contains one of the craziest plots ever devised for the team. The pair are mousetrap salesmen who travel to Switzerland to take advantage of the cheese. Swindled by a con man, they are forced to work at a hotel to pay off the debt. The film contains what may be their most famous sequence: the boys are trying to move a piano across a rope bridge over an enormous chasm when, half way across they encounter…a gorilla!

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1:45am (EST): Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Their second feature for Hal Roach, Pack Up Your Troubles is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.

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3:00am (EST): Air Raid Wardens (1943)

Air Raid Wardens is one of Laurel and Hardy’s last and worst features. Made for MGM and directed by Eddie Sedgwick, the film is one of those World War 2 era propaganda films that puts didacticism about civil defense above all other virtues. The thing is played like a grim drama, and Laurel and Hardy are a couple of ne-er-do-wells who are treated by local officials and townsfolk as retarded adults. They are allowed to help with civil air defense because the local organizer feels sorry for “the boys”. At one point, in a scene that is supposed to convey pathos, Laurel is directed to cry (but in earnest, not his usual funny crying) because he-has-tried-so-very-hard-and-he-only-wanted-to-help-and-can-he-please-have-just-one-more-chance-and-please-sir-he’ll-try-to-do-better. If we find ourselves more disturbed than moved, it may be because the man is 53 years old. Donald Meek plays a saboteur. In what comes closest to a funny scene, Edgar Kennedy plays a man who refuses to turn his lights off; the boys are obliged to bonk him on the head. If you’ve followed my writing at all, you know I think Laurel and Hardy are just tops; that’s what make these later films so sad.

4:15am (EST): Brats (1930)

Hilarious, insane! This is the one where Laurel and Hardy play their own kids, using split screen effects and oversized sets. The Laurel and Hardy “fathers” sit playing checkers. The Laurel and Hardy “boys” are playing with blocks but keeping making a disturbance. The fathers send them to bed. Then the action really gets cooking. Baby Ollie stands on opened bureau drawers, falls through. Father Ollie falls on roller skates. Downstairs the fathers are trying to play pool. Finally, Baby Ollie falls in a bathtu and a mess of water comes through the ceiling downstairs on top of the pool table. The fathers storm upstairs. The kids pretend to sleep. Ollie sings to them. One asks for glass of water. A door is opened: the entire bathroom having been filled to the top with water, gushes out.

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4:45am (EST): A Chump at Oxford (1940)

This was the team’s next to last picture for Hal Roach and it shows them in as fine a form as ever. In this one the boys are rewarded for foiling a bank robbery with (an attempt at) an Oxford education (just go with it). The culture clash of these two in this scholarly setting would be enough fodder for good comedy, but the movie’s real lure is the benefit of seeing Stan Laurel in a vastly different role. For in A Chump at Oxford, Laurel also plays one Lord Paddington, a rich, educated man who speaks (of course) with an Oxford accent. It’s a delight to watch and a clue to what a genius Laurel was — the character couldn’t be less like his familiar comic persona. Also in the cast are Roach regulars Jimmy Finlayson and Anita Garvin, and in one of his first film roles, none other than Peter Cushing! The screenplay is by Harry Langdon, Felix Adler (whose best known for many Three Stooges scripts) and Charley Rogers and directed by Keystone vet Alfred Goulding. 

For nearly 50 articles about the team of Laurel and Hardy please peruse the Laurel and Hardy section of Travalanche. For much more on silent and slapstick comedy, including the films of Laurel and Hardy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube