Archive for the Laurel and Hardy Category

Slapstick Comedies of World War One

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War One. In honor of the day, we look at several WWI films from the era of classic comedy:

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The Bond (1918)

September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds”. The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.

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As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.

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Huns and Hyphens (1918)

Larry Semon’s war comedy is set on the home front, with Larry as a waiter at a restaurant run by German spies. He is also masquerading as a wealthy suitor to a young lady who has invented a gas mask. The plot is not unlike many Chaplin “masquerade” comedies, with Semon’s patented extravagant gags and hair-raising chase finish. Also in the cast are a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel and his wife Mae, and Frank “Fatty” Alexander. 

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A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)

This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres. The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!

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The Better ‘ole (1926)

This World War One comedy has a long pedigree. First it was a cartoon drawn by English humorist Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1917 it opened as a West End musical comedy running for 811 performances starring Arthur Bouchier as the main character “Old Bill”. The following year a Broadway version opened, starring Charles Coburn. 

With his years of music hall experience, Syd Chaplin was perfect for the comical part of Old Bill, a 30 year regular army vet who knows how to look out for his creature comforts. With his walrus mustache, and omnipresent pipe, the character has the kind of broad visual outline that any self-respecting Chaplin would know just what to do with. Jack Ackroyd plays his sidekick, “Little Alf”.  Edgar Kennedy plays the tough sergeant who constantly bedevils him.

There are some sight gags and funny pantomime business, but the film leans heavily on comical cockney intertitles. Bill is always napping, goofing off, getting into trouble. In one routine worthy of the younger Chaplin brother, Bill is playing with his dog, and accidentally drills an entire company of soldiers who overhear his instructions to the pooch and follow them. He spends a lot of time on trash detail.  The story starts to take off when he is putting on a camp show dressed in a horse costume, then gets stuck behind German lines still wearing the disguise. He steals some German uniforms and winds up having to serve a German general breakfast though he doesn’t understand the language. He knocks out a guard and meets fellow Brit who warns him of an immanent attack. He must warn the English army. He races in stolen car, then crashes it. Then he gets a motorcycle and plunges into a river. He is rescued and brought to a place where a detonation plunger is located. He knocks his captors out and saves and entire town. Then he is caught by Brits who think he is a spy out to sabotage his own army. He is bout to be executed but is saved at the last minute and made sergeant. He uses the opportunity to finally deck his nemesis Edgar Kennedy.

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Soldier Man (1926)

Soldier Man was Harry Langdon‘s last short before leaving Mack Sennett to do features. It’s one of his most creative and elaborate ones, containing enough for two separate shorts (since it has two completely different parts, each with a separate premise.)

In the first half he’s a soldier who doesn’t realize World War One has ended, so he is still roaming around having misadventures in German territory.  He escaped from a prison camp just when the German troops were celebrating the end of the war but he didn’t understand. Now he is wandering around a country at peace in constant fear for his life. Coming upon an area where a farmer is using dynamite to blow up tree stumps, he thinks he’s being shelled. He, winds up accidentally dragging some dynamite with him. Sees it, throws it, tries to shoo a cow out of the way. When the cow does run by Harry has his eyes closed. Dynamite lands in smokehouse, sending pieces of meat flying over to Harry. He thinks it was the cow.

In the second half.  In the little country of Bomania…there is a king who looks exactly like Harry (How many movies have we seen with that premise?). The king is is drunken and dissolute, always insults his wife. The people are on the verge of revolution. A minister spies Harry and hires him to be a double for the king. It winds up with the King’s wife trying to kiss Harry so she can plunge a knife into his back. Harry wakes up in his bed with his wife shaking him. It’s the present day, it was all a dream.

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A Soldier’s Plaything (1930)

Harry Langdon co-stars with Ben Lyon in this World War One service comedy (with serious overtones — and a few songs, although most were cut prior to American release when musicals went out of favor. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Michael Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a rare chance to see Langdon starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.

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Doughboys (1930)

Doughboys, directed by Eddie Sedgwick, is Buster Keaton ’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, Wheeler and Woolsey are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Laurel and Hardy‘s second feature for Hal Roach, 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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Blockheads (1938)

Originally intended to be Laurel and Hardy‘s last Hal Roach film (and it was their last Roach film for MGM though they made a couple more with Roach for other distributors) there would have been a nice symmetry to their career at Roach if it had been so, as Blockheads is essentially a remake of their first Roach talkie Unaccustomed as We Are (grafted onto We Faw Down). Like all of their features, it’s essentially the content of a short, stretched to go just over an hour. But this one works for me — it’s densely packed with comic material with little filler to speak of.

The pair are army buddies in WWI. Unfortunately Stan never gets the memo about the Armistice and winds up standing guard in a trench for 20 years. Returned to a convalescent home, he is taken in by Ollie — much to the perturbation of Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). Left to fend for themselves, they find themselves entangled with the hotsy-totsy neighbor lady (Patricia Ellis), which gets them in Dutch with her shotgun wielding husband (Billy Gilbert). But just as life is all about the journey, comedy is all about the gags, and the pleasure of this movie is in just letting them wash over you, one after the other.

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The Great Dictator (1940)

While Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is the World War TWO comedy par excellence , it does begin with an extended World War One section, a sort of prologue in which the Little Barber grapples with a ridiculous cannon named Big Bertha and flies upside down in a bi-plane with Reginald Gardiner. Chaplin’s injured character will spend several years in a sanitarium, emerging to find that his country has gone insane. More about the film here. 

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Tonight on TCM: Classic Prison Comedies

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by travsd

All month long, TCM is devoting Tuesday nights to prison films. Tonight (actually the wee hours of tomorrow) they’ll have these three “comedy classics” with jailhouse settings.

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2:45am (EST): Jail Busters (1955)

The Bowery Boys. Not for the first time, the boys purposefully commit a crime so they can go undercover in jail to get the goods on a gang of crooks who are in there. It is a stupid plan of course! The guy who was supposed to have arranged everything (Lyle Talbot) is crooked himself and hangs the boys out to dry. Percy Helton plays the warden!

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4:00am (EST): Pardon Us (1931)

Laurel and Hardy’s first feature length film Pardon Us (1931), directed by James Parrott. The title is a joke—it’s a prison comedy. Get it? Pardon us? Watching this film, I’d not be a bit surprised to learn it was a major influence on the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art the Thou? (Yes, yes, Sullivan’s Travels but also this). I think this movie is easily one of Laurel and Hardy’s best features.

The fact that the pair are incarcerated is a joint responsibility. The movie starts out with them buying ingredients for beer. It’s Ollie who gets the bright idea of selling their surplus homebrew, thus the crime is at his instigation. Later however it is Stanley who tries to sell some to a policeman (he thinks the uniform was that of a streetcar conductor).

A major theme throughout the film is Stanley’s bad tooth, which for some unnatural reason causes him to make a raspberry sound when he speaks, triggering all manner of trouble for the pair. There isn’t much of a plot, but this tooth noise, like a musical motif waves through the film and drives most of the action. This noise antagonizes guards, the warden, and the bull goose of their cell, who later respects him for it. They become involved in an escape plan; everyone gets caught right away but them/ They blend in with a bunch of black field hands on a cotton plantation by putting on blackface. Ollie even sings a minstrel song that Stan dances to. (It’s unfortunate to modern eyes, but there it is). In a scene of masterful tension, the warden’s car breaks down right where they’re standing, obligating the boys to fix the vehicle. They almost make it through the episode — until Stan’s tooth noise blows their cover. Later, back in prison, Stanley accidentally foils another prison break due to his mishaps with a tommy gun, and the boys are about to get an early release when…

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5:00am (EST) Hold ’em Jail (1932) 

Wheeler and Woolsey . In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!

For more on slapstick film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

Laurel and Hardy in “A-Haunting We Will Go”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , on August 7, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the 1942 comedy A-Haunting We Will Go, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This is one of my favorite films from the team’s worst period (1941-1951). A fairly conventional spook comedy, while still beneath the talents of the team, it is at least on par with the standard comedy fodder of the day (a low standard, but at least they weren’t beneath it on this occasion. Their vehicles sometimes were). Best of all, their co-star is Dante the Magician, and he proves to be a pretty good actor.

Laurel and Hardy play a pair of hobos who get a job transporting a coffin (little knowing that it contains, not a corpse, but a con man with an elaborate scheme). The coffin gets mixed up with one of Dante’s magic trunks. Then the pair become Dante’s assistants! And then…they get entangled with a fairly boring plot…the usual gangster business that was so popular in the 40s, which the studios seemed to think was so much better than letting two brilliant comedians be funny. But as I say, this one is better than their usual product of the period, and it’s a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or so.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Groucho, Laurel & Hardy in the Headlines

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by travsd

Two exciting stories to report; both have probably already exploded their way through every contact I have on social media, but for those who missed them, here they are:

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Variety reported yesterday that Steve Stoliar’s incredible book Raised Eyebrows (about Groucho Marx’s last days) is going to be made into a movie directed by horror helmsman Rob Zombie. It’s not such an odd fit. It’s well known that Zombie is a big Groucho fan and has named characters after Groucho personae in his films. And also..this is a DARK story. Groucho’s last decade or so were spent in an odd, one might venture to say exploitative relationship with an ambitious young actress named Erin Fleming. Stoliar had a ringside seat as Groucho’s personal assistant. Believe you me, there is psychodrama aplenty.

Raised Eyebrows is one of my favorite show biz books. I previously blogged about it here. And in fact, when the book was re-released by Bear Manor Media a couple of years ago, I reached out to Stoliar to gingerly inquire about screenplay rights for myself. (I figured it was worth a shot, I had found my previous out-of-print copy in a bargain bin — to my shock and surprise). But anyway Steve was like, “Yeah, no, I got this covered. I’m way ahead of ya, buddy.”

You can’t blame a guy for trying! I think very highly of this man and his book. It’s not just a compelling story, but it’s extremely well written, intelligent, funny, tragic, humane. Indeed when I heard that Bear Manor was re-printing Raised Eyebrows, I considered that a kind of seal of approval for Bear Manor. “If Steve Stoliar likes them, they have to be okay.” And they are more than OK. They published my book Chain of Fools and are about to publish Noah Diamond’s new book about I’ll Say She Is. 

Groucho fans rejoice! This is a Gala day for us!

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And the other exciting news which broke earlier this week…the long lamented missing reel of Laurel and Hardy’s epochal pie fight movie Battle of the Century , directed by Clyde Bruckmanhas been found. Classic comedy fans everywhere are overjoyed. Read an excellent account here at Slate. 

It’s said that good things come in threes. What else can be in store?

Laurel and Hardy in “Liberty”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the silent Laurel and Hardy short Liberty (1929), directed by Leo McCarey.

This is one of the team’s most finely crafted films. The boys escape from prison with the help of a couple of confederates in a getaway car. But in their haste to get out of their prison stripes and into civvies in the back seat, they each put on the wrong pants. This leads to a hilarious sequence in which they keep trying to switch their pants back. But every time they go to some discrete location like an alley and start to remove their trousers, someone catches them and mistakes them for a couple of perverts.

Then, a new rub. While they make their latest attempt, behind a fish store, a live crab winds up in Laurel’s pants. This leads to trouble with record store owner Jimmy Finlayson and his outdoor display of breakable record albums.

This leads to the final act, which is both hilarious and interesting from the point of view of the comedy connoriseur, as it is basically Laurel and Hardy “doing” a Harold Lloyd thrill comedy. The pair take an elevator to the top of an unfinished skyscraper. They become trapped on the naked girders, each in the wrong pants, with a live crab to add to the havoc. After numerous near fatal mishaps they finally make it down in an elevator. And then the capper, so hilarious and unexpected, I wouldn’t dream of ruining it for you.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Laurel and Hardy in “Helpmates”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , on January 23, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the the hilarious Laurel and Hardy comedy short Helpmates (1932), directed by Paul Parrott. The plot of this one is deceptively simple, but the pair have no trouble filling twenty-plus minutes with comedy business on the premise. Ollie wakes up with a hangover in the aftermath of what was clearly an exceedingly wild party at his house. The joint is a total shambles. He has just learned that his wife (who has been away for a week) is about to come home early. He has only a couple of house to get the house clean for her arrival. So he makes the mistake of asking Stan to come help him. With Stanley’s help, the remainder of the house gets destroyed. They haven’t even yet begun to clean up by the time Stan has doused the whole house with pans of water, broken windows and all of the dishes, ruined all of Ollie’s clothes, and exploded the gas stove. By then the wife has arrived at the depot. Ollie heads out wearing the only clothes he has left: his Knights of Columbus uniform. He returns a short while later with a black eye and no wife. Only to learn that Stan has put the coup de grace to his house.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Laurel and Hardy in “Oliver the Eighth”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , , on January 13, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the hilarious Laurel and Hardy short Oliver the Eighth (1934.

In this classic, Laurel and Hardy are barbers. Laurel sees an ad in the paper announcing that a rich woman is seeking a husband. They both write letters of application but Hardy doesn’t mail Laurel’s. He gets a reply, and takes his leave of Laurel.  When he gets ti the mansion, it emerges that that the woman (the incomparable Mae Busch) hates all men named Oliver. Years ago, a man named Oliver once left her standing at the altar. So far she has slit the throats of 7 Olivers — and Ollie will be Oliver the 8th. Both the woman and her butler (Jack Barty, playing it like Karloff) are clearly insane.

Then Lauel arrives for a piece of the action, having learned that Hardy didn’t deliver the letter. They have a crazy dinner—no food, everything just mimed. Then they are locked in a bedroom. Afraid of getting murdered, they agree to take turns staying awake. Of course Laurel falls asleep when he’s supposed to be on watch. Hardy rigs a device with candle, a string and brick to keep him awake. Laurel sees Hardy’s foot, thinks it’s a hand at the foot of the bed, and shoots it Then the brick falls on Hardy’s head. Finally the woman shows up, puts a blade at Hardy’s throat. Then Hardy wakes up. He is in the barber shop with Laurel shaving him.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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