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Tuesday, 12 April 2016

OLIVER THE EIGHTH (1934)

“I hope you have a nice…looooong sleep”

In 1934 Laurel and Hardy released their second comedy short to cash in on the horror boom - here a much more chillingly full-blooded vehicle than the theatrical whodunnit of The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. This was largely due to the gloriously terrifying presence of Mae Busch whose previous roles for them as various harsh domineering wives, dangerous criminal magnets and bunny-boiling jilted exes surely inspired Stan to craft something to take her intimidating persona to an even more concentrated level whilst still retaining some sex appeal.

Mae Busch was Australian by birth, the child of travelling vaudeville performers. According to Simon Louvish’s marvellous biography Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy, in her early days at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio (home of those klutzy Kops), she was the third party who ended Sennett’s relationship with his star Mabel Normand – a romance celebrated in the musical Mack & Mabel. After a solid career in film working with the likes of Erich Von Stroheim in Foolish Wives (1932) and Lon Chaney as his gangster’s moll with heart in The Unholy Three, she very nearly became a casualty of the studio system when she left her contract with M-G-M and suffered a nervous breakdown. Long before John Travolta, she disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that “There are no second acts in American lives” thanks to Hal Roach offering her the short Love ‘Em and Weep. It introduced her to the two gentlemen in bowler hats who would make her famous. Across thirteen films her strength of character would be compressed between Laurel and Hardy’s meddling bouts of cowardice to forge a diamond of unforgettable hard-knock quality.

We are lucky that Oliver the Eighth ever saw the light of day. In the middle of filming in December 1933, Stan had to suspend filming when he heard the awful news of the death of his brother ‘Teddy’ Jefferson, who had been under laughing gas (nitrous oxide) anaesthetic in a dentist’s chair in Los Angeles and suffered a fatal heart attack. Leaving aside any fanciful Omen-style speculation about the freakish coincidence of the boys’ horror shorts both linking to real-life tragedies for Stan, the only disturbing echo is that the plot of Oliver the Eighth is generated by a nightmare of Ollie’s whilst napping in a chair at his barbershop.

The plot is in many ways reminiscent of their previous genre outing. The set-up here is that on a break in their shop, this time it is Stan who reads out the catalyst newspaper ad: “Wealthy young widow with large fortune wishes to communicate with congenial young man. Object: matrimony” This again shows a charming innocence of publicity – what man wouldn’t appear congenial under those circumstances? Stan has a rare burst of pragmatic initiative, pointing out that in a marriage of obvious convenience, he would use some of the money to simply get the expected “old crab”, as Ollie calls her, a facelift and then live the high-life without having to work any more. Such is his uncharacteristic smarts that Ollie changes his mind and they shake on agreeing to it as a gentleman’s competition. Ollie however uses his far more reliable cunning and hides Stan’s reply letter. He sits back and allows Stan to shave him…

We the meet the ringleted Busch as she knifes opens the mail, not the last time we’ll see her skill with that implement. She looks at an amusing photo of Ollie where he’s posturing the upward-tilted glamour gaze of the matinee idol, but his eyes express more a vague distaste at hearing flatulence from an upstairs window. She is in cahoots with her bushy-browed butler Jitters (Jack Barty), one of the most memorable insane supporting performances in the Laurel and Hardy canon. Together they prepare to entertain another in the list of Olivers she has vowed to wipe out since the first of that name jilted her at the altar. Jitters savours the familiar outcome, cooing: “Strange that on the eve of every wedding, you walk in your sleep, and every morning a body is found…with its throat cut”
Oliver the Eighth awaits her cold steel…

Back in the duo’s barbershop, there’s a nice understated verbal gag from the returning Stan (he’s just been out to get a shave). In fact, all of Stan’s early scenes do have an unusually muted quality, eschewing his usual gag-rate in favour of allowing Ollie to drive the comedy and energy. This may have been connected with adjusting to his off-screen tragedy - unless he filmed them in sequence. Ollie is cheerfully packing for his prospective bride, delusions of grandeur already convincing him that he cannot associate with Stan any more: “I’m sorry but my social position won’t permit it” he announces loftily before leaving.

Once at Mrs Fox’s mansion, Ollie is ushered in by Jitters who hilariously discards his hat and coat before summoning the lady. This scene is a macabre joy as the butler shows he is crazy both in his playing of invisible cards and his small talk - in the famous exchange:
“Nice weather we had tomorrow”.
“It certainly wi-“
.

Oliver double-takes, realising he is in the midst of a cuckoo whilst he waits for his love-bird.
Inevitably, Stan arrives, having rumbled Ollie’s deception and demanding a half-share. He has been busy demonstrating the kind of shrewd negotiation that makes Jack of the Beanstalk fame look like Warren Buffett, having sold the barbershop business for a ‘gold’ brick (a patently obvious sprayed standard one) and a handful of nuts. Upon meeting Hardy at last, Busch sees Stan and remarks with humorous bluntness: “What is that?”

Stan shows he is on the same sublimely surreal wavelength as Jitters, while Busch alternates between a warm, ensnaring seductiveness and her own brand of unapologetic insanity, snipping off Ollie’s tie with no explanation and then providing a meal served by Jitters where they mime a total absence of any food. The entertaining daffiness then begins to turn to chills and goosebumps. Such is the total conviction of Fox and her servant in their planned murder that the butler lets the boys in on it just to watch their scared response - before Mrs Fox bids them not good-night but good-bye with the mocking terminal hospitality of the line that begins this article. Jitters’ bugling of the Last Post is a deliciously madcap nightcap to send them to their final resting place.

There is still room for situation comedy laughs once Laurel and Hardy are in their room, yet you can feel the clock ticking to their doom effectively, the tension building as they desperately try to survive the night. Stan doesn’t quite understand the concept of keeping a waking watch: “I was dreaming I was awake, and then I woke up and found meself asleep”; accidentally almost blows his friend’s foot off and Ollie’s makeshift alarm brick clonks himself into unconsciousness. This creates the most pleasurable horror frisson climax as a panicky Stan whimpers that he can’t wake Oliver up while we intercut with Busch sharpening her knife inexorably on her way to their room. For my money, these alarming shots of her deserve to be as iconic in horror film montages as Leatherface waving his chainsaw in vain.

This time, the get-out clause that the terror was all a dream is triggered with more conviction and impact - the sound of Stan’s clumsiness wakes Ollie in shock just as Busch’s nightmare knife touches his tender throat. It’s a pay-off that works well and diffuses the threat level ably cranked up by director Lloyd French.


Following Oliver the Eighth, Laurel and Hardy continued to release six more successful shorts, (Busch getting them into trouble in five of them), understandably never seeking to blend laughs with scares so deliberately again. Fortunately, their feature film projects would find plenty more genres and scenarios to keep them busy.

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