Actor Ian Champion's site devoted to serialised personal reviews/articles covering international horror cinema history based on personal viewings of each film (plus background research based on books, documentaries and audio commentaries) from silent film through to post-millenium...
Tuesday, 12 April 2016
OLIVER THE EIGHTH (1934)
“I hope you have a nice…looooong
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.
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-“.
realising he is in the midst of a cuckoo whilst he waits for his love-bird.
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?”
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.
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.
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
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.