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Monday, 11 April 2016

THE LAUREL- HARDY MURDER CASE (1930)

“You’re wanted on the ‘phone…’
From 1927 through till 1935, the much-beloved movie comedy duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy produced around 72 short films, from the silent era through sound, a run that for me represents most of their greatest work (other than the few later feature films such as Way Out West that weren’t weakened by padding). Their slap-stick and more subtle visual gags were perfect for the silent cinema, and they came equipped with amusing title dialogue cards whose humour translated seamlessly when turned into scripts for the ‘talkies’.

Together, Stan and Ollie’s personas as the ‘Fiddle and the Bow’ as they were gracefully nicknamed, would dovetail beautifully on screen. Ollie’s slow-burn reactions to camera gave the audience time to laugh and to share in his incredulity at his partner’s dimittedness. Stan could simply sit and do almost nothing yet be as fascinating as a cat. When not fiddling idly with something to occupy his two-watt brain,  ideas processed in that cavernous space before coming out in a stream that makes sense initially but unravels like wool the more they are examined. If ever they seem to be in opposition, for every devious plan that Ollie constructs to secretly benefit himself, Stan will assuredly wreck it like a one-man cyclone of unwitting destruction. 

As actors, they were as harmonious in their division of labour off-screen as they were in front of the camera. Stanley was obsessed with gag construction and timing, working long hours as very much a film-maker, whereas Oliver was happy to be a talented co-worker spending his free time on the golf course. Stanley was known to mischievously save up Oliver’s reaction shots to the end of the day so he’d be that little bit more frustrated  (to get on the green). To Oliver, Stanley’s greater share of the earnings in their joint contract with studio head Hal Roach was entirely fitting. His friend did more of the work.

Their wonderful short subject plots could be based around any single idea no matter how outlandish, from the sophisticated body-swap of playing each other’s wives in Twice Two and devilish baby versions of themselves in Brats, to a ‘simple’ premise like leaving home on time for a wedding or just leaving home, period, in Perfect Day. One of their best ideas was to play on the concept of henpecked husbands forever trying to hide innocent free-time activities from their tyrannical and suspicious wives. Their most memorable casting for this was Mae Busch, who could play the scorned harpie to perfection, giving genuine chills out of fear of her wrath. She had already made great use of a hardened streetwise gal image in horror feature films as we have seen in The Unholy Three and would go on to appear in Doctor X. In between, she was Laurel and Hardy’s favourite battle-axe and her unholy retribution serves as a marvellous bridge connecting their mainstream films with horror possibilities – in her later ideal casting in Oliver the Eighth.

But before they could match wits and knives with Busch, the twosome made their version of the now-familiar Cat and the Canary plot in The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. This begins with the boys in their usual hard-up state fishing none too productively on a dock-side before Ollie sees a newspaper advert announcing the reading of the will of Ebeneezer Laurel. One of the bonus pleasures of seeing their films is in considering the child-like naivete and eccentricity not just within them but also in their world. Where else would lawyers publicly advertise a $3,000,000 will reading and expect only genuine respondents? Ollie is on this like a tramp on a hot-dog, but is continually scuppered by Stan who is a virtual tabula rasa of genealogical uselessness. There’s an undeniable logic in not knowing where he was born because “Well, I was too young to remember”. Ollie prompts Stan’s only memory of an uncle who fell through a trap-door but this proves a literal dead-end as they were hanging him. He doesn’t make Ollie’s master-plan any easier as he has difficulty in computing the value of three million dollars. “Is that as much as a thousand?”

Thankfully, despite Ollie being none too great an economist himself, he has the presence of enough mind to get them to the house of the aforementioned reading. The scene that awaits them is pre-set as a classic Agatha Christie murder-mystery, a drawing-room full of potentially suspects with much to gain and a group of distinctly Damon Runyonesque detectives (including the Chaplin and L & H regular Tiny Sandford) led by Fred Kelsey who suspends the reading, barking: “Ebeneezeer Laurel didn’t die a natural death, He was murdered!” His finger point causes a hatchet-faced Frau Bluecher lookalike to collapse in hysterics.  The enjoyably stagey creakiness of the plot is amplified by the (theatrically-rendered?) wind and thunder effects on the soundtrack.

Frank Austin makes a marvellous butler, having a craggy rubber face contorted for maximum macabre gurning from the moment he opens the door to Stan and Ollie. Immediately on entering, there is tension between the duo when it appears that Stan fails to appreciate Ollie’s assumption of an equal share of the inheritance (a situation neatly reversed in Oliver the Eighth). The resolution of this restores their closeness. Nothing, not even money, can ultimately divide them. The Cat and the Canary aspect is strengthened by the device of forcing all the suspects to stay the night, which is bad news for the boys as they have to sleep in the same room in which Ebeneezer died, a fact the Butler relishes. Although Ollie tries to use a disarming logic in return on the easily-frightened Stan, “Dead men can’t hurt you”, they both huddle together in bed, fearful of being bumped off by an avaricious relative. Even the glowing eyes of the house cat terrify them.

After a bad rubber bat and a more convincing levitating sheet effect, Stan is interrogated about his alibi by the detective which the police-man will soon regret. Our numbskull suspect counts through the last few months: “Septober, Octember, Nowonder…” Eventually, the cops work out that the butler, in league with a relative cross-dressing as a gypsy (don’t ask), have been systematically wiping out the cast by politely telling them: “You’re wanted on the ‘phone…”. They are then dispatched, Sweeney Todd style, by a ‘phone receiver-activated trap-door. This then match-cuts to a rushed and perplexing finish where for some reason Laurel and Hardy are now wrestling back on the dock-side. This makes no sense. If it was all a dream, shouldn’t this be made clear? If so, whose? And why?

This slapdash finish to a sporadically fun two-reeler may be partly explained by terrible news that Stan received as he was preparing the film. It’s a tragic coincidence (and please dear conspiracy theorists, let’s leave it as such) that both times Laurel and Hardy ventured into mixing slapstick with spine-tingling horror, Stan suffered awful personal losses in real life. Here, his wife Lois suffered a very difficult second pregnancy in May 1930 resulting in their son Stanley Robert Jefferson being born two months premature and dying only eight days later. Stan had to try and bring the funny whilst being utterly traumatised with grief.

A more upbeat legacy is that The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case is the first recorded example of Ollie berating Stan with: “Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into" often misquoted like many classic signature Hollywood lines, as “fine mess”.

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