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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

HABEAS CORPUS (1928)

Laurel and Hardy's 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 in time for a wedding or just leaving home, period, in Perfect Day. Along the way, they cleverly gave the laughs an extra frisson by battling such darker forces as vengeful villain Walter Long and scorned harpie Mae Busch

The first Laurel and Hardy short to inspire ghoulish guffaws was Habeas Corpus (1928) which has the unique distinction of two Oscar-winning directors behind it.  As well as Leo McCarey, who insisted he mostly wrote for them and here is credited as ‘Supervising Director’, James Parrott went on to helm many of their classics like The Music Box in 1932 (and also their next horror-comedy after this, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case).

Strictly speaking Habeas Corpus is a silent film, but for fans accustomed to their later ones it feels very much like a sound film with the sound-track removed and replaced with an orchestra plus added whistles, wood-blocks and other effects. The inciting protagonist is the balding mad scientist Professor Padilla (Richard Carle) who follows in a long line of horror movie medical whackos with his experiment to prove ‘That the human brain has a level surface – in some cases practically flat’. The irreverent H.M. Walker is the wit behind the titles though such is the strength of the sight-gags to come that he’s barely needed.

The Professor needs the help of enterprising idiots who can provide him with a body from a little nocturnal grave-robbing. As if by tragic, without seeing them we get a lovely visual clue as to who the prospective Burke and Hare will be: a close-up of a prissy hand dismissing that of another person to take over knocking on the door. It is Stan and Ollie, ever ready to bypass common sense in favour of ready money, in this case $500 for the job. Little do they know, even less than usual, that the butler is an undercover policeman by the name of Ledoux – very likely an in-joke reference to Inspector Ledoux in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera that we covered earlier. Charley Rogers in the role would work with Laurel and Hardy many more times over the years.


The police seize the nutty professor while the boys head to work. Along the way, Stan shows rare powers of perception in suggesting their employer might be ‘a trifle cuckoo’ – emphasised by a cuckoo FX cue. Ollie reminds us that the pair’s partnership extends to sharing the one brain by assuring him: ‘He is as sound mentally as you or I’.

The boys head for the graveyard where As usual even getting into the graveyard isn’t simple for those simple in mind. After wet paint shenannigans, they spend over three minutes in increasingly haphazard and funny bids just to get Stan hoisted over the wall by Ollie. Once in though, it may not be gruesome for the twosome yet their night-shift becomes hair-raising courtesy of a seemingly ghostly wandering lamp (placed on a nearby tortoise by Stan), a rubber bat that may be related to the unconvincing flapper seen in Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula and the close surveillance by Ledoux that turns him into a running smokey spectre to terrorise our heroes.

The pace is excellent and the high gag-rate sustains throughout. Look out for Ollie’s demonstration of how to properly use your friend to scale a wall – or in his case utterly demolish it – one of their sublime moments of destruction that always deserves a rewind. There’s even a nice possible nod to Buster Keaton in the way that Ledoux, bagged by mistake, pokes his legs through Stan’s hefted sack and walks behind him in perfect sync. 

Habeas Corpus is a great example of a comedy team adding a touch of spookiness to a short, exploiting a single idea, playing on its main characters’ relationship and sustaining the chaos to the end. From here, audiences would now be able to hear their mirthful exchanges as well as see them...

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