Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Laurel and Hardy Sound Shorts (1929)

Laurel and Hardy's first talkie is a domestic farce of the kind they had done a number of times before, but demonstrates how instinctively and naturally suited they were for the sound film medium. Unlike other clowns, such as W.C. Fields or The Marx Bros. who relied primarily on their distinctive delivery for full effect, Laurel and Hardy found creative ways of using sound itself as a source of humor -- probably moreso than any other comedian until Jacques Tati. While still technically primitive in terms of the recording quality, the film contains a number of inventive sound gags, such as Mae Busch haranguing Hardy in rhythm with a blaring phonograph record. They later re-worked the premise of this film into their 1938 feature, BLOCKHEADS.

This is frequently cited by critics and fans alike as one of the team's lesser efforts, particularly for its protracted sequence in which Laurel and Hardy get tangled up in eachothers' clothing while changing in an upper train berth. They were still clearly struggling with adapting their pacing to sound at this early stage. The best part is the opening scene, with the boys continually missing eachother at the train station. This sequence features a great sound gag, with the train conductor rattling off the names of the destinations at an intelligible speed.

I enjoyed this one less this time around. It used to be one of my favorites; now, I find it bogged down by the forced chaos of the boating sequence that ends the picture, though it's an improvement over BERTH MARKS' clothes-ripping finale. The "soda fountain" scene is of course a classic, itself a re-working of a scene in their earlier silent SHOULD MARRIED MEN GO HOME? Abbott and Costello did a similar routine years later, and while their version is certainly funny, it also feels somewhat mechanical, a fine performance by a talented comedy team, whereas Laurel and Hardy's version works so well because it stems naturally from their characters. The second half, consisting one of those tit-for-tat battles that had worked so well in their silent films, suffers from serious pacing issues due to the new challenges presented by sound. Unlike the tightly-edited finales of YOU'RE DARN TOOTIN' or THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, this sequence is comparatively clunky and clumsy, a decided disappointment after the relaxed pace of the first half.

With this film, Laurel and Hardy prove once again that they needed only the simplest of situations on which to build a sublime comedy. Considered their first really great sound film in some quarters, it's certainly a big improvement on the pacing of their previous talkies, and demonstrates how effectively the team could milk a single situation for maximum comic potential. Edgar Kennedy works especially well with the boys here, as their cantankerous uncle whose gouty foot manages to get stomped on and slammed in the car door at every opportunity. Kennedy was a great foil for the team, and it's a shame he didn't work with them more frequently in the sound shorts. Brilliant use of sound effects in this one, especially when Hardy hits Laurel over the head with the clutch. I can only imagine the uproarious reaction that must have provoked from audiences in 1929. The final sight gag, with the car sinking into a giant puddle, is a perfect topper to this fine little comedy.

A minor effort from their first year of making sound films, this one shows how quickly and naturally Laurel and Hardy adapted to talkies. The pacing and technical issues that had marked their early sound shorts are nowhere to be found here. The premise is simple: the boys are tenants in a seedy boarding house. Ollie's sick in bed with a cold, and Stan's attempts at helping him lead to one disaster after another. Contains the great sight gag of the over-inflated air mattress that finally explodes when Hardy sneezes. They had used the boarding house setting before in ANGORA LOVE, and would return to it a couple years later in LAUGHING GRAVY (1931).

This little prison comedy seems to be rarely regarded as one of the team's better efforts, probably because it lacks any really memorable gags or scenes (though I've always been partial to the moment when Hardy accidentally chops down a tree containing a prison guard station). The rice-throwing finale, between the prisoners and the board of governors, fails to build the necessary pace in order to really work effectively. Still, the film is overall leisurely-paced and pleasantly funny enough, especially when Stan and Ollie get to play with axes and picks, which is always good for some laughs.

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