What did E.B. White say about analyzing humor? that like dissecting a frog, you can do it, but both tend to die in the process?
Or maybe the appropriate quote belongs to Mel Brooks who said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."
In the award-winning comedy short The Music Box, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, nobody walks into an open sewer and dies, at least not quite, and I'm sure that if I fell down a flight of stairs 131 steps long and had a piano land on me, I wouldn't be the least bit amused, but watching Laurel and Hardy do it, not once but three times, is hysterical, and it gets funnier with each repetition.
Stan Laurel was the stage name of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, an English actor, director and playwright who began his career at the age of sixteen as a music hall comedian before eventually emigrating to America where he enjoyed moderate success as a solo act at the Hal Roach Studios in over fifty silent comedy shorts. His partner, Norville "Babe" Hardy, was born in Georgia and took up acting after running his own theater there and deciding he could do better. He took the name Oliver in tribute to his dad and wound up making over 250 silent comedy shorts between 1914 and 1926. Although the two had appeared together in short films before, Hal Roach paired them as "Stan and Ollie" for the first time in the 1927 short The Second Hundred Years. The team was an instant hit and supervising director Leo McCarey (later of Duck Soup, The Awful Truth and Going My Way) suggested they become a permanent team.
Laurel and Hardy made their first talkie in 1929 with Unaccustomed As We Are and, unlike many of their colleagues, discovered that sound improved the act. Hardy's blustery bass voice was a perfect foil to Laurel's squeaky English one; sound allowed them to place the more violent payoffs to their gags off-stage; and because sound made the slapstick more realistic, it forced them to make the gags smaller, letting the team concentrate instead on the comedy of anticipation and frustration, Laurel's forte.
In 1932, Laurel, Hardy, director James Parrott and a film crew drove out to the Silver Lake District of Los Angeles to a public staircase on Vendome Street and dared to ask that age old question, what if Sisyphus had had a partner. The answer not only provided Laurel and Hardy with the plot for one of their best comedy shorts ever, it also reiterated the comedy formula they followed with such success for most of their career together.
Watching The Music Box, unfortunately, isn't nearly as easy as it ought to be. The DVD collections that include it are out of print and even the usually reliable Netflix seems to have been caught napping on this one. I myself happened to have a copy on tape (although finding the tape was an adventure. You know how they say it's always in the last place you look—obviously, since you stop looking after that—well, The Music Box was literally in the first place I looked, the very first tape, except that because of the lighting and the angle and the way it was jammed into the bookcase, I wound up going through a thousand titles, first forward, then backwards, not once but twice, until to my chagrin, I returned to the beginning again. But I digress). But today is the maid's day off, the place is a mess, and I regret I can't be inviting you over to watch it with me.
Fortunately, I found a copy on the internet—a legal copy, at that, which is all the better. I suggest you watch it first and then come back and let me yack about it, ad nauseam. Or better yet, watch it and you yack about it, down there in the comments section.
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The action is simple—getting a piano up a long flight of stairs—but like a composer who takes a simple theme and then builds on it, Laurel and Hardy add variations, play with our expectations, delay the payoff and even go in wholly unexpected directions, for example, that pond at the top of the stairs which you just know is going to wind up with the piano in it, but how it ends up there, long after you've forgotten the pond, is real genius. What starts out simple winds up as baroque and complicated as a Rube Goldberg contraption. And yet it's bright, it's elegant and it's as light as a souffle.
It had been a while since I'd seen Laurel and Hardy—they don't show up on cable much anymore—and watching The Music Box again, I was struck by how much I had forgotten about the duo. Yes, I knew that Laurel had flawless comic timing and that Hardy could break the so-called "fourth wall" better than anybody in history. But I had forgotten, for example, that Hardy is just as dumb as Laurel, he only thinks he's smart, and that Laurel isn't always a passive recipient of whatever the world dishes out: after all, it's he, not Hardy, who kicks the snotty nurse in the pants.
I was also unaware, before I started watching silent movies and early sound comedies for this blog, just how much all these guys recycled gags, both their own and everybody else's. The Music Box, for example, is actually a remake of an earlier Laurel and Hardy silent film, Hats Off, now lost, which centered around the delivery of a washing machine rather than a piano. The routine with the boys' bowler hats—I suspect a staple of vaudevillian comedy—was later honed to perfection by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup; and Cary Grant did a riff on it as well in his first great movie, The Awful Truth. And of course the Three Stooges filmed their own short, An Ache in Every Stake, on this same flight of stairs. None of them seemed to mind much, and in the case of the good acts at least, the jokes got better each time they retold them.
The Music Box won a well-deserved Oscar for best short comedy subject at the 1932 ceremony, the only award the team ever won—and technically, the award went to the film's producer, the legendary Hal Roach. Stan Laurel was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1961 for "his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy," three years after Hardy's death.
In 1997, the Library of Congress selected The Music Box for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Even as they were filming The Music Box, the popularity of the comedy short was waning. Laurel and Hardy made their first feature-length film, Pardon Us, in 1931, and went on to score such successes as Sons of the Desert, Way Out West and A Chump At Oxford. Altogether, they starred in twenty-three feature films, the last in 1951. They left the Hal Roach Studios in 1940 and made several commercially, if not critically, successful films. Declining health ended the partnership in the mid-1950s. Hardy died in 1957; deprived of his screen partner, Laurel refused all offers to perform for the last eight years of his life, including an offer of a cameo in Stanley Kramer's 1963 comedy It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a virtual Who's Who of comedy acts. Laurel died two years later.
In honor of their stellar work together, I am handing Laurel and Hardy a pair of Katie Awards today, one for the best short film of 1931-32, The Music Box, the other a much-deserved Career Achievement Award. Congratulations, fellas.
For more information about Laurel and Hardy, including "the clip of the month," check out "Laurel & Hardy: The Official Website."