Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Comedy of Errors

Last week, in a desperate funk over events Beyond My Control, I decided it was time to pull out the Big Guns, draw from the bank of the dwindling list of "firsts" still available to me, and partake of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy in Our Relations.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn't this: a double-dose of Stan and Ollie in a comedy of mistaken identities and mismatched expectations. The simple premise is established with a couple of lines of dialogue and a fun trick photo in the first five minutes of the movie: Stan and Babe have twin brothers from whom they were separated -- not at birth, but shortly after high school. One set of twins, the ones we know, live contended and upstanding middle-class lives with their spouses in a shared home. The other set -- the disreputable ones -- shipped off to sea at a young age and were hanged for their incompetence by an angry ship captain.

So Stan and Ollie don’t expect to see their incorrigible twin brothers Bert and Alfie ever again. Of course this means that Bert and Alfie immediately ship in to Stan and Ollie’s home town and begin making themselves known in one of the port’s -- ehm -- more unsavory establishments. 

The whole of the comedy in Our Relations involves Stan and Ollie getting blamed for everything Bert and Alfie do, while Bert and Alfie find themselves having an awful lot of explaining to do to a pair of women they’ve never met before. I don’t know whether or not Shakespeare invented this plot, but it dates back at least that far, and folks have working variations of it ever since; rarely, I think, to the level of satisfaction that Laurel and Hardy achieved in this picture. 

It was the first Laurel and Hardy picture to be made by Stan’s own production company, and as such it seems to be making a statement on his behalf to Hal Roach and MGM and anyone else who may have been sticking their fingers into the Laurel & Hardy movies: “I know what makes this team work better than any of you jamooks, and here’s the proof.” 

It looks slick, it plays slick, it features a number of the team’s familiar foils (Jimmy Finlayson as a fellow sailor whose avarice complicates everything, Daphne Pollard, perhaps the most compact bundle of hostility ever to marry the boys onscreen, and Arthur Houseman perfecting his Drunk act) plus a few new ones; it successfully piles frustration upon frustration and makes for a pretty breezy six reels. The final sequence, with gangsters popping up out of nowhere to fit Stan and Ollie with cement shoes -- is like nothing you’ve ever seen before in a Laurel and Hardy movie: really quite morbid, suspenseful, but also wonderfully funny. In the end, what we have is one joke that Stan Laurel has single-handedly milked for every last drop that’s worth.

It worked. Well, at least for me, there’s nothing like a visit from Laurel & Hardy to cure a funk. But I’m mindful of the fact that I’m drawing near to the end of the road.

Back in, I guess, the late ‘80s, early ‘90s when VHS had finally caught on and the studios had realized that they could turn a buck by releasing their movie backlist to the home video market, the very first movies on my Bucket List were the Universal horror movies of the 1930’s and ‘40s: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, yes, but also Island of Lost Souls, Murders in the Zoo and that whole pantheon of terror from the age when Horror was Not Too Horrible, when shadows and suggestion and the imagination played a part in the telling of scary stories, when explicit violence and gore were things that Just Didn’t Happen.

In the years I was growing up, and all the way into my thirties, those movies were scarcer than flowers in winter. No one in my area showed them. I’d never seen most of them. So when each one came out on video, I scoffed them up and devoured them greedily.

Then one day, I realized: there was nothing left. I’d seen them all. I’d climbed that mountain, forded that steam, followed that rainbow. 

For the longest time, Laurel and Hardy lived in a similar Bubble of Invisibility. It wasn’t until this year, 2012, that the bulk of their major work became available on DVD. A significant chunk of it I’d never had the opportunity to watch. Our Relations fell into that category, and it was worth the wait. 

But I’m reaching the end of the list. Soon there will be no new Laurel & Hardy left for me. I still want to see it all: but it will be a sad day when I attain that goal.

-- Freder.

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