not in our stars, but in ourselves
18/52: A short film
Children, you’re being ripped off every time you go to the movie theatre these days. Where $15 will get you a mess of advertisements and trailers, as well as one two-hour film, about 25¢ used to get you a newsreel, a cartoon, a serial or two, a comedy short, and a feature film – maybe even two features. Some especially prolific actors appeared in dozens and dozens of these pre-feature shorts, and some of the most popular were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
I confess: I have a very sentimental attachment to Laurel and Hardy. They’re among my parents’ favorites, and so we grew up watching their shorts and features. It seems to me that they’re far less popular these days than some of their contemporary comedy teams (the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, etc.) – and I think that’s a shame. Too bad for the rest of you. Some of us know what’s what.
“Brats” is one of their 100 or so films together, and it’s a pretty great starting point for all things Laurel and Hardy. It also happens to be one I remember distinctly from childhood, and one that my parents refer to all the time. The premise is pretty simple: Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy are home watching Stanley Jr. and Oliver Jr. while their wives are out at target practice. Stan and Ollie are trying to play checkers, but their children keep getting into fights with each other, breaking vases, throwing blocks, and generally wreaking havoc. Ollie, exasperated, sends them to bed – where the hijinx and property damage continue.
Now, this is not a masterpiece of subtlety or art. It is really, really funny, though. Laurel and Hardy modify their own vocal patterns and physical tics just enough to appear…well, not believable as their junior selves, but quite distinct from their adult versions. They crawl on oversize furniture, stamp their feet (clad in little mary-janes, of course), speak about a half-tone higher than usual. And the effect is comic gold. Creaky, distinctly ’30s – but comic gold all the same.
And there is some fairly impressive camera trickery here – especially considering the year (1930). In order to achieve the illusion of the elder and younger Stans and Ollies being in the same room, director James Parrott (or perhaps de facto director Laurel – who was far more shrewd and hands-on than his screen persona would suggest) employed a split-screen technique. Obviously, Laurel and Hardy didn’t pioneer the split screen: Georges Méliès, magician that he was, used it all the way back in 1903 or so; but I don’t know that it had been applied to a talkie before this one. Greater film historians than I can tackle that question, but I can’t think of any other examples before this that weren’t silents. Laurel and Hardy did begin in silents, and they never forgot the importance of a striking visual in cinema – even for something as seemingly silly and inconsequential as this.
I’ve tried to figure out why Laurel and Hardy aren’t quite as omnipresent in pop culture as other comedy acts of their era, despite how popular they were at the time. I think part of it might be the fact that, unlike the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges, they’re not all that over-the-top. With the Marx Brothers, every situation is absurdity writ large, with a blitzkrieg of verbal acrobatics and sight gags packed into every frame. With the Three Stooges, you get the kind of slapstick comedy that would have been perfectly at home in anything from Looney Toons to Itchy and Scratchy. Laurel and Hardy are – dare I say? – slightly more earthbound. The situations in which they find themselves don’t quite beggar belief; the physical comedy is less unrealistically violent; the sight gags aren’t nearly as elaborate as Harpo Marx’s tattoo with a real dog in the doghouse. All the comedy arises from their relationship with each other: a chemical reaction between two known elements, altered slightly depending on the scenario. However, it’s just not as aggressive as some of their coevals.
As I said, though: it’s awfully funny all the same. “Brats” is a favorite not only for its own premise (which is really quite sweet, in a mischievous sort of way), but for how oft-cited it was and is in my family. In fact, the thrown-together family of Big Stan and Big Ollie with Little Stan and Little Ollie reminds me very much of the dynamics among my parents, me, and my sister – back when she and I were little brats ourselves. (Now we’re big brats.) To this day, any one of us is equally likely to recite Stan the Elder’s slightly misconstrued aphorism: “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.” Have truer words ever been spoken? Never!
Because I’m a generous person, I will share the gift of Laurel and Hardy with you hopeless sinners. “Brats” – like a good many other shorts and features – is available for exactly zero dollars on YouTube.
EDIT: well, it was. Darn it.
P.S. This is part one of a two-part Mother’s Day dedication. My dear old mum (Stan the Elder in our household) loves “Brats” quite a lot, and she loves tomorrow’s movie even more. Happy Mother’s Day, Mama Bear.
P.P.S. The international Laurel and Hardy society, known as Sons of the Desert, has a local Boston chapter: the Boston Brats. I’ve never joined a club in my life, but perhaps it’s time I tried it out.