Sisyphuses off of Sunset

In my attempt to examine the interplay of the surprising and the predictable in Laurel & Hardy’s classic shorts, I turned to THE MUSIC BOX (1932), their Oscar-winning film directed by James Parrott. My memory of it was that it’s unusually dedicated to the inevitable.

“Let the boring crap be boring crap,” was one of Sidney Pollack’s rules of film-making, and Parrott seems to have anticipated him. The opening scene is bald exposition, woodenly laying out the purchase of a player piano by a woman as a present for her husband. That last sentence contains just as much character and detail as the scene itself.

Stan & Ollie are removal/delivery men. A sign on their cart tells us that their business was “foundered in 1931,” a statement which seems likely to be accurate. The straightforward assemblage of narrative planks continues, with Charlie Hall (the boys’ antagonist in THEM THAR HILLS and TIT FOR TAT) as a postman who points out the address they’ve been aimed at, helpfully failing to indicate the route of easiest access.

So a tall flight of stairs just off Sunset Blvd. enters cinema history, as the film spends half its runtime with the boys attempting to lug the titular crate to its destination.

The appearance of a nursemaid pushing a pram is the first indication that this is a particularly harsh version of the Hal Roach universe. While her profession might normally imply a caring attitude, Lilyan Irene plays it as a sadly typical L&H female (no wonder the boys had so much trouble staying married). Having sort-of caused the crate to slide all the way down to the foot of the stairs, this infernal female finds the whole business so funny that Stan is compelled to kick her in the ass. She then punches Stan in the nose, which Ollie finds funny (no camaraderie here) which somehow forces her to smash a milk bottle over his head. The slow, methodical delivery of each act of violence plays into the predictability argument, though the combination of childish aggression — peaceful solutions are never considered, less provocative behaviour is seemingly unimaginable — with CLOCKWORK ORANGE-level viciousness ensures that surprise is still present.

Actually, I’m forgetting the malevolence of the horse, Susie, which has already caused the crate to fall on Ollie’s back, for no other reason than its own amusement.

The hostility of the world soon extends to the crate itself, which has an affinity for crashing downstairs whenever the boys turn their collective back on it. Now that the inevitability of gravity has been established, the achingly predictable does assume a front-and-centre role in the proceedings, but soon a policeman appears to dish out more excessive, childish violence. He obeys the rules of his species by arriving ill-informed, having placed his own misconstruction upon the report given him by the nursemaid who, despite departing in triumph, has taken her grievance straight to the law. She really is the worst. The policeman is the second worst. Of course his faulty construction of the facts places all the blame on Ollie: this is Ollie’s Eternal Fate.

The cop’s violence reduces the boys to children: police brutality was, I’m sure, at least as common then as now, but usually carried out behind closed doors. But kids could be walloped in public, and in the UK the “clip ’round the ear” was considered a positive way of course-correcting an errant waif, without the need for paperwork or parents. I’m not sure it was beneficial to anyone but the constable. This copper (Sam Lufkin, another unsung Joe of the Roach shorts) has an inventive way with his nightstick, the flick of Ollie’s chin and the jab to Stan’s stomach being particular favourites of mine.

This stuff seems pretty vicious, but it always did. I remember my Dad declaring “brutality!” in shocked amusement back in the ’70s when I first saw it, just as Fiona did today. And that was the ’70s, a harsher time. The Battle of Lewisham was considered just a bit of fun.

After ringing every variation on the pianola-stoop situation they can think of, including having Ollie, in the form of an obvious floppy dummy, dragged back to street level by the determined crate, the summit is finally reached and the postman reappears to explain that all this suffering was unnecessary as a curving street approaches their destination on a gentle gradient. They could have used the cart. At this point the boys, sighing in frustration and seeing no alternative, carry the crate back down the stairs so they can cart it up properly. I can vividly remember ANOTHER ’70s viewing of the film, and my sister screaming in frustration at this, just as Fiona did today.

Some people can’t get on with Laurel & Hardy films precisely because of this frustration. The boys embark on a stupidity, which we can see is bound to end in disaster, or else do something like this which makes no real sense at all, and the desperate viewer wants to climb into the frame like Buster in SHERLOCK JR. and sort things out. But of course they’d just get a poke in the eye for their troubles.

We shouldn’t feel sorry for the non-fans, they rather resent our sympathy, I believe. It’s true that this is not a failure of sense of humour, just a different form of wiring in that part of the brain known as the Bud Cortex. The victim finds other things to laugh at. But I’m not sure anything makes anyone laugh as hard as Stan & Ollie, though I’m no closer to knowing why.

Anyway, Stan and Ollie now have fishpond trouble, and find nobody’s home, and embark on a fresh stupidity, hoisting their package into an upper window on the block-and-tackle. Miraculously, the awning more or less survives this misuse, and the box does not actually get dropped on Ollie’s cortex. Everything ELSE goes wrong, though. But the piano does eventually pass into the house. The serious business of home-wrecking can now begin.

As a sensitive child, I was never particularly disturbed by the savage onslaughts against the human body celebrated in L&H films, but I was freaked by the physical distortion gags — Ollie getting his neck stretched so it resembled a great, white candle, gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach and a sense of Lovecraftian dread. And I was disturbed in my extreme youth by the domestic property destruction. I can remember frowning as the boys wrenched down a Venetian blind. Maybe because we had one in the house and maybe I’d been advised of its fragility. On no account climb it.

The really first-rate job of demolition performed here impresses me and in no sense worries me now, though Ollie getting jabbed in the eye and stepping on a huge nail causes a real double-wince. Though Stan may be a holy fool, Ollie is the Christ figure, suffering for the world’s sins: he has just dragged an outsized assemblage of wood up a hill and got a nail in his foot. Truly he is the Son of God. You can probably find reconstructions of all Christ’s wounds in the performances of Oliver Norville Hardy, if you’re so inclined, and Our Lord never had HIS legs torn off and wrapped round his neck. (And I’m obscurely reminded that Mel Gibson once nearly played Moe Howard for the Farrelly Brothers.)

The apartment is flooded when the crate is opened. The radio is knocked over and Ollie steps in it (broken glass, electrical shocks). Another fuse blows when the pianola is plugged in. Then the homeowner arrives and the wreckage actually intensifies, as he takes an axe to the unwanted instrument.

This is the excellent, swivel-eyed Billy Gilbert, essaying a Herman Bing accent. The boys have already encountered him on the stairway, and as Fate would arrange things this was their only victory en route to Calgary. Now it works against them, though the timely arrival of the wife from scene one calms the apoplectic faux-kraut long enough for Fate to deliver a final insult, a final twist, and then we’re out.

Preliminary hypothesis: the deliberate pacing of L&H allows many of their gags and situations to be both surprising and inevitable at the same time, letting the audience start to laugh while the mishap is just starting, so that our laughter gets an extra push (or several) as mayhem ensues. Also, the unusual willingness to let the audience get well ahead of a gag results in greater surprise and delight when a piece of slapstick is triggered WITHOUT advance warning. I don’t know if I can get any deeper than that on a theoretical level, but I’m going to try. Maybe close analysis of one scene is the way forward…

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9 Responses to “Sisyphuses off of Sunset”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    A lady of my acquaintance remembers being hugely frustrated by “The Music Box” as a child, precisely because the dang piano keeps ending up back on the sidewalk. She was also bothered by the Three Stooges, not for pain inflicted but for making horrible messes of attractive homes.

    For me, taking the piano down the steps and bringing it back up the easy way was the biggest single laugh. What does it for me is how smug they look when they arrive, as if they’ve just beat the system.

    Hardy is not only made to suffer, but his camera looks in most films tell us he KNOWS he’s a martyr, blameless victim of a cruel world and a well-intentioned idiot. Many comics, especially those chasing Chaplinesque “pathos”, would make unashamed plays for audience sympathy. When Ollie asks for your sympathy, the first reaction is laughter. He makes suffering pompous and a little absurd. (“Nothing But Trouble” and “Air Raid Wardens”, their last MGM films, disastrously make his and Stan’s sufferings realistic)

    James Parrott, AKA silent comedian Paul Parrott, was Charley Chase’s brother. Both brothers were Roach mainstays, on and off camera.

  2. You’ve hit on something — the fact that “martyr” has an unofficial subsidiary meaning — a self-important dork who thinks his suffering is tragic when it isn’t. I think this subliminal meaning has been eating away at the grandeur of martyrdom since biblical times.

    MGM had a boundless ability to distort comedians’ personae in just the ways that would do them the most harm, didn’t they? Keaton, the Marxes, and Laurel & Hardy…

  3. Blake Edwards’ “A Fine Mess” started out as a remake of “The Music Box” Ted and Danson and Howie Mandel are needless to say no Stan and Ollie

  4. My investigation of late Edwards stopped just shy of that one…

  5. bensondonald Says:

    MGM even botched Rowan & Martin in the 1960s, although they may not have been that hands-on by then. Rowan & Martin were red-hot on TV, their act being Rowan as the suave straight man and Martin as the less smart but nudge-nudge “playboy”; the show itself was the uberhip “Laugh-In”.

    In “The Maltese Bippy” (irrelevantly referencing a “Laugh-In” catchphrase), Martin is the sensible, competent one and Rowan is a silly, gullible would-be promoter. Besides stripping them of their standup relationship to no purpose, the script is as bland and sanitary as an early 60s sitcom.

    Another nail in the coffin was the ad campaign, which had R&M in their “Laugh-In” tuxes surrounded by their TV costars (who weren’t in the movie). If there was an audience for the movie at all, it was people who found “Laugh-In” too fast and smutty.

  6. While I guess you had to see them bck in the day to really appreciate them, nothing about R&M really struck me as cinematically suited when I saw Laugh-In. But keeping the partnership consistent would seem like the least they could have done when attempting the leap to celluloid.

    Few TV comics really made it big apart from Martin (different one) & Lewis. Frankie Howerd seems to have been so dependent on a live audience that he could never really give of his best on film, with the crew deliberately not laughing.

  7. I lived (still do) near a high flight of steps off Sunset that are usually identified as *the* steps (opposite Micheltorena) and often have found myself affirming to hopeful (movie-loving) tourists that yes, *those* are the very steps up and down which L&H struggled so manfully – only to be informed by IMDB that the actual steps are not in Silverlake and do not run up from Sunset Blvd but are in fact over in Culver City, which does make sense, but it is the house to which the instrument is delivered that is in Culver… while the steps in the movie are on Vendome Place, also off Sunset, also, indeed, in Silverlake, but not at all the location to which I have happily misdirected so many folks. I was not alone in my mistake, it’s a common error, and the tourists always seemed totally happy.

  8. As long as they go home believing they saw the steps, why shouldn’t they be happy?

  9. My thoughts exactly.
    And what cinema’s about, really.

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