The Sunday Intertitle: Ass Backwards

I always liked Leo McCarey’s description, in his Peter Bogdanovich interview (contained in the book Who the Devil Made It?, highly recommended) of coming up with the plot of Laurel & Hardy’s WRONG AGAIN during the course of a brief phone call. There was a reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy on his wall, and he spitballed the notion that the original gets stolen and the boys hear something of this, and see a horse called Blue Boy and think that’s the stolen item, and try to return it to its “owner.” And he leans out the window but can’t see the horse because of an awning, and thinks they have his painting, and asks them to “take him right in the house.” And later asks them to “put him on the piano.”

(Laurel & Hardy’s intertitles are made of cheap but durable cladding.)

The boys think this is pretty strange, but after all, millionaires are notoriously eccentric, right? Ollie even invents a hand gesture, a cupping accompanied by a firm twist, suggesting how the very rich like to have everything the reverse way round.

This philosophical theory will later be helpful to Stan when he puzzles over a strange piece of statuary. In fact it was once a normal figure, but Ollie shattered it in three pieces, and put it back together wrong. Being a Southern gentleman, he was unable to handle the statue’s bare behind with his bare hands, so wrapped it in his jacket. The result, ladies and gentlemen, is plain to see.

But not plain to Stan, who puzzles over if for 44 seconds in an extraordinary performance which seems to cycle through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, but in the wrong order. He begins with mild surprise and segues into puzzlement. He seems to be adding up the constituent parts to check they are numerically correct. They are, but something is definitely wrong. BARGAINING.

So he’s puzzled some more, and then a sort of false illumination hits him and he becomes, momentarily, very happy. I don’t think Stan knows why he’s smiling, the gladness is just like a hat he’s trying on. Maybe this is how he should react… will everything make sense if he’s happy about it? DENIAL.

Then, just as suddenly, he’s absolutely scandalised. This is an outrage! It’s as if the nude statue has somehow become twice as nude, just to insult him, personally. ANGER.

And back to BARGAINING/DENIAL. Let’s try this from another angle. It might make more sense from over here. Stan is almost moving into the role of an innocent tourist confronting a work of surrealism or, better, cubism, in a gallery.

But this doesn’t help, and finally Stan seems stumped. There are the right number of parts but, like Stan’s thought processes, they are disordered. Nothing seems adequate to explaining this obscurely terrible situation. DEPRESSION.

Finally, he remembers Ollie’s wise words and descriptive hand gesture, and a new happiness descends on him. The awful statue can be explained by the odd nature of the homeowner. Millionaires like normal things reversed. ACCEPTANCE.

Ollie’s fresh smile is now the satisfied bliss of true understanding. But Stan doesn’t leave us on this note. He prepares to leave, back to the plot, but sneaks a last glance at the offending derrière. A queasy feeling comes over him. His joy drains away. Yes. This might all be explicable from an aesthetic-psychological viewpoint, his expression tells us, but it is still deeply screwy. These millionaires are just wrong.

Now, let’s get that horse on the piano.



5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Ass Backwards”

  1. I always run that film in the introduction to my Jerry Lewis class to show how the King of Comedy develops past routines. This anticipates his modern art masterpiece in THE BELLBOY (1960).

  2. Another 44-second masterpiece from silent Stan where he literally extracts every last piece from one gag:

  3. That’s astonishing, but at least he has an action to perform.

    And yes, the idea of a milking a REaction for extreme duration is very Jerry.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Possible subject for analysis: One wouldn’t think that L&H trademarks could work for the Marx Brothers, but Leo McCarey managed it in “Duck Soup”.

    When Harpo and Chico contend with master L&H rival Edgar Kennedy, there is some tit-for-tat AND the mixing-up-of-hats. The pacing is a lot different, but the Marxs do slow down a little to accommodate the slow burn artist. And where Stan and Ollie were flummoxed by how they kept ending up with the wrong hats (it’s a magic trick turned inside out — we see exactly how it’s happening AND how the boys could miss the problem), here the brothers are doing it on purpose to their adversary.

    Later, Harpo and Chico try to break into the Dumont manse by ringing the doorbell and dashing in while the butler seeks the absent bell ringer. First one Marx gets in and locks the other out; then the other gets in and locks the first one out; finally they’re both locked out when the butler returns. L&H did frequent variations of trying to get inside or outside a door. Even a wide open door might take a few tries, or at least a take from Ollie when Stan “magically” appears behind him. With Harpo and Chico, it’s not so much low brain wattage as getting excited and forgetting the point of the exercise.

    The famous mirror routine actually echoes an early Charley Chase. The Groucho part is taken by a cop-hating madman; policeman Charley improvises a disguise and tries to convince the madman he’s merely a harmless reflection:

    And because it’s there:

  5. McCarey forms the onnection with Chase, having supervised a great many of his films. But max linder didn it before Charley, I think, in Seven Years Bad Luck. And it’s a gag whoich could easily work on stage, so probably originated there.

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