Gas-s-s-s

 

UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE (1929) was the first Laurel & Hardy talkie — I’ve been reading about their career in Randy Skretvedt’s magisterial Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies. Leo McCarey had left Roach to do features, but he left behind a backlog of story ideas which the boys continued to film for some time after his departure.

This story is one of Leo’s “My God! My husband!” farce plots, but it plays a little differently because it’s all much slower. L&H, under Leo’s tutelage, had already slowed their pacing right down, but this is pure early talkie drag here, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Lewis R. Foster & Hal  directed, no doubt with considerable input from Stan. Four cameras rolled on every take, their perspiring operators sealed with them in sound-proofed boxes. The results are inevitably static as well as being slow, the viewer always situated outside the set, looking in. But there’s a spirit of innovation nonetheless.

Always shield the genitals when talking to the wife.

Improvisation! From the start, the boys mistrusted the scripted lines credited to H.M. “Beany” Walker, and would ad-lib their way through them to maintain an air of life and spontaneity. And rehearsal was avoided: “What do you want to do, ruin it?” Stan would say. The speech here has much of the labored, school-play quality of the boys’ Spanish German and French productions, where they had to learn their lines phonetically. But still, there’s a life and an uncertainty to it (like IS uncertainty).

Overlapping dialogue! The reliably ferocious Mae Busch, as Mrs. Hardy, tears into her husband, who protests, resulting in a domestic babel of considerable volume and duration, dialogue as noise.

Rapping! Ollie turns the radio on and Mae’s dialogue starts to sync with the resulting music.

Offscreen noise! The full glory of Ollie’s offscreen crash-landings may not be here yet, but a series of gas explosions erupt from the Hardy kitchen, two of them propelling Ollie bodily out into the living room, the third sending Thelma Todd out with her dress ablaze. Reviewers picked up on an offscreen exit in BROADWAY MELODY the same year, where a character can be heard, but not seen, getting into a car and driving off. Stan & Ollie discovered an even better use for the cost-saving, Ozu-style strategy.

Fucking big flame thrower! Ollie’s involuntary entrances are followed by impressive gouts of flame at ceiling-level. Looks pretty dangerous. The fact that there IS no ceiling probably helped them pass the nonexistent health & safety laws.

More offscreen noise! People start getting beaten up out in the hall with increasing frequency as the film nears its very funny conclusion. One of Leo’s favorite situations was fart-at-the-dinner-table embarrassment. Here, instead of flatulence, it’s Thelma beating the crap out of Edgar Kennedy next door. Then, when we hear Kennedy bopping Ollie’s nose, the echoing wail of off-mic distress is easily as terrifying as those of Cagney’s victims in THE PUBLIC ENEMY.

The flaws and the virtues combine beautifully. The boxy, distant framing, so flat and square, adds hilarity to Edgar Kennedy’s expressionistically posed bulk. There are lessons here, I feel.

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3 Responses to “Gas-s-s-s”

  1. It was partially reworked as the plot of one of their finest later features Blockheads. One of their all time best in my opinion. The army veterans home sequence is one of their most inspired, with a terrific verbal punch line.

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  2. The L&H box set, apart from providing us with unwanted and ghastly colorized version sof most of the films, is very well packaged, so that this one shares disc space with Blockheads, and all the films which were remade or reworked are on the same discs, allowing us to see the development of the material.

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