“I was dreaming I was awake, and then all of a sudden I woke up and found myself asleep.” ~ Stan Laurel in OLIVER THE EIGHTH.
Well, I did a foolish thing. To celebrate handing in my Shirley Clarke article (henceforth, “the Clarkicle”) I shelled out fifty clams for the giant 21-disc LAUREL & HARDY COLLECTION. Admittedly, I’ve been coveting them for ages. I have most of the stuff on old VHS off-air recordings, but knowing I have something as complete as necessary is a nice feeling. (Nobody needs to have all the shorts with Stan but not Ollie, or vice versa, and nobody WANTS to have UTOPIA/ATOLL K, that misbegotten final film which I’ve never had the courage to investigate.)
Having lugged the box home (it’s like a little briefcase in size) I immediately rifled through in search of what was to be my first watch. When I got to Disc 6, OLIVER THE EIGHTH leaped out at me.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this L&H. It might be due to the responses instilled in me by my mother, who would always get very excited by anything mixing fear and comedy. Well, I say always, but I’m probably thinking solely of her very audible reaction to the Disney Legend of Sleepy Hollow adaptation that forms half of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD. All that screaming and laughing made a big impression on me, and influenced my love of the chases in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.
So, to O8, as it will be known when Roland Emmerich remakes it as a Summer Blockbuster. Fiona had seen it before, but I don’t think she remembered it in detail. What was weird was, seeing it with her, it became suddenly clear to me how brilliantly structured the film was. There’s no way to discuss this without spoilers, so run away now if you’re bothered by such things.
THE PLOT: Stan and Ollie run a “Tonsorial Parlor”. Stan discovers a classified ad of the “rich widow seeks husband” variety, and both he and Ollie resolve to apply. But Ollie hides Stan’s letter (“Oh noooo!” cried Fiona, who can be a little like my Mum in terms of her vocal emotional response to movies) before sitting down smugly to be shaved…
His application successful, Oliver Norville Hardy duly arrives at the designated mansion, where he finds a mad butler, Jitters, played by Jack Barty (born in London during Jack the Ripper’s autumn of terror, died two years after appearing in GASLIGHT, his final role) and Mae Busch (hard-bitten vamp, memorable in TIT FOR TAT and several other L&H films, deserves a statue in her honour in Adelaide, Australia). Then Stan turns up, having found the hidden letter, demanding half of what’s coming to Ollie.
BUT — Mad Mae was once jilted by an Oliver, and has spent her subsequent years revenging herself upon the race of Olivers — they’re all alike, those Olivers! — inviting them to her home and cutting their throats as they sleep (there’s an understated grisliness about this film). Learning this, but locked in the house, Stan and Ollie must try to stay awake and defend themselves.
This is where the film really begins for me. The plot set-up is fine, an engaging tall tale kind of thing, and the business with the screwy butler (playing solitaire with imaginary cards, serving imaginary soup and crackers at dinner) is kooky and provides a great excuse to linger on the details of performance — like the individual ways Stan and Ollie and Mae crumble their phantom crackers, humouring the nut who waits on them. But once the real suspense kicks in, it’s a perfect excuse for Ollie’s slow-burn reaction and the painstaking methodology of the usual Laurel & Hardy destructiveness to play out with a ticking clock of serious suspense underneath. Unusual!
Stan keeps falling asleep, so Ollie fixes up a primitive Rube Goldberg contraption to keep him alert. The circumstances leading from that little ploy, to Ollie’s sitting unconscious in a chair with a sheet over his body, throat exposed, while Stan is trapped in a closet with the shotgun which is their only weapon, as Mae advances upon Ollie with grim determination and mesmeric trances expression, stropping her giant blade — well, I want to say that those circumstances have the logic of a nightmare, but actually it’s better than that. They have the impeccable logic of reality, or the L&H version of it anyhow, combined with the TERROR of a nightmare.
At a scene of high tension, reaching a peak, with a “get out of THAT” plot problem closing on the heroes like a steel trap, I am always reminded of my maternal grandmother’s reaction to suspense climaxes in movies — maintaining a sitting position, but her arms and legs would magically RISE INTO THE AIR and WAVE ABOUT, animated as if by invisible wires. It’s my ultimate mental image of unbearable tension, and my dream as a filmmaker is to make everybody in a 500-seat auditorium do the same.
Anyhow, through what is basically a hackneyed cliche, but suddenly seems to me fresh and brilliantly structured, Ollie awakens at the instant of death and finds himself back in his old barber’s chair. “I just had a terrible dream,” he declares, redundantly, the end credits music already starting to hurry us out of this delightful nightmare.
What’s great about this is that it’s cunningly prepared for, and the dream can easily be seen as motivated by Ollie’s guilt at hiding Stan’s letter (this could be the most Freudian of L&H films), but this doesn’t need to be explained. Nor does the film need to go into what’s going to happen next. Ollie might decide to post Stan’s letter, or he might be so freaked out by the dream that he thinks it best not to, and will refrain from replying to any missives from that rich widow…
Also nice — there’s a loud crash as Ollie awakens, which presumably is Stan, in the closet, with the shotgun, but (a) we never see him fire it and (b) the sound carries on into the next scene, which is a wholly different reality. So it feels like on of those Bunuel moments, where the great Don Luis will play a sound which is perfectly recognisable but has no obvious diegetic source in the scene, and only the most allusive meaning in symbolic terms.
In fact, while Bunuel may have enjoyed Chaplin and Keaton, he feels more similar to L&H in some ways. Use of offscreen noise; extremes of cruelty enacted with ritualisitic politeness, simplicity of framing which is neither stagy like Chaplin nor super-composed like Keaton. The “clutching hand” that terrifies Stan in O8 has a counterpart in the crawling, or rather gliding hand that sweeps across the living room in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, Mae Busch is could almost be a distaff version of ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, and the mimed meal the characters “enjoy” is like a foretaste of the many frustrated or skewed dinners served up in the Spanish surrealists films.