This is a rare short film indeed within the Laurel and Hardy canon, a film that ends up having created unfinished business. Them Thar Hills was so successful that it created an actual sequel – Tit for Tat – a unique occasion in which Stan and Ollie are not simply rebooted from scratch but refer back to the events of a previous film.
This plot of Them That Hills is simple enough. Ollie is diagnosed with gout by his physician and told that a bracing trip to the mountains will restore him, especially if he drinks plenty of fresh water. Stan, who is currently charged with the not inconsiderable task of carrying Ollie about, knows of a trailer for hire and so off they set.
Meanwhile, Bootleggers have been involved in a shoot-out with local law enforcement and just prior to their arrest attempt to hide the evidence by pouring hooch down the well. In the immediate aftermath of these events, Stan and Ollie arrive and start drinking the water. (Its peculiar taste is attributed to the iron by the faux-knowledgable Ollie.) Meanwhile a quarrelsome couple played by Mae Busch and Charley Hall arrive. They have run out of gas and Charley asks to buy/borrow some to use to take back to their own abandoned vehicle. Mae meanwhile stays with Stan and Ollie in the trailer to enjoy the water. When Charley returns, outraged by the scene of drunkenness that confronts him, he initiates a tit for tat battle that will require another film to complete.
By 1934, alcohol had been legally available across the United States for a whole year (although unlicensed hooch production was still prosecutable). It is clear, however, that Stan and Ollie and Mae have not tasted alcohol since 1919 and have completely forgotten what hooch might taste like. At the heart of this film is the little melody that is started by Ollie. Indeed, the scene in the trailer anticipates the far more famous singing of “Lonesome Pine” from Way Out West insofar as it dramatises Ollie putting a violent stop to Stan’s inappropriate vocal interventions.
We’ve seen Stan drunk on a variety of occasions, but Ollie’s drunkenness is more unusual. What makes the boozing in this film so funny is the absolute assurance on Stan and Ollie’s part that they have rejected the high living and dissipated manners of the big city for a healthy water-based diet in the mountains. Every spoonful of this well “water” convinces them that they are getting back to nature.
The drunken partying of Stan and Ollie and Mae is of course entirely innocent. The idea that Stan and Ollie would intoxicate someone else’s wife with sinister intent is unthinkable. However, as is always worth restating, although Stan and Ollie are always (in crucial respects) innocent, the world they inhabit is not. Charley Hall appeared in more Laurel and Hardy films than any other guest player and he was rarely if ever friendly.
Like all good tit for tats, the funniest aspect involves the patient passivity with which whoever is at the receiving end endures their punishment while plotting their next move. In this three-way tit for tat, Stan ends up unscathed while Charley is tarred and feathered and left with a Lincoln beard and a plunger on his forehead. Such is the passivity embedded in that game theory of tit for tat that Charley politely asks Stan for a match with which to ignite Ollie, creating the last few memorable and explosive moments of the film.