Those of us who love Stan and Ollie find it hard to identify whatever might be their very very best work. As we revisit a range of films, we’re constantly spotting new details to surprise and delight us. As a consequence, our “top ten” lists constantly get re-arranged.
But Towed in a Hole really might be their very best short film. In fact, Towed in a Hole might just be the most perfect twenty minutes of comedy ever committed to film. There is nothing wrong with Towed in a Hole – and everything that Stan and Ollie do perform for these twenty minutes is comprehensively achieved. The whole package is timed and edited to perfection.
So, if I were asked to demonstrate the brilliance of Laurel and Hardy to some benighted individual who had someone never seen them, I believe I would show them Towed in a Hole and if nothing about the film made them smile I might have to shake my head and give them up as irredeemable.
As the film starts, the boys are moderately successful fishmongers, selling their wares out of their Model T. Ollie sings the catch of the day with ebullience and Stan blows his horn. You won’t see them happier. The only thing that can ruin this state of cheerful prosperity is Stan having an idea. The recitation of this idea incurs perhaps the very best “say that again” sequence you’ll witness, as Stan mangles his repetition of the scheme beautifully.
The remainder of the film consists of Stan and Ollie trying to make a fishing-boat seaworthy – thus (hopefully) cutting out the middle man and maximising their profit. Billy Gilbert appears for a few seconds as the man who sells them the boat – but otherwise the film has no other cast. At the end of the film, not only is the boat destroyed (thanks to another of Stan’s ideas), but the car also. Stan is anxious to retrieve the horn, which turns out to be completely unscathed and grins broadly. Ollie chases Stan.
The actual gags sound fairly commonplace when itemised. What’s important here are the sublime reactions to these gags. This is a film about hurt feelings more than hurt heads. There’s nothing inherently funny about grown men throwing buckets of water over each other – unless those two grown men are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. At one point in a tit for tat retributive cycle both men are hilariously patient while Ollie finds a small piece of wood that can keep Stan’s overalls open enough so that an impressive amount of water can be poured into them.
Ollie: “Isn’t this silly?”
Ollie: “Here we are two grown up men acting like a couple of children; why we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, throwing water at one another!”
Stan: “Well you started it”
Ollie: “No I didn’t”
Stan: “Yes you did
Everything about the reactions between Stan and Ollie is perfect here. The way Stan hides from Ollie and peeks through chinks of wood at him is hilarious and heartbreaking at one and the same moment. Because these two clowns are at the very top of their game, the reaction shots are given all the time they need.
At one point, Stan is incarcerated below deck and demonstrates the supreme art of making us laugh while demonstrating his own extreme state of boredom. He plays noughts and crosses with himself, fidgets musically with a saw and eventually manages to get his head wedged between the mast and the wall. Nothing for it – he has to saw down the pillar/mast in order to free himself. Of course, Ollie is painting the very top of the mast at the time. The catastrophe is wonderfully postponed, with Ollie pausing every so often to try to make sense of the sawing sounds he hears.
Anticipation and reaction. Anticipation and reaction. This is what makes a Laurel and Hardy movie so wonderful and why you can watch these movies over and over again. While other comedians of the 1930s throw every gag they can at the screen and hope that at least half of them are funny, a great Laurel and Hardy film is confident enough to focus on the emotional logic that surrounds each gag. There is not a joke in this film that isn’t illustrative of the characters of Stan and Ollie and, even more importantly, illustrative of the strange electromagnetic field that binds these characters together.
Ollie has never been better than this. Stan has never been better than this. It doesn’t get any better than this.