Laurel and Hardy

The Hereditary Principle considered. Laurel and Hardy in “Nothing but Trouble” (1944).

There is a nice socio-economic joke right at the beginning of the film. We are looking at an employment agency in the early 1930s, the height of the Depression. Everyone is out of work and the merest prospect of a job offer causes a stampede. Stan and Ollie decide to travel to Europe for a decade (where the prospects are no better for them). When they arrive back at the same employment agency a decade later at the height of the war, there is such a labour shortage that the merest possibility of getting someone to do any sort of work causes a stampede by potential employers.

Stan and Ollie are butler and cook. They are butler and cook because all their ancestors were butler and cook. When asked for references, they present an illustrated family tree. Tom Paine, one of the greatest of American revolutionary pamphleteers, pointed out the absurdity of the hereditary principle as a governmental principle by noting the absurdity of a hereditary doctor or a hereditary lawyer. Stan and Ollie could have been an instructive footnote in Paine’s work. Ollie, the hereditary chef has a family recipe that will probably kill you. This is the same recipe that got them thrown out of restaurants across Europe and its inedibility is demonstrated at some length later in the film.

Stan and Ollie accidentally make friends with boy King Christopher, titular ruler of some Farawaynian European state. Orlandia in fact. Don’t go looking for it. King Christopher hates being king but loves all things American – especially American football. Stan and Ollie agree to referee a game so that the king can play in it and so the happily muddied Chris becomes a firm friend of Stan and Ollie – who have no idea he’s of royal blood. In one of the better scenes in the film, Stan and Ollie steal a steak from a lion’s cage – or rather Chris does, after Stan and Ollie have terrified themselves in a sequence of thwarted attempts.

Stan and Ollie, you see, are butler and cook to a posh lady called Mrs Hawkley. Chris hides out with Stan and Ollie because they’re more fun to be with than being king.

Did I mention that Chris’ evil uncle Saul keeps trying to kill Chris? Yes. Being a hereditary ruler sucks. Too many people are waiting for you to die. Too many people are tired of waiting for you to die.

Ollie himself should probably be doing essential war work rather than pretending to be a chef, since the steak recipe he is so proud of involves creating something that cannot be cut or damaged by any human agency. Ollie’s steak should be used to coat tanks and battleships in some way. That wouldn’t have been a bad end to the film – Ollie being given a big government grant. As it stands, Uncle Saul is hoist with his own petard after eating a poisoned salad, Stan and Ollie narrowly escape plummeting to their deaths from a great height and our three heroes end up singing the Notre Dame football song with the police department.

None of this is especially funny. David Leland plays little King Chris. Tragically he died just a few years later of sepsis at the age of just 16. Once you know this, it’s hard to watch the film in quite the same way. This film is regarded as one of Stan and Ollie’s very worst efforts, though I have to say that if you had never ever heard of Laurel and Hardy, it is just possible that you might find it moderately amusing. This is the paradox of these later films. You will only take the trouble of watching them because you love Stan and Ollie, but because you are so familiar with how funny Stan and Ollie ought to be, you tend to judge them very very harshly.

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