Laurel and Hardy

The one in a sawmill. Laurel and Hardy in “Busy Bodies” (1933)

Here again is an apex comedy, one of those short films that show Stan and Ollie at the absolute pinnacle of their craft – one of those films that you can watch over and over and over again – a film you cannot imagine taking anything from or adding to

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Like Towed in a Hole (1932) with which it deserves to be compared, the film starts with our heroes driving along without a care in the world. The sun is shining and they feel glad to be alive. They even have a car “radio” – which turns out to be a highly ingenious Heath-Robinson style contraption that enables them to play phonograph discs while driving – although they do have to stop from time to time to change the record.

Then they arrive at their place of work. A sawmill. In a stroke of genius (Stan Laurel we must assume?) we are treated to a little montage of all the complex and dangerous functions performed at this mill – all the different contexts in which whirring blades are busily at work. The sudden realisation that Stan and Ollie of all people have arrived in such a perilous environment sets the tone for the rest of this film.

Part of the key to the success of this movie is how much Ollie loves his job. Ollie is and always has been an elegant man – and he finds the aesthetics of carpentry highly satisfying. Well-jointed timber puts a song in his heart. Here is a twentieth-century man who is not yet alienated from his labour – whose work is a labour of love. What can possibly go wrong?

Even by the standards of an average Laurel and Hardy film a deal of pain is inflicted on Ollie in Busy Bodies. There are two main extended gags here. One involves attempting to free Ollie’s painfully crushed hand from a window frame he’s been constructing and the other involves shaving off the strange brush-beard that’s become glued to Ollie’s chin. In between these two elaborate conundrums, our heroes exchange some effective low-level retributive tit for tat violence with that most reliable of antagonists – Charlie Hall – before Stan has Charlie disciplined for smoking in a no smoking zone in a well executed sting operation. You feel a bit sorry for Charlie here, who is duped because of his strangely naive and honest declaration that Stan “has a kind face”.

Eventually Ollie is sent on a bizarre and painful journey through piping before they are both sent running back to their vehicle to escape from the foreman’s (Tiny Sandford’s) justified wrath. Accidentally driving through an giant band saw, their beloved car is sliced in two so neatly that their faces register not dismay or fear but fascinated astonishment. It’s a surreal visual spectacle and Stan for one is delighted to learn that the “radio” still works. This is, essentially, the same ending as “Towed in a Hole” where an operative car horn atones for all the ruinous mayhem that precedes it. The joy of Stan Laurel is that he lives absolutely in the moment, and an instant of wonderment and a fragment of gratification is all that he ever needs to keep him going. He has no past and no future.

If this film is slightly inferior to Towed in a Hole (and the list of comedies that are inferior to “Towed in a Hole” includes virtually all comedies ever made) it’s that the slightly earlier film devotes a bit more time to reactions and the gags are more “relational” as it were – more of a detailed commentary on the nature of their relationship. That said, Busy Bodies is a largely visual comedy that works so well because we know that they know each other so well. Comedy is often no less funny for being “predictable” – because having one’s predictions confirmed has a precious element of suspense.

There’s a peculiar beauty and refinement to this film – which is virtually plotless. Ollie’s love of carpentry is reflected in a delight in all manner of juxtapositions of wood and tools. Even when fighting, they are balletic and fight with a degree of neatness and precision. They may destroy their own workplace and wreck everything they have, but everything dovetails very nicely here thank you.

Perhaps there’s even a twinge of sadness in watching this film if you’re on a chronological completist binge – because no subsequent short L&H movie is as good as this one.

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