Friday, July 20, 2012
SONS OF THE DESERT WEEK REVIEW REPLAY: THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE (1930)
In honor of the 18th annual Sons of the Desert (the International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society) convention happening this week, I’m reprinting some of my Laurel & Hardy reviews. You can learn more about the organization by clicking here. And you can read this review of a Laurel & Hardy classic below:
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: Out of work and out of options, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy while away their time fishing at the dock. They can’t even catch fish right, of course! When Ollie notices the newspaper meant for fish-wrap contains a little classified ad summoning the “heirs” of the three million dollar Ebeneezer Laurel estate to the reading of the will, it appears the boys’ fortunes may soon change. Change they do… but not necessarily for the better. A spooky old mansion filled with eccentric help and even more eccentric relatives, the matter of the inheritance is sidetracked when it’s revealed that old man Ebeneezer was murdered! Now everyone’s on lockdown and Stan and Ollie aren’t sure what they’re afraid of most: the dark shadows, the bats flying through the house, ghostly bed sheets levitating over their heads… or their own shadows!
PREFACE: It’s not often that I precede a review with a special note, but I must do so in this case. This film was the favorite Laurel & Hardy film of my dear, departed friend Allen Schottenfeld. A member of the same “Sons of the Desert” tent to which I belong (for the uninitiated, the “Sons of the Desert” is the International Laurel & Hardy appreciation society), Allen often cited “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case” as his favorite Stan and Ollie romp. In fact, he was videotaped at least once making that same declaration. Allen referred to this film as “a wonderful spoof,” and it is to Allen that the book version of “Scared Silly” will be dedicated.
REVIEW: Laurel & Hardy had only been a little over a year into their talkie careers when they decided to revisit the scare comedy antics they delivered in their silent classics, “Do Detectives Think” (1927) and “Habeas Corpus” (1928) As many of the boys’ films were at this time, “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case” is a mix of brilliant comedy with some awkwardly-timed moments (the team hadn’t yet fully hit their stride in sound films, although they very shortly would).
It is telling that when Stan and Ollie have the screen to themselves (as in the first scene at the docks as well as some later scenes in the bedroom) they shine much more than those scenes they have to share with the supporting cast. Perhaps it was just that they were so comfortable with one another that they knew exactly how to play their bits of business and could certainly improvise their way through a scene. This was much harder to do when interacting with the supporting casts, having to read the lines straight so the others would know their cues.
This is also one of the first Laurel & Hardy films where Stan & Ollie had to interact with a number of other characters simultaneously, as opposed to a stock situation like the duo directly taking on one of their regular foils like James Finlayson, Billy Gilbert or Walter Long. A good example is the silent classic, “Big Business.” Once the tit-for-tat war begins between the team and Finlayson, the three are the sole focus. There are onlookers to the wanton destruction but they are not active participants. In “Murder Case” the scenario is a little more complex, and naturally so being a more precise mirror of then-recent films that would influence what would come to be known as being in the “Old Dark House” genre (including early film adaptations of Charlie Chan and Philo Vance detective stories as well as more blatant horror-comedy fare such as the original silent versions of “The Bat” and “The Cat & the Canary”). The film it resembles most though may be “The Old Dark House” – which is amazing in itself because “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case” predates James Whales’ classic feature by two years! If a viewer didn’t know the release dates, they would swear the Laurel & Hardy short is a direct spoof of “The Old Dark House!” Instead, it merely paid good attention to those above-mentioned drawing room murder mystery stories that had been proliferating in both books and on the stage and slowly made their way into cinema. To spoof such material properly, screen time has to be given to the other characters in addition to Stan and Ollie. More often than not, these detours in “Murder Case” slow the film down.
Having said that, this short starts off with pure Laurel & Hardy magic, with a funny and charming scene at the dock. One of the great H.M. Walker title cards gets things started with “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy decided that they needed a rest – they had been out of work since 1921.” The site of Ollie sleeping against a dock post while Stan gleefully fishes is enough to bring a smile to the face of any long-time Laurel & Hardy fans. Ollie’s rest is of course soon disturbed by Stan, who has placed the fish he just caught beside him, where it flails wildly beneath Ollie’s backside, waking him up! I’ve seen quite a few of their films with audiences, and they are two of the few performers I’ve witnessed get laughs simply by being on screen. Of course, it’s much more than that, since it’s the personalities that elicit the laughter. When Stan snags Ollie’s hat on the fish hook and sends it into the bay, Ollie is especially flustered (especially after getting a face full of water). Of course, these little bits of business also serve the purpose of setting the plot into motion. When Stan crumples up the newspaper he’s been using as fishwrap and tosses it out, the wind blows it right into Ollie’s face, where he reads the “legal notice” that “the heirs to the $3,000,000 estate of the late Ebeneezer Laurel” are being summoned to Laurel Mansion for the reading of the will (the classified ad is attributed to “L.A.H.” – .an in-joke evoking “Laurel and Hardy,” of course).
Using only Stan’s surname as his proof, Ollie ascertains that Stan must be one of the heirs. A hilarious early example of how the Stan and Ollie characters adapted to sound follows (you can read the dialogue below in the “Best Dialogue Exchanges” section). Ollie’s vocal intonations underscore his high opinion of himself. As Hardy (the actor) once explained, Hardy (the character) is “the dumbest kind of dumb guy there is… the dumb guy who thinks he’s smart!” Ollie’s voice indicates that he his pleased with himself and his (alleged) intellect in determining Stan is in line for an inheritance. Meanwhile, Stan’s speech patterns and dialogue are a combination of whimsical innocence, blank confusion and the occasional attempt to be bold. While hardly news to most of those reading this review, the duo’s ability to find “the perfect voices” for their characters not only made their transition to sound easier than the reigning silent comedians Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd but actually enhanced their comedy. Consequently, their popularity was enhanced and they were catapulted into international superstardom. All the while, the duo held a reverence toward the physical comedy tricks they learned in the silents. They utilized sounds and dialogue as necessary but just as often their talkies contained stretches where no dialogue was spoken. The sound served to make their characters even more full-blooded than they already were, but was not the main component of what endeared them to the public.
After the whimsical opening bit we get down to horror business. An establishing shot of the mansion, standing forebodingly in the middle of a thunderously frightening rain and wind storm (of course) sets the tone. Inside the home, a cast of suspicious characters has gathered in all their Earl Derr Biggers-inspired drawing room glory, anxiously awaiting the reading of the will. They include an old man and woman, an ingénue, a dapper young man and a stern middle-aged fellow. Also on hand are a creepy old butler and a matronly maid who just seems a little bit “off.” Last but not least, a derby wearing detective and his men are on the scene. When the old woman asks what time the will is scheduled to be read, the detective answers, “sorry to disappoint you old dear, but there ain’t gonna’ be no reading of no will!” When further pressed as to why they’re all there if the will won’t be read, the detective proclaims, “You’re here because Ebeneezer Laurel didn’t die a natural death… HE WAS MURDERED!”
The detective must be singled out here. In this short, Laurel & Hardy receive great support from the rest of the cast, but one performer in particular is a standout: Fred Kelsey. Kelsey’s role as the gruff detective on the case actually became an archetype. He would play the role again several times in both straight horror films (“The Invisible Ghost” with Bela Lugosi) and horror-comedies (The Three Stooges’ “If a Body Meets a Body,” a semi-remake of “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case”). His character traits became so identified with a certain type of detective that soon others began imitating him and master animation director Tex Avery even did a direct spoof of Kelsey (in the classic cartoon, “Who Killed Who?” from 1943). His character was personified by wearing a suit complete with timepiece in pocket, a derby upon his head and two thumbs with which he often tugged at his lapels. Sometimes he chomped on a cigar; often he shouted out pronouncements of guilt with little or no facts to go by; always he had his bravura on display! In addition to his pronouncements, Kelsey had a way of pausing during his statements that was very comical. For example:
“Now get this, folks (PAUSE) I’ve got a hunch that Ebeneezer Laurel was murdered (PAUSE) By a relative (PAUSE) So that said relative (PAUSE) will come into all his dough!”
His visual flourishes matched his approach to dialogue. When a burst of wind blows through the window and knocks over a piece of furniture and a lamp. Kelsey does a wonderful, startled take and then locks the window shut. He also knew how to combine the verbal and visual to convey a “is that so?!” style – for example, when one dapper relative tries to leave the mansion citing “two theater tickets” the detective takes the tickets, rips them in half and asks his deputy to “show this gentleman to his seat!”
Making the trio a quartet is Frank Austin as the butler. Austin had a lengthy career doing character parts in films of all genres (playing in everything from “The Mystery of the Wax Museum” to “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town/Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” as well as appearing alongside such other comedy legends as W.C. Fields, The Three Stooges and Olsen & Johnson. He popped up in several Laurel & Hardy shorts and features including an uncredited part in “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”) playing the justice of the peace who thinks he’s marrying Barnaby to Bo Peep (really Stan in disguise). His pliable face, cragged with a dour expression made him the perfect “mysterious” character whether being played straight-up or for laughs. He often played butlers, and in “Murder Case” he pulls out all the stops – a menacing laugh, a twisted facial expression and an ominous tone all combined to send shivers down Stan and Ollie’s spines… and sent moviegoers into fits of laughter!
When Stan and Ollie arrive at the mansion, they are no more above suspicion than the motley crew of Laurel relatives already gathered there. Told that they can’t leave, Ollie protests that the detective can’t possibly think he and Stan had anything to do with the murder. “I’m not saying,” the detective replies, “…but I believe that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime,” he underscores. This is of course delivered in the stock blustery Fred Kelsey manner as described above, along with the imposing warning, “Don’t any of ‘ya try that escape stuff, ‘cause the house is surrounded!”
Before being beset by the detective, the butler and the scares that await them, Stan and Ollie show that they are their own worst enemies. The first sign of trouble is revealed in this exchange:
OLLIE: What a beautiful home, and what luxury! And to think, it’s all ours!
STAN: Whaddaya’ mean “ours” – it’s mine!
OLLIE: There you are – just like all the rest of them. Sitting on top of the world and turning down your best pal – your benefactor!
Ollie makes a pompous show of being dejected and feigns resignation, going through the motions as if to leave. His desired result is of course to guilt Stan into keeping the partnership intact and to make certain that Ollie “gets half of everything that’s coming” to Stan. Initially, it doesn’t work.
“Are you really going?,” asks Stan. When Ollie answers affirmatively Stan gives him his umbrella so he won’t get too wet on his way home!
The above theme of Stan & Ollie grieving over the possibility of splitting up because one or the other comes upon good (or bad) fortune would be a running gag not just throughout this short but also in other Laurel & Hardy shorts and features. For example, when released outside of America, the two-reel short “Laughing Gravy” was extended to three reels with the addition of a sequence that was almost exclusively about Stan coming into money and considering leaving Ollie behind. The bit comes off a bit more developed in “Laughing Gravy.”
Stan and Ollie are brought to a room where they are to spend the night. Everything in the room is covered by a sheet, and when Ollie asks the butler why, he gets the ominous response: “This is the room where the old man was murdered,” the butler sinisterly and gleefully reports. (Of course, astute viewers of classic comedy know the real reason for the sheets is to set up some ghostly gags later where the boys can mistake innocent inanimate objects for hostile spirits). To further unnerve our heroes, he points to the closet and dramatically adds, “His body was found in that cupboard!”
Stan and Ollie are visibly scared by the butler’s revelation, and it’s these little moments in all Laurel & Hardy films that show how special the team is. They don’t use dialogue, they’re not even using a wild take here, they are just showing that they’re scared using their facial expressions while at the same time staying completely in character. This ability to inhabit their characters 150%, to be fully immersed in “Stan” and “Ollie” is a trait that even some of their classic comedy peers of the ‘30s and ‘40s couldn’t match, And then, just as the butler has the boys where he wants them he delivers this killer coda: “Goodnight, gentlemen. I hope you have a nice, looooonnnngggg sleep,” he menacingly intones.
Well, they’re doing anything but sleeping as they encounter what are only the first of a series of scares they’ll face throughout the short. Typically, they begin by scaring each other. When Stan looks under the bed sheet, Ollie thinks it’s a ghost. When Ollie gets tangled in a bed sheet, he thinks a ghost is out to get him. Their self-scaring shenanigans are interrupted by a mysterious rapping…
A hand is seen on the edge of Stan and Ollie’s bedroom door creepily (and creakily) opening it from the outside. It is revealed to be that of the butler. He eerily asks, “Is everything all right?” The butler is simultaneously comical and creepy in the best horror-comedy tradition… and then becomes downright unnerving when he bares his long bottom row of teeth as if he’s half horse or donkey!
More scares follow. Among them are unsettling scratching sounds, screeching black cats hiding in closets, their eyes glowing in the dark; and a painting of the Grim Reaper with a scary skull’s face, revealed when a sheet covering the canvas comes down. This last bit is pretty startling and effective; it’s easily the most unnerving image ever to appear in a Laurel & Hardy film.
After these initial scares, we are brought back to the running gag about Ollie wanting half of what Stan has coming to him. It seems Stan’s been so rattled he’s had a change of heart: instead of Ollie getting half of everything, Stan says he can have it all! It is one of those “comes the dawn” moments that the Stanley character occasionally has – here he knows full well that being a Laurel is not the safest thing to be at the moment!
There’s an interesting contrast in the use of the expression “dead men.” Ollie, trying to reassure Stan there’s nothing to fear says “dead man can’t hurt you.” The villains of the piece, justifying their decision to do away with Stan and Ollie (whom the butler refers to as “those shabby gentlemen”) reason that “dead men tell no tales.”
We are treated to an extended sequence of Stan and Ollie being scared witless. Many horror-comedy trappings are trotted out as well as a plethora of funny gags. They really are best experienced seen and heard rather than read about here, but I’ve done my best to sprinkle the details throughout the review and in the “Best Visual Gags” section. It is these delightful moments of Stan and Ollie in full-on terror mode that make this short a much-see and make up for its slow, dull patches.
Some real menace rears its head again when the butler tells the man with the theater tickets that he’s “wanted on the phone… downstairs in the library room.” We see the man enter the room, take a seat and lift the receiver and the… the lights go out and the man screams! When the detective runs into the room to check it out, the man is gone! This sends everyone into a panic, including the detective who can’t figure out what happened. Stan tells Ollie he’s going back home because he “can’t relax” but when he sees the others holed up in the hallway he gets scared (as do they) and all go running back into their rooms. Stan’s pounce back onto the bed (where Ollie is cowering under the covers) sends the mattress to the floor, leading to further hysterics!
The butler continues to send various guests down to the library room with similar results – a blackout, a scream, and then the disappearance of the guests. Ollie, in a moment of bravery says he’s “had enough of this” and declares that he’s “gonna’ find out what it’s all about!” Stan follows along and this leads to one of the short’s most hilarious moments, as Stan’s belt becomes entangled on the cord from a lamp obscured by a white sheet. Naturally, when he walks, the sheet-covered lamp follows his every move like a ghost! Ollie sees it and gets tangled with it, too. As Stan runs down stairs ensnared Ollie follows and the two come crashing to the bottom. It is an extended, hysterical sight gag as Stan is certain he’s either on the trail or being followed by ghosts!
Typically for a Laurel & Hardy short, the audience is only given a brief respite to catch their breath from all the laughter, as no sooner are Stan and Ollie sent back to their room than more craziness occurs. A bat flies into the bedroom and under the bed sheet. When Stan and Ollie get under the covers the sheet goes flying up like a ghost, levitating above them! Needless to say this sets off pandemonium as the boys once again run out of the room, into the hall and down the stairs. The detective and all his deputies run up the stairs to check out the commotion but when they see the sheet seemingly flying on its own, they run right back down the stairs again!
The ending is one that fans have often debated. Or rather, the endings, plural. Stan and Ollie actually (accidentally) do something right for a change: investigating the desk and phone in the library room, they discover that the phone activates the trap door… but instead of Ollie being deposited wherever everyone else has been dumped the chair malfunctions and simply rises back up with Ollie in it. The duo are then besieged by the the maid, and during their tussle they rip off the maid’s wig, exposing the “she” as a “he.” But then… we dissolve into Stan and Ollie on their fishing pier, newspapers in hand, wrestling each other. It was all “just a dream!” Your ability to go with this is really dependent upon how you feel about dream endings in general. Fans of b-movie horror and horror-comedy films such as “The Corpse Vanishes” and “Sh! The Octopus” have bemoaned their “only a dream” endings as unimaginative copouts. Somehow, in the hands of Laurel & Hardy, it somehow feels okay, especially after the general wackiness that takes place for most of “Murder Case”’s running time. The duo would revisit the “dream ending” much less successfully in their later horror-comedy, “Oliver the 8th.”
This short is peppered with a lot of little touches that Laurel & Hardy fans love – Stan’s cry and whimsical way with words and concepts, Ollie’s blustery pronouncements (“why don’t you be careful!”) and heightened histrionics (“get the light… get the light!”) and in general, the duo’s ability to draw from a vast collection of facial expressions and body language to express everything from anger to fear, confusion to certainty (albeit often mistaken certainty) and so much more. It also features the first instance of Ollie uttering what would become one of his most-imitated trademarks, “well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” It provides an early showcase for comedienne Dorothy Granger who would go on to appear in several Laurel & Hardy shorts and also co-star with everyone from W.C. Fields to The Three Stooges to Leon Errol to Abbott & Costello (she also had a featured role in the Walter Catlett horror-comedy short, “One Quiet Night”). Fans can also enjoy erstwhile Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy foil Tiny Sanford in “Murder Case.”
With all of the above going for it, it is interesting then that many of those same fans as well as Laurel & Hardy historians generally have a lower opinion of this short. It is true that “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case” isn’t flawless, but I have had opportunities to see it with a group and it has always played well in that setting. Considering that it was intended from the start to be seen with a group perhaps that is how it should be judged – on its ability to please an audience of more than one.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST – Lon Poff specialized in playing old men… for over 20 years! However, his full career in movies actually spanned 34 years, having started in silent. 1930’s old man role in “Murder Case” was one of his first septuagenarian gigs. He made his final appearance in 1951’s “Father’s Little Dividend”… playing an old man! Like famed comedian Andy Clyde, he ultimately, naturally grew into the role with little or no makeup required. Notable credits included such silent classics as “Dante’s Inferno” and “The Man Who Laughs” (with Conrad Veidt’s title performance cited as an influence on Bob Kane’s Batman-nemesis, The Joker) along with such sound-era fare as “Tom Sawyer,” “House of the Seven Gables,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” the “Flash Gordon” serial and “Joan of Arc.” On the comedy front he appeared with Laurel & Hardy previously in “Two Tars,” with Charley Chase in a trio of shorts including “Isn’t Life Terrible,” “Long Fliv the King” and “Calling All Doctors;” and with Wheeler & Woolsey in “Diplomaniacs” and “The Rainmakers.”
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
By default the memorable piece of dialogue has to be the first use of “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” but there are of course other gems here:
OLLIE: Where were you born?
STAN: I don’t know.
OLLIE: Fancy not knowing where you were born!
STAN: Well I was too young to remember!
OLLIE: Didn’t you once tell me that you had an uncle?
STAN: Sure I’ve got an uncle. Why?
OLLIE: Is he living?
STAN: No. He fell through a trap door and broke his neck.
OLLIE: Was he building a house?
STAN: No, they were hanging him!
STAN (after reading what the Laurel estate is worth): Three million dollars. Is that as much as a thousand?
OLLIE: Well man alive it’s twice as much!
(great dialogue underscores the Ollie character dynamic – as Hardy himself often explained, his character was “the dumbest kind of guy there is – the dumb guy who thinks he’s smart)!
DETECTIVE: Say you – where were you on the night of November the 15th?
STAN: The day before Christmas?
DETECTIVE: No, the day after Christmas! November the 15th!
STAN: November? (thinking out loud) Septober, Octember, Nowonder…
OLLIE: Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!
STAN: Whaddaya’ mean I got you into?
OLLIE: Well your name’s Laurel, isn’t it?
STAN: Well only on my mother’s side.
BEST VISUAL/VERBAL COMBO GAG:
DETECTIVE: Are you sure you’re a Laurel?
OLLIE (pointing to painting on wall): Why sure? Sure? Why, can’t you see the family resemblance?
DETECTIVE: Yeah, that happens to be General Grant!
OLLIE: Why of course it’s General Grant! His son and I belong to the same alma mater! Meaning Delpha Phi Delta. Rah rah rah, rah rah rah, sis boom rah!
BEST VISUAL GAGS:
Stan snags Ollie’s derby on the fishhook and sends it into the water. Pulling it back up, Ollie angrily snatches the hat from Stan and puts it back on his head… water and all!
Stan and Ollie arrive. Stan tries to close the umbrella but only opens it inside out!
Stan’s places his quivering hand on Ollie’s shoulder and Ollie gets frightened by it.
Stan accidentally drops a lit candle down the back of Ollie’s pajamas.
Stan lifts his nightshirt over his own head and gets stuck, flailing about in comical fashion.
BEST COMBO VERBAL/VISUAL GAGS:
DETECTIVE: Are you sure you’re a Laurel?
OLLIE (pointing to painting on wall): Why sure? Sure? Why, can’t you see the family resemblance?
DETECTIVE: Yeah, that happens to be General Grant!
OLLIE: Why of course it’s General Grant! His son and I belong to the same alma mater! Meaning Delpha Phi Delta. (Ollie does cheerleader style motions): Rah rah rah, rah rah rah, sis boom rah!
FURTHER READING: There are so many great Laurel & Hardy books out there that it’s a shame to pare down the list, but as far as “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case” is concerned there are two that stand out. One is a handsome coffee table book simply called "Laurel & Hardy" by John McCabe and Richard W. Bann that I borrowed from my local library on nearly a continuous basis as a child. The book is loaded with both production and promotional stills from nearly all of Laurel & Hardy’s shorts and features, with a synopsis of each film and in some cases interesting background information. If more detailed background information is more your thing, then you’ll want to move directly to Randy Skretvedt’s essential, impeccably researched “Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies.” Both books have entries on “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case,” as does this entry which was part of a fantastic overview of the majority of Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedies from the Missing Link website.
BUY THE FILM: Well, after years and years of Laurel & Hardy fans pining for the best of the boys to be released on DVD, the wait is over! The “Essential Laurel & Hardy Collection” is just that, collecting the majority of the duo’s shorts and features that were produced at the hal Roach Studios, including “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case.” You can order it when you click here.
If you still have a working VHS player you can get “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case” and a few other classic Laurel & Hardy horror-comedies together in one videotape collection called THE LAUREL & HARDY SPOOKTACULAR. You can buy it here:
WATCH THE FILM: Since this is a short, there isn’t a trailer available but you can enjoy a brief sequence right here: