Monday, July 30, 2012


Monster Squad

...via computer animation!

While I commence to dive into my next review of a classic-era horror-comedy, please enjoy these coming attractions for computer animated horror-comedy films coming soon to a multiplex near you!

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Sons of the Desert 2012 convention logo

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:

Stan Laurel Oliver Hardy Live Ghost

RATING: **** out of ****

PLOT: A tough sea captain has to shanghai a crew because everyone is convinced his ship is haunted. Laurel & Hardy, enjoying a day off by fishing on the pier are approached by the captain who offers them a “dollar a head” for each crew member they snag. Of course, we’re talking about Stan & Ollie here – and as long as they’re on the job you can be sure that they will get themselves shanghaied as well! This is most inopportune as now they’re surrounded by several angry men who aren’t thrilled that they’re stuck on a “ghost ship.” One angry crew member says as much, but is immediately laid flat by the captain, who threatens that if anyone mentions the word “ghost” to him again, he’ll twist his head around so that “when you’re walking north, you’ll be facing south!” Furthermore, the captain vows that as long as Laurel & Hardy are on the ship, they are under his protection and not to be harmed. Complications arise when the captain asks Stan & Ollie to watch over the ship’s drunk. Before too long, the pair think they’ve accidentally killed the drunk… and when he resurfaces doused in white paint, they’re convinced they’ve seen a ghost!

REVIEW: Laurel & Hardy are my favorite comedy team of all time, and two of the reasons are the subtle nuances their characters contain as well as their carefully constructed, methodical build-ups to gags, often piled one on top of the other, leading to one explosive payoff after another. However, these attributes don't appeal to all modern-day audiences. Many find the team "slow" and prefer the more rapid-fire pace of Abbott & Costello or The Three Stooges.

"The Live Ghost" provides the best of all worlds. While it retains many of the lovely subtle character touches that make Stan & Ollie so special, its pace is a bit quicker, a foreshadow of things to come for the team when the studios they worked for in the 1940s insisted they quicken their pace a la then box office kings, Abbott & Costello. It is one of the fastest-moving of Laurel & Hardy’s two reel (approximately 20 minutes) shorts.

For Abbott & Costello fans, there is the madcap scene where Stan and Ollie scam the saloon patrons to help the “ghost ship” captain shanghai a crew. This con plays out similarly to a Bud & Lou routine, though of course with more facial expressions and arm and hand flourishes than snappy banter. The scam works like this: Stan bets the unsuspecting drinkers that they can’t hold an egg in their mouth without breaking it. This is a bet they can’t refuse – surely anyone can place an egg in their mouth without breaking it. The surprise comes when Stan clonks said challengers on the chin, causing the egg to break! The inevitable chase out the saloon door ensues, where Ollie is waiting to bash the victim on the head with a frying pan.

Later in the film, there are more foreshadows of Bud & Lou in a scene where Stan & Ollie are convinced they’ve accidentally shot the souse they’ve been charged with keeping on the boat and out of the bar. Little do they know he’s put some luggage under the covers while sneaking off to the saloon. The situation is exacerbated when, in his alcohol-induced stupor, the drunk falls into a tray of white wash. This leads to one of the most hysterical and perfectly timed scare takes ever committed to film… a masterful double take from Stan Laurel, who perfectly in character stares blankly at first and without emotion at the all-white drunk… then as if awoken out of a deep sleep, shoots his head back up in sheer and utter panic. Surely, the ghost of the man he and Ollie “killed” has come back to seek vengeance!

Stan isn’t the only one who registers fear on a grand scale. Hardy’s expressive face also conveys the terror the duo face. Hardy gives his usual overall masterful performance, essaying emotions including frustration, agitation, disbelief and fear with his putty face. There is also a lot of great Hardy body language in this short, from his fluttery mannerisms when trying to con the crew to his wobbly quakes and quivers as the ghostly going-ons unfold.

Stan Laurel Oliver Hardy Live Ghost

The film definitely has more than its share of black humor. It’s interesting to note how differently the black humor plays when delivered by naïve men-children like Laurel & Hardy as opposed to the more worldly-wise Abbott & Costello, who were to tread similar ground in 1949’s “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff." It’s more palpable in the Laurel & Hardy situation while more farcical in the Abbott & Costello scenario. Since both teams are masters at what they do, they make the dark material work to their advantage, producing laughter out of fear.

“The Live Ghost”’s settings and the way they’re shot add to the macabre feel. Most horror-comedies take place in a haunted house, creepy castle or terrifying tomb. Like the Hugh Herbert/Allen Jenkins film “Sh! The Octopus” that would follow three years later, “The Live Ghost” manages to make seafaring environs – a dock, the saloon on the mainland and the “ghost ship” itself suitably spooky. Dark shadows and a foreboding mist in the air complete the cinematographer’s task.

Laurel, Hardy and the cinematography aren’t the only stars of “The Live Ghost,” however. The film is enhanced by the presence of some outstanding supporting actors, including several who could be deemed “regulars” in the Laurel & Hardy universe. Imposing Walter Long as the gruff sea captain could scare with a scowl and a single eyebrow raised. He appeared in several films with Stan & Ollie, most notably “Going Bye Bye” where he played a convict put away by Stan & Ollie’s testimony (“Aren’t you going to hang him?,” asks an incredulous Stan as the verdict is read). The fun begins when he escapes from the police! Average guy Charlie Hall could go from cheerful to cranky in a heartbeat. He appeared in dozens of classic Laurel & Hardy films, including the only Laurel & Hardy sequel, “Tit for Tat” and its predecessor, “Them Thar Hills.” Hall also worked with Chaplin, Wheeler & Woolsey, W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and many more comedians from Hollywood’s golden age. Arthur Houseman portrayed the perennial drunk – whenever a film needed a comical drunk for surefire laughs, the role went to either Houseman or another Laurel & Hardy co-star, Jack Norton. If you think Houseman’s funny in “The Live Ghost,” check out the feature “Our Relations,” where he gets stuck inside a phone booth with Stan & Ollie! Last on the scene in “Live Ghost” but still making an impression is Mae Busch. The versatile blonde actress, an ingénue in silent films became a major comic presence in 1930s two-reelers. Mae could play a shrewish wife, sexy and sassy independent woman and off-the-deep-end loon with equal aplomb.

A very well-constructed plot, “The Live Ghost” delivers on its premise in spades. And like most Laurel & Hardy classics, while the punchline is inevitable and devoid of surprise, the journey to the final gag is a sheer delight. The captain is serious about his threat to all that if anyone mentions the word “ghost,” he’ll twist his head around so that “when you’re walking north, you’ll be facing south!” Of course, it is Stan and Ollie who are convinced they’ve seen the walking dead… and at film’s end, they certainly do end up seeing him north as they’re facing south!


STAN (after he and Ollie load the sack they think contains the drunk with coal, and Ollie tells him the drunk will probably go to “the other place” instead of heaven):

Do you have to take your own coal when you go to the other place?

Laurel & Hardy - Ghost overboard

Also, Stan declaring that he’s going to have “ghost trouble” all night.

BEST GAGS: The egg-in-mouth scam, Stan’s amazing double take, Ollie reprimanding Stan… or rather, he thinks the person lying next to him is Stan but it’s really “the ghost!”

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Pete Gordon… who most Laurel & Hardy fans know even if they don’t know his name, as he played the “Cat” (covered in full furry costume) who played the fiddle and chased after Mickey Mouse (portrayed by a monkey!) in “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”). Here Gordon plays a Chinese cook.

WATCH THE FILM: It’s actually coming up to that time of the year when “The Live Ghost” can be seen on TV. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s shown in a horribly “colorized” print following another great but equally horribly colorized Laurel & Hardy film, the aforementioned “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” Anyway, various local TV stations across the nation annually run these two films for the Thanksgiving and sometimes Christmas holidays.

BUY THE FILM: I’m not going to take the time here to talk about how the bulk of the library of classic Laurel & Hardy films has been mishandled by its US rights holders, keeping the majority of their gems off the DVD market. I’ll just say that if you still have a working VHS player you can get “The Live Ghost” and a few other classic Laurel & Hardy horror-comedies together in one videotape collection called THE LAUREL & HARDY SPOOKTACULAR. And if you really want to have the best of Stan and Ollie on DVD, then you’ll need to get an ALL-REGION DVD PLAYER and order the 21-disc DVD Collection from England. You can buy both the VHS and the DVD collection here:

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 Live Ghost” 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 Live Ghost,” 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.

There’s no trailer for this as it’s a short, but clips from this short are sprinkled throughout this fan-made collage of scenes from spooky Laurel & Hardy films. You can see shots from “The Live Ghost” at 0:19-0:21 (the soused man Houseman becomes a doused man!), 0:36-0:39 (Houseman stumbles about), 1:06-1:09 (the beginning of Stan’s amazing double-take – although the second half of the take isn’t shown here!), 1:33-1:40 (a ghostly guest in the bed!), and 2:07-2:10 (a fast Phantom!) Watch the montage here:

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Sons of the Desert 2012 convention logo

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:

Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

RATING: *** & ¾ out of ****

PLOT: The peace and tranquility of the citizens of Toyland (where all the famous nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters live along with Santa Claus and all his helpers) is threatened by its one bad apple: sinister Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon), a creepy landlord who holds the mortgages on most of the homes in the land, including the shoe-shaped home belonging to the old woman (who lived in a shoe). He also rules the frightening “Bogeyland” and the monstrous “Bogeymen” that inhabit it, a place where criminals are banished as punishment for major crimes. Barnaby is sweet on the old woman’s daughter Little Bo Peep. When Mother Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) can’t meet the mortgage payment on the shoe, Barnaby offers to forget the whole matter if she’ll consent to offering Bo Peep’s hand in marriage to Barnaby. Neither Mother nor Bo Peep, who is in love with Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Felix Knight) are willing to submit to Barnaby’s demand and so he threatens to evict everyone out of the shoe. Enter two of the shoe’s tenants, Stannie Dumm (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy), who vow to get a loan from their boss the toymaker (William Burress) to prevent such a travesty. That doesn’t go over too well as the “boys” get in a heap of trouble with the toymaker after Santa does a spot check at the toy factory. St. Nick wants to see how things are coming along and learns that Stannie got his wooden soldiers order all mixed up – instead of 600 soldiers at one foot high, 100 soldiers each six feet high have been created! A series of triumphs and reversals follow for Stannie, Ollie, Bo Peep and Tom Tom and when it becomes apparent that Barnaby can no longer “trick” his way to achieving his evil desires, he enlists the aid of the ferocious half-men, half-monster Bogeymen to rout Toyland. Can our heroes find a way to defeat these abominable creatures, and what will become of Bo Peep, Tom Tom and the wooden soldiers?

REVIEW: Testament to the role this film has played in my life: I’ve seen it so many times I didn't even need to re-watch it to review it! Without question, this film, based on the Victor Herbert operetta is one of the most unique films ever made – as both a comedy film by major stars and as a holiday classic it stands pretty much alone. Only the all-star “Alice in Wonderland” which also stars Charlotte Henry in the title role (along with Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Jack Oakie, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles and others) comes close but ultimately it's no cigar – while that earlier film shares “Babe’s” weird and spooky oddness it lacks the charm and humor of the Laurel & Hardy opus which despite several terror-filled sequences is filled with hope and optimism. And “Alice” certainly doesn’t evoke any warm-fuzzy holiday feelings... it is most decidedly not a holiday classic.

Where can I even begin? This is one of those films that has to be seen – mere words cannot convey the wonders this film undolds. I suppose I’ll get the intentional and unintentional scares out of the way first:

Silas Barnaby, as performed with relish and flourish by Henry Brandon (real name: Kleinbach) is a dastardly villain of the highest order. He has a huge “creepy” and “spooky” factor, not unlike many of the fiends Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price essayed over their illustrious careers. It is a performance for the ages. Brandon treads that line between funny and purely evil that not many actors since have accomplished (Heath Ledger’s interpretation of Batman’s nemesis “The Joker” is the most recent example I can think of but there have been few and far between). Most amazing of all, Brandon did it at the tender age of 22. That is an amazing accomplishment not just because he’s playing a character much older but also because of all he was able to bring to the character – if you didn’t know Brandon’s real age you’d swear that he had already witnessed decades of villainy to inspire his portrayal. Brandon played many other notable roles through the years (including a part in the Martin & Lewis horror-comedy “Scared Stiff”) and even acted up until the year before his death in 1990 but when all is said and done it is not a stretch to claim that history will put Barnaby at the top of his most memorable roles. Brandon returned to the character three years later and that turn was just as memorable as the original. In the short “Our Gang Follies of 1938” (filmed and released in 1937) Brandon is the Opera House impresario who signs famed Little Rascal Alfalfa to a crooked contract whose deception is worthy of those the devil dealt in “The Devil & Tom Walker,” “The Devil & Daniel Webster,” “Damn Yankees,” “Bedazzled” and so many other tales. The unbreakable contract requires Alfalfa to sing “The Barber of Seville” at his opera house… forever! The character is never called “Barnaby” by name in the short, but in the script he is identified as such.

Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

Barnaby has a manservant, naturally, and as the illogic in old movies usually goes, the villains always pick ineffective manservants like hunchbacks and mutes (sometimes they’re both at the same time). Here, the manservant is a diminutive dwarf played by John George. He is oddly creepy in his own right (which may be the context more than anything – the costumes in this film are creepy as is the lighting and Barnaby’s villainy and lair, and since George appears in those scenes, his character takes on those attributes as well… except when Barnaby laces into him, resulting in some audience sympathy toward the character). He is also somewhat reminiscent of Angelo Rossitto, another dwarf actor with a lengthy career who often appeared in the same manservant capacity, most notably alongside Bela Lugosi in various films including the East Side Kids horror-comedy, “Spooks Run Wild.” Rossitto also appears in "Babes," as one of the little pigs as well as one of the sandmen fairies during the lullaby scene (more on both below).

Barnaby’s minions, “The Bogeymen” are horrific monster-men designed to give children (and maybe a few adults) nightmares. Less frightening once you get past a certain age and spot the rubber faces and the pillow pads within their shaggy suits, they are also fairly unique considering the year the movie came out. The most natural comparisons would be movie werewolves and ape men but most of those types of films (such as “Werewolf of London” and “The Wolf Man” and “The Ape Man”) came out after “Babes.” Prior to “Babes,” the most notable example was “The Island of Lost Souls” a year earlier and perhaps some of Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent monster films. Like Barnaby, the Bogeymen (or at least A BogeyMAN) would return in an “Our Gang” short. Well, at least the costume and mask (without an actor inside) would, as Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Porky are scared witless by a Bogeyman that flings out of a hidden panel during an unplanned (and unrealized by the kids) journey through a spooky carnival funhouse in the last Hal Roach-produced “Our Gang” short , “Hide & Shriek” (1938). Not to be outdone, Barnaby is also evoked in an early scene that has "detektive" Alfalfa showing off his expertise at disguises - answering the door dressed as Barnaby complete with hat, cape and cane!

Barnaby and the Bogey Men are the obviously scary elements, but the whole production has an (appropriately) surreal and otherworldly sensibility that sometimes borders on the eerie, with even some of the favorite children’s characters rendered in slightly “off” costumes and masks that are downright spooky at times. These include the Three Little Pigs, played by dwarves (including the aforementioned cult film favorite Angelo Rossitto) and children (including Payne B. Johnson who is still with us as of this writing – I had the pleasure of meeting him at the 2006 Sons of the Desert convention in Atlanta, GA) in garish costumes. The masks make the faces of the pigs seem a little scary – they look old and wrinkled and not capable of showing much emotion (especially since you can’t really see their eyes), which heightens the bizarre feeling (a pig jumping up and down and clapping its hands in victory with an emotionless face is an odd thing indeed. There is also man in a cat suit (Pete Gordon, who played the Chinese cook in Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedy classic “The Live Ghost”) with a fiddle, naturally, who comes off slightly scary – mostly unintentionally although there is one cheat scare when Ollie is explaining to Stan about the Bogeyman’s horrible claws… just as the “cat” puts its paw on Stan’s shoulder!

One scene that was edited out of many television prints through the years had Tom Tom, having been banished to Bogeyland after being falsely accused of pignapping (Barnaby framed him of of course) comforting Bo Peep, who had traveled into Bogeyland after her true love. Tom Tom sings Bo Peep to sleep with a lullaby while fairies (played by dwarves again… perhaps the producers of the still-a-few-years-away “Wizard of Oz” took notice of these diminutive thesps with big talents) dance overhead in spectral, see-through form. The ghostly figures make the scene more eerie than magical for me.

Mickey Mouse Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

Oddest of all however has to be... Mickey Mouse. You heard that right, Mickey Mouse. PLAYED BY A MONKEY! I always personally loved the monkey-in-a-mouse suit character, but I know others who were totally frightened by it. It is weird to say the least (I still wonder how the heck the monkey was able to breathe in that costume). The character is a mix of the plucky and resourceful Mickey from the 1930s black & white cartoons combined with the offbeat, bouncy movements of a typical monkey (the character gets a major moment of its own during the climactic battle with the Bogeymen, piloting a toy zeppelin and dropping explosives onto the monsters from overhead). The Hal Roach Studios (producers of the film) had a long-standing relationship with the Disney studio and their “stars” occasionally crossed over (Laurel & Hardy are prominent in the classic “Mickey’s Polo Team” and in the same year as “Babes” Mickey and Stan & Ollie co-starred again in the all-star MGM feature, “Hollywood Party”). This friendly co-existence between Disney and Roach also extended to Disney granting Roach the rights to use the smash hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” in “Babes” (the award-winning animated “Three Little Pigs” Disney short having debuted the year before).

I have always found this film absolutely delightful. As a child I don’t remember being scared by the spookier elements; it’s only as I grew older that I realized how frightening some elements in this film are. But I am still delighted by it, for two reasons. First, Laurel & Hardy are simply sublime as usual in this film. Their comedy is warm, funny and at times magically surreal and the screen characters audiences had become used to remain intact in the middle of this high fantasy. Perhaps since I had seen so many other features and shorts by the duo as a child I knew that they “always came back” for another adventure, so I was certain that they would help defeat the marauding monsters (despite fearful moments of real terror and concern – such as when the Bogeymen snatch Toyland’s children from their beds). I also grew up in a time where Hollywood saw the value in the darker side of the fairy tale. Overcoming fears and learning important lessons through scary allegories were hallmarks of children’s stories. Disney knew this well – during Hollywood’s golden age his “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves” and “Pinocchio” didn’t pull any punches in the “scares” department. This approach lasted at least through the early 1970s with Gene Wilder’s masterful portrayal of the alternately whimsical/frightening title character of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Somewhere along the line, the “gatekeepers” decided that scares had to be skirted in children’s fantasies, leaving whole generations with much more homogenized stories lacking true heart and humanity.

“Babes in Toyland” has a slippery history. Hal Roach originally bought the rights to do a film version of the Herbert operetta "Babes" then realized it had very little plot, at least not one that would easily accommodate a feature film (it was fine for the stage where it worked perfectly as a lovely revue of childhood memories of the toy chest set to song). So Roach conceived a story with Stan and Ollie as “Simple Simon and the Pie Man.” The villain was a spider who turned into a man and put “hate” into the wooden soldiers so they could ravage the town and eliminate “love and happiness.” It sounds a lot like the Beatles’ classic animated feature “Yellow Submarine” which would be released 32 years later… but as envisioned by Roach, the studio would have been hard-pressed to convey the abstract elements of his idea and there hardly seems room for typical Stan and Ollie antics within. Thankfully Laurel, the creative architect of most of the team’s films (he wrote gags and stories and often directed many scenes – mostly uncredited) won out over Roach and collaborated with his own writers and gagmen to deliver the film we know and love today. As odd as it may sound, to me Laurel’s version anticipates Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (condensed from a combined ten plus hours to “Babe’s” compact 78 minutes) with the unlikely heroes (Stan & Ollie/Frodo & Samwise) routing the mephistophelean villain (Barnaby/Saruman) and his minions (The Bogeymen/The Orcs). But maybe that’s just me...

The other side of this film’s checkered past has to do with its release history. (it’s so confusing in fact that I’m not even fully certain if the following is entirely accurate). The film was sold off by Roach to an independent distributor named Robert Lippert. It was reissued to theaters several times over the years under various names such as “March of the Toys,” “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (its most commonly known moniker) and the non-sequitur non de plum, “Revenge is Sweet.” It made the rounds of schools where it was shown to students on 16mm projectors. Ultimately it wound up on TV, where it became a staple broadcast around the holidays (run on or near Thanksgiving or Christmas and sometimes both). When the growing popularity of VCR’s made videotapes as attractive to buy as they were to rent, several companies released the film under the mistaken notion that the film was in the public domain. The truth was that the Tribune Broadcasting Company (owners of WGN in Chicago and WPIX in New York City) had an ownership stake. At some point they lost the rights and the Samuel Goldwyn Company snatched them up, colorizing the film for home video release and then a national syndication deal (which Tribune signed on for). This colorized version is broadcast on TV to this day. Meanwhile, the DVD age ushered in more home video releases by companies assuming the film was in the public domain (these included a newly colorized version from Legend Films that was an improvement over the original color job but still looks like kids using their Crayolas over old film frames to this reviewer). When MGM bought out Goldwyn’s assets, they ended up owning a film they had released and distributed in the first place. A couple years back they gave the world a wonderful Christmas present in the form of a DVD of the film in its pristine, original black & white form… complete with all scenes intact and the original “Babes in Toyland” title cards!

Cat Fiddle Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

The film as it stands is an amazing, unique achievement. The comedy of Stan & Ollie is in high gear and one can’t help but laugh and smile from ear to ear when they are onscreen. The horrific aspects are appropriate for a classic approach to fairy tales, the benevolent Toyland characters are warmly drawn and the rescue of Toyland by Stan, Ollie and the Wooden Soldiers is rousing indeed. While some of the songs sung by the romantic leads have a tendency to slow the film down in spots (the one thing that keeps me from giving it a full four star review), they don’t overpower it. The overall plot, while taking a few meandering detours still has a beginning, middle and end and adheres to the old adage from Chekhov wherein he states that if a gun is shown in the first act, it better go off in the third. The gun here is the wooden soldiers, and the resonance is the fact that the hero’s seeming mistake (Stan’s botching of the wooden soldiers order) is the very thing that ends up saving the day. Kind of like Frodo taking that ring...

BEST DIALOGUE AND GAGS (normally I separate these categories but in this film, as in most Laurel & Hardy sound films the verbal and visual gags are often intertwined)

Stan explains to Ollie that he borrowed money from their piggy bank to replace a “pee wee” – a little wooden peg that when hit with a stick returns like a boomerang. Unless you are Ollie, who pompously insists that anything Stan can do he can do… but he can’t! To add insult to injury, Ollie also learns he can’t do Stan’s finger tricks either.

Ollie and Stan have chased Barnaby down a well. “You better come up, dead or alive,” says Stan, alluding to the King’s edict that Barnaby is a wanted fugitive (when the King announces the award for bringing back Barnaby "Dead or Alive," Stan asks "Can't you make up your mind how you want him?"). “Now how can he come up dead when he’s alive,” protests Ollie. “Let’s drop a rock on him,” counters Stan. “Then he’ll come up dead when he’s alive!”

Stan and Ollie have a plan: Stan will show up at Barnaby’s door with a big box – a Christmas present! Inside is Ollie, who plans to sneak out once inside to find and destroy the shoe’s mortgage. Barnaby asks, “Christmas present… in the middle of July?” “We always like to do our Christmas shopping early,” retorts Stan. Their plan backfires when Stan says goodnight to Ollie and Ollie pops his head out of the crate, leading to them being put on trial.

When Ollie gets "dunked" in the lake as punishment for the attempted robbery of the mortgage, he hands Stan his watch for safe keeping. Distressed by the dunking Bo Peep consents to become Barnaby's wife... which means that the charges are withdrawn and Stan doesn't have to get dunked! Ollie doesn't like this and pushes Stan into the lake... and a soaked Stan emerges pulling Ollie's waterlogged watch out of his pocket!

When Bo Peep gives in to Barnaby’s marriage proposal, Ollie explains that Stan is so upset he’s not even going to the wedding. “Upset,” exclaims Stan. “I’m housebroken!” When Mother Peep determines to speak to Barnaby to try to change his mind, Stan says "Her talking to him is just a matter of pouring one ear into another and coming out the other side... can't be done!"

The boys realize that they can pass Stan off as Bo Peep as long as he keeps his face covered by the veil. Their ruse is a success, but Stan is surprised when he can’t leave with Ollie. Ollie explains that now that Stan’s married, he has to stay with Barnaby. “But I don’t love him,” Stan wails!

During Tom Tom’s trial for pignapping, Stan and Ollie sit on the sidelines. The evidence (a plate of sausage links) is placed near where they sit. Stan asks Ollie what it is and Ollie explains that the sausage used to be Elmer the pig (allegedly at least). Stan takes a bite and says it doesn’t take like pig – it tastes like pork to him! This inspires Ollie to take a bite and brings Tom Tom’s innocence to the forefront as Ollie exclaims, “why that’s neither pig nor pork… it’s beef!”

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: My favorite Our Gang/Little Rascals kid, Scotty Beckett has a small part. He made several movies apart from the Gang shorts, but his only other recurring part was as Winky in the “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” TV series. He worked until 1957 then tragically died eleven years later due to a drug overdose.

Ellen Corby will forever be known as the grandmother on “The Waltons” but her roles are numerous. They include bit parts in two Laurel & Hardy classics (“Sons of the Desert” and “Babes in Toyland,” aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”), playing a maid in Abbott & Costello’s “The Noose Hangs High” appearing in Jerry Lewis’ “Visit to a Small Planet” and three major horror-comedy roles: playing one of the Gravesend clan in “The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters,” Mother Lurch in the classic “Addams Family” TV series, and Luther Hegg’s childhood schoolteacher in “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken.” In addition to her acting roles, apparently Corby was also a script supervisor at the Roach Studios on numerous Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly, etc., shorts and was also married at the time to Hal Roach cinematographer Francis Corby.

Ironically, Billy Bletcher started out in silent movies, but his career would be made via his deep baritone voice. He appeared in many vintage comedy shorts alongside Laurel & Hardy, the Little Rascals (including “Hide & Shriek”), W.C. Fields and others; classic animated shorts from Disney and Warner Brothers, did a couple voices in “The Wizard of Oz,” and appeared in Red Skelton’s horror-comedy “Whistling in the Dark.” His voice was often utilized to portray villains (he was the voice of The Big Bad Wolf) as well as ghosts and other spooky characters (he lent his talents to the classic Mickey/Donald/Goofy horror-cartoon, “Lonesome Ghosts”).

FURTHER READING: There are many great books on Laurel & Hardy out there but I will single out three that particularly highlight “Babes.” The coffee table book "Laurel & Hardy" by John McCabe and Richard W. Bann has some great production and promotional stills from “Babes.” Randy Skretvedt’s essential, impeccably researched “Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies” goes into deep detail about the behind-the-scenes trials and triumphs of this film, from Roach’s ill-conceived plot to young Henry Brandon getting into bar brawls when off-camera. Scott MacGillivray’s equally essential “Laurel & Hardy: from the Forties Forward” presents the story of the film’s second (and third and fourth and fifth, etc.) life as theatrical reissue, television staple and home video release. Last but not least, there are a lot of reviews of the film out on the internet but instead of those I’ll share these links - one is from Mark Evanier's site with his thoughts as well as those of Randy Skretvedt and Jim Hanley (primarily having to do with Roach's original story, the colorized versions and scenes that may have been deleted) which you can read when you click here; the other is a link to a Village Voice article that is more of a remembrance of the impact this film had on so many kids growing up with it on TV in the New York area – click here to read it.

Laurel & Hardy Compiled by Al Kilgore, Filmography by Richard W Bann

BUY THE FILM: There are lots of versions out there – some unauthorized, some colorized, some butcherized (as in edited). But I really can only endorse the official MGM DVD release in glorious black & white:

WATCH THE FILM: As of this writing, Hulu has posted the entire film on their site by special arrangement with MGM. You can enjoy the Hulu presentation right here on the Scared Silly site when you click here.

In the meantime, enjoy the original trailer for “Babes in Toyland” (note that it uses Henry Brandon’s real name and also exaggerates the running time, claiming the film contains 12 minutes more than it actually does)... and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, July 20, 2012


Sons of the Desert 2012 convention logo

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:

Laurel-Hardy Murder Case title card

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!”

Fred Kelsey Laurel-Hardy Murder Case

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!

Laurel-Hardy Murder Case butler

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!

Laurel-Hardy Murder Case maid

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.”


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.


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!


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.


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:

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Sons of the Desert 2012 convention logo

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:

Laurel Hardy Do Detectives Think

RATING: *** out of ****

PLOT: When Judge Foozle (James Finlayson) sentences “The Tipton Slasher” (Noah Young) for his heinous crimes, the murderer vows revenge. When The Slasher escapes prison, the Judge hires two private detectives (Laurel & Hardy) to guard him. The pair must survive an encounter in a graveyard on the way to the judge’s house, and then must face the judge’s butler – who has been knocked out and replaced by The Slasher! Can Stan & Ollie bring this killer to justice without being scared to death?

REVIEW: “Do Detectives Think” is probably one of the more contentious entries in this project. It is rarely mentioned in discussions of Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedies, and there is some debate on whether it is truly an out-and-out horror-comedy. I am on the side of those that declare it a horror-comedy. While it is true that only about 6 & ½ minutes of its 19 minute running time are devoted to specifically “spooky scenes” (multiple scares in a graveyard plus some quick bits at the end evoking beheadings and ghosts), there is an overall tone of terror due to the villain of the piece being a “throat slasher” out for revenge against the judge who put him in jail on a dark and scary night. Like the Our Gang short “Shootin’ Injuns” and the classic Wheeler & Woolsey feature “The Nitwits,” the spooky material is so memorable and well done that it overpowers the non-spooky material in each and catapults each over the “horror-onable mention” wall. Additionally this film features a villain who inspires such dread over the entire proceedings – much like Harry Lime (Orson Welles) from “The Third Man” (total screen time: less than 15 minutes) and Hanibal Lechter (Anthony Hopkins) from “Silence of the Lambs” (total screen time: less than 17 minutes) – that the fear factor is palpable throughout. Finally, with its mystery, suspense and dread as The Slasher stalks our victims through the house in the dead of night, it does take on a legitimate “old dark house” atmosphere.

This film is a watershed entry in Laurel & Hardy’s canon. In this film, the boys, who had been tentatively teamed in previous shorts (since many of those entries merely co-starred the duo without actually pairing them) are actually partnered as detectives. Additionally, they are wearing traditional detective uniforms – suits and derbies! It is a look Laurel & Hardy would ultimately adopt (with some modifications to the suits) and utilize throughout their careers. Additionally, a few scenes in “Do Detectives Think” (as well as in their short “Duck Soup” released a few months prior, and not to be confused with the Marx Brothers’ classic) highlighted some of the personality traits that would become standard for the pair. There would be a few missteps to follow but ultimately the team would build upon the promise of this entry and develop both their “look” and relationship further to become the inseparable team of “men-children” that audiences would come to know and love over the years.

Laurel Hardy Do Detectives Think

As with most of the silent comedies produced by Hal Roach Studios, the humor didn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of the actors. Title card writer H.M. Walker was a witty fellow indeed and would often open these rib-ticklers with a great line, setting the tone for what was to follow. His opening card in “Do Detectives Think”:

“This story opens with a lot of people in court – most of them should be in jail.”

Additionally, Walker makes sure to pepper the title cards with appropriate gallows humor – as when he mentions that the accused had killed two men “both seriously.”

The first character we see is Judge Foozle (and another pointed joke as the title card reads that he charged the jury – “he always charged everything”), played by the inimitable James Finlayson. The use of “Fin” as a “third banana” in Laurel & Hardy shorts would also become a standard motif. Finlayson plays his patented authoritative but high-strung character here.

When the jury finds the defendant (“The Tipton Slasher,” played by the formidable and quite intimidating Noah Young) guilty, they recommend to “bump him!” The Slasher’s reaction is one that also became a classic device in comedy shorts and features, particularly those starring Laurel & Hardy. The device: he vows to escape and get even through some gruesome act. Here the object of the revenge is the judge but in other films it is usually Stan & Ollie themselves, as in “Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Going Bye Bye,” “The Bullfighters” and others.

We learn that The Slasher has escaped while the judge is having breakfast with his wife. As she reads the newspaper, the headline on the front page about The Slasher’s escape is in full view to the audience… and to the judge. Finlayson does a brilliant spit-take, his coffee practically spilling out into the theater audience! Finn quickly calls the local detective agency where the boss summons “Ferndinand Finkleberry – the second worst detective in the whole world” (Laurel) and “Sherlock Pinkham – the worst” (Hardy).

(It’s interesting to note that in this first scene that Laurel is presented as being smarter and more on-the-ball than Hardy, but when the scene changes it doesn’t take long for Hardy’s typical “take charge” attitude to set in).

As soon as their boss tells Stan and Ollie they have to guard the judge and that he lives “just beyond the Whitechapel Graveyard,” our heroes do a nervous double take. It doesn’t help that the boss adds, “This ‘Tipton Slasher’ will probably kill you – but you’ll be buried like heroes.” However, the boss is almost buried first as Stanley’s pistol goes off while he loads it, barely missing the head detective!

We are then treated to the wonderful scene of Stan and Ollie in the graveyard. What makes this particular scene remarkable is that it almost appears to have been dropped in from a later film, after their personas had already been perfected. The character deviances evident in their initial scene at the detective agency (such as the boys’ cigar-chomping and bravura) are gone – here in the graveyard we have the full-fledged duo that would become familiar to and beloved by audiences worldwide.

The scene in the graveyard is one for the books. As the boys walk past the cemetery’s open gate a forceful wind knocks their hats off and into the cemetery. Unlike the earlier scene where Stan is clearly smarter and in charge, in this scene Laurel exhibits some of the scared little boy traits – frightened facial expressions and tentative steps – that would become hallmarks of the “Stanley” character. As Stanley timidly reaches for the hats he sees the shadow he’s thrown on a mausoleum wall and runs back out to the sidewalk. Ollie’s familiar “take charge” pomposity, also missing from the earlier scene is evident when a title card has him yelling at Stan, “ Get them hats – I hate a man that’s scared!”

Laurel’s clever solution is to dive down onto the ground to get the hats – that way his shadow won’t be cast onto the wall! This leads to the introduction of a routine that would become a hallmark for the boys: the “mixed-up hats” routine. In this routine, Stan and Ollie keep handing each other what they think are each other’s hats… only to find when they put the hats on that they’ve gotten the wrong hat once again! This bit never fails to generate laughs and was “fall-back” shtick for the duo when in situations where they had no other material prepared, such as when newsreel photographers ran into the team on tours or on vacation and even in the Laurel & Hardy episode of “This is Your Life,” which caught the boys totally off-guard. The hats routine is capped by a goat wandering into the graveyard and casting a shadow that looks like Satan on the wall!

Do Detectives Think Oliver Hardy goat shadow

…and just like that, the “true” Laurel & Hardy exit… literally… as the pair uncharacteristically run out of the graveyard at top speed, a silent film comedy trope more appropriate for the likes of The Keystone Kops than for our more nuanced friends Stan & Ollie.

Overall key Laurel & Hardy character traits on display in the graveyard scene: both have a naïve childlike innocence, Ollie has an inflated opinion of himself and is deluded that he is “the smarter of the two” (when in reality he is just as dumb if not dumber than Stan), Stan treats Ollie like an older brother who will protect him (jumping into Ollie’s arms), Ollie is insistent on having Stan do his dirty work (forcing him retrieve their bowlers from the graveyard), Stan does his famous “cry” that would become a trademark throughout his career, as well as various childlike facial expressions and body language that would become standard for the “Stanley” character.

What Stan and Ollie don’t know is that The Slasher and his henchman have jumped the judge’s new butler (as he walks to the judge’s home for his first day on the job) and The Slasher is now masquerading as the family servant. The scenes where The Slasher tries to exact his revenge on the judge are simultaneously horrifying and hysterical. The Slasher gives the judge a drink from behind (so that the judge can’t see him) and as the judge indulges, The Slasher pulls out an absurdly long knife and threatens to do away with the judge, but quickly re-pockets the weapon and ducks out of the room when he hears the judge’s wife coming. The Slasher is truly scary in this scene, but both the ridiculousness of his knife and the fancy flourishes that the judge employs in the enjoyment of his drink acts as humorous counterbalance to the terror.

In typical fashion for a Hal Roach comedy, this bit is punctuated by an unexpected gag: it is the wife that the judge is frightened by, exuberantly and exaggeratedly throwing his drink into the air when she walks up behind him and places her hand on his shoulder.

Stan and Ollie arrive at the judge’s home and are let in by the faux butler. They have reverted back to being the wise-guy detective characters from the scene in the detective agency, chomping their cigars and acting with authority, as if they actually know what they’re doing.

This is short-lived, and soon enough the more recognizable Stan and Ollie are back. This is exemplified by a very Laurel & Hardy-esque gag where Stan has helped himself to mouthfuls of crackers and ends up spitting the crumbs in Ollie’s face as he answers his partner’s questions! Another Laurel & Hardy evergreen gag is a tit-for-tat exchange where the pair kick one another and step on each other’s feet like feuding children. The extra layer here is that they act as if nothing is wrong whenever the judge and his wife turn toward them. Yet another typical gag has the boys not noticing the obvious, as they stare at The Slasher’s photo in the newspaper but don’t immediately make the connection that he looks exactly like the butler.

The climax is a dizzying frenzy that finds The Slasher creeping in on the Judge’s wife in the bedroom while the judge limbers up in the rest room before his bath. Her screams rouse Stan and Ollie from their beds and the judge from his soapy tub. The Slasher moves into the restroom in search of the judge, but the judge ducks into the tub water to hide. A clever gag has his foot accidentally tugging the drain cap string, releasing all the water, but he still manages to go unnoticed by The Slasher.

As you’d expect, a wild chase ensues with The Slasher chasing everyone through the house, particularly Stan and Ollie. As was so often the case in Hal Roach films, the smaller laughs are only there to lead up to the bigger laughs. Earlier the absurdity of The Slasher’s long knife elicited chuckles; now the laugh is topped by The Slasher removing a gargantuan Arabian Nights-style sword from the wall to threaten our heroes.

From this point on the short brings in a couple more horror elements. First The Slasher finds Stan hiding behind a curtain and runs off into the distance after him. When they come back to the foreground, both Ollie and the viewing audience sees a headless Stan – he has ducked his head into the neck of his suit for protection! This of course evoked memories of the classic Washington Irving story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which may have still been fresh in audiences' minds due to its first film adaptation (with popular humorist Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane) being released just five years earlier.

The next and final horror element occurs when the judge’s wife’s gun accidentally goes off and startles her husband, sending him hurtling down the stairs. The husband had just emerged from the bath wrapped in a white towel. Just as he’s about to reach the bottom, his flailing legs knock a tribal mask from the wall and it lands on the back of his head! The Slasher’s chase ends when he trips into the room to see the white-shrouded judge with the scary mask on and mistakes him for a ghost! The Slasher surrenders to Stan, who locks him in the closet where Ollie is hiding. Stan is then momentarily scared by the judge who approaches him with mask and sheet still on.

This is followed by a rather abrupt ending wherein a police squad arrives to take the Slasher away and Ollie gives Stan some black eyes to match those The Slasher gave to him. The boys then leave the judge’s home, but not before putting their derbies back on… which they’ve mixed up once again!

The supporting work here from James Finlayson, Noah Young, Viola Richard and Frank Brownlee is so strong that it’s debatable whether to label it “support” or to consider this short an “ensemble piece.”

Finlayson is familiar to long-time Laurel & Hardy fans (who affectionately refer to him as “Finn”). Over the years his numerous run-ins with the boys made him their number one foil, a role he perfected. His specialties were double takes, slow burns and his cry of “D’oh!” that cartoon voice-over actor Dan Castellaneta later appropriated for his role as Homer Simpson. Finn had a lengthy career running from the silent movie days (including a 1925 horror-comedy short, “The Haunted Honeymoon”) up through the early 1950s. Other comedy teams he ran up against included Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson and Clark & McCullough. He also appeared in the Jack Benny classic, “To Be or Not to Be” and acted in at least one “straight” horror film, “She-Wolf of London.”

Noah Young was an ex-champion weightlifter (In 1905 at the age of 17 he was declared a “weight-lifting prodigy” and in 1915 was named “The Strongest Man in the World”). He was rejected by the Navy for not having enough teeth, but welcomed by Hal Roach Studios as a hulking “heavy” (villain) for their shorts and features. While Young appeared in a handful of Laurel & Hardy and Snub Pollard films, he was used most frequently as a foil for the legendary comedian Harold Lloyd, including Lloyd’s classic silent horror-comedy “Haunted Spooks” and his talkie curio “The Cat’s Paw,” which isn’t a horror-comedy per se but does contain a scene that elicits great chills. While his size would appear to make him typecast, he developed his own style of facial expressions that enhanced his screen villainy.

Viola Richard as the judge’s wife is her usual vivacious self, yet also exhibits a flair for comedy and dramatics. The actress had a very short career in movies and one brief detour to Broadway. Her film work as we know it consists entirely of appearances (mostly uncredited bit parts including some mere walk-ons) in Hal Roach comedies, and mostly silent ones at that. Stars Richard appeared with included Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang (the Little Rascals), Charley Chase and Max Davidson. “Do Detectives Think” gave Viola more to do than many of her other films, and she took advantage of her screen time to make the most of her character.

Frank Brownlee also has a short but memorable turn as the head of the detective agency. He appeared in several Laurel & Hardy films both before and after “Detectives,” most often playing law enforcement and military officials. When he wasn’t seen cavorting with Stan & Ollie he could be found cantering his way through countless westerns. What makes Brownlee especially memorable here is that his whole look and how he carries himself reflects the archetype of the detective in “old dark house” comedies, particularly hotel detectives. Fred Kelsey would be the one to perfect this act (most notably in the short “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case) and homages to it can be seen in everything from the classic Tex Avery animated short “Who Killed Who?” to Bud Abbott’s role as hotel dick Casey in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.”

Ultimately, there’s not much plot in “Do Detectives Think” and the Stan and Ollie characters are still finding their way but everything is performed by the boys and their supporting cast with such gusto that’s its easy to overlook this film’s shortcomings. Further, there is no denying that this film represents a historical entry in the careers of Laurel & Hardy, not just for featuring so many of their hallmark characteristics and really showing them as a team for the first time, but also as the first official Laurel & Hardy horror-comedy.

BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES: In addition to the courtroom and detective agency dialogue mentioned within the review, there are several other funny lines:

JUDGE (after sentencing The Slasher to hanging):' I hope you choke!

JUDGE: Are you men good shots?

OLLIE: We come from a family of shooters – William Tell is my uncle!

OLLIE: You can go to bed – you’re as safe from danger as we are!

THE SLASHER (pretending to be the butler and tucking Stan and Ollie into their beds): I’ll leave you to a long, long sleep.

BEST GAGS: Without question the best horror-comedy gags come in the graveyard and are mentioned within the review, but there are other great visual gems to be had here as well:

Following up on the William Tell dialogue, Ollie decides to demonstrate his shooting skills by placing an apple on Stanley’s head and firing his pistol. He not only misses the apple but ends up toppling a statue from its pedestal… several feet away from Stanley!

In fact, Stan and Ollie prove to be terrible with guns throughout this short and often shoot off their guns in the wrong direction, at the wrong time or merely while pointing or loading their guns!

When the detectives realize The Slasher is in the house, Stan repeatedly jumps on Ollie’s back in fear, preventing him from leaving the bedroom. When Ollie finally manages to get the door open Stan ends up missing Ollie’s back and jumping right through the door and on top of the judge’s wife!

As Stan and Ollie tangle with The Slasher at in the hallway, Stan is seen scurrilously trying to slap handcuffs around The Slasher’s wrists. He pops a cigar in his mouth, confident that he has succeeded, only to see Ollie has risen with his hands shackled! This bit of “mistakenly subduing the wrong person” was a staple in film comedy and would later be used to great effect by teams including The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello.

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Wilson Benge plays Finn’s butler in “Do Detectives Think”… and played a butler and other servile roles (waiters, doormen, valets, etc.) in over 95% of his other movie, shorts and serial appearances. Of interest to genre fans are his appearances in Bela Lugosi’s “The Death Kiss” and one of the versions of Mary Rhinehart’s comedy horror template “The Bat” (a straight horror version called “The Bat Whispers”), roles in a few “Bulldog Drummond” and “Sherlock Holmes” mysteries, and the serials “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” “The Green Hornet” and “Captain America.” He also appeared in some bona fide classics including “The Palm Beach Story,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In addition to appearing in several Laurel & Hardy films, he appeared in a variety of Three Stooges shorts and also made a brief appearance in “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”

Will Stanton plays the Slasher’s henchman, an uncredited role in a career filled with uncredited roles. He is actually quite effective and comical in his own right (but I guess in the old days of brief credits on single title cards it just wasn’t cost efficient to credit everyone). A glance at his filmography shows that Stanton had the fortune of appearing in both several Laurel & Hardy films and in a couple of Abbott & Costello films (“It Ain’t Hay” and “Lost in a Harem”), too. He also acted in Charles Laughton’s friendly ghost tale, “The Canterville Ghost” and his final role was as a cab driver in the classic Tracy-Hepburn romcom, “Adam's Rib.”

BUY THE FILM: “Do Detectives Think” appears on DVD along with other classic Laurel & Hardy silent shorts on “The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy Volume One,” which you can order here:

FURTHER READING: The best review you’ll find online is Cliff “Laughing Gravy” Weimer’s on his wonderful “In the Balcony” site. Cliff doesn’t share my fondness for this film’s spooky elements but he does have excellent insights, which you can read when you click here.

There are a lot of books about Laurel & Hardy that have been published over the years, but most offer an overview of their careers or specific facets (for example, you can buy books on the boys’ solo films, their 1940s films, their final film and their live tours) without any one being solely dedicated to their silent film work. In that regard, I’d have to give my highest recommendation to Walter Kerr’s seminal work, “The Silent Clowns” which you can order by clicking on the title below:

The Silent Clowns

WATCH THE FILM: As this is a short there is no trailer, but you can enjoy the graveyard scene right here: