PLOT: A mad professor (Richard Carle) desires to prove his theory on the human brain but needs a specimen to experiment on. On cue, two vagabonds of questionable brain power (Laurel & Hardy) show up at the door requesting some toast. The professor offers more bread than that - $500 worth in fact! All Stan and Ollie need to do is rob a grave to procure a body for said experiments. Hapless at any task that inexplicably yet fortuitously comes their way, the boys are in “grave” danger indeed as they contend with the spooky cemetery, pesky bats, and a batty butler (Charley Rogers) who’s really an undercover detective (and would-be ghost!) in disguise!
REVIEW: Coming a full year and a week after their initial foray into scare comedies (Do Detectives Think), Laurel & Hardy (or more accurately, Laurel) decided to expand upon what had worked so well in that prior film. Habeas Corpus has them returning to the graveyard in full-tilt scaredy cat mode, and reportedly audiences were just as bowled-over by this scenario in extended length as they were when it was merely one scene in the earlier short.
Three years prior to Habeas, Laurel co-wrote and directed the short, Moonlight and Noses starring Clyde Cook and Noah Young. Nearly identical in plot to Habeas, Moonlight set Stan into motion to see how much farther he could take things in the remake. It’s a great example of what I call “Stan in transition” – he’s working not only through scare scenarios and gags, but he’s also developing his “Stanley” character further along. It seems he’d keep these gags in his head because he goes from reworking and refining Do Detectives Think’s gags in Habeas, to later taking bits from Habeas and evolving them further for The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and beyond.
Habeas Corpus wasn’t just influenced by Do Detectives Think. There’s also a rather gruesome real-life historical influence on the film. A hundred years before Habeas’ release, notorious Scottish serial murderers Burke and Hare went on a rampage of grave robbing and killing. The reason: a shortage of scientific and medical research cadavers. Anatomist Robert Knox needed cadavers for his lectures, and much like the professor in Habeas, he was willing to pay for them, no questions asked. Unlike the professor in Habeas, he wasn’t locked up before the bodies were unearthed.
Before diving deeper into the film, I must also mention that Habeas Corpus is the first Laurel & Hardy film that can be called a “sound” film. It is a silent film in that there’s no dialogue other than the written title cards shown on screen, however, producer Hal Roach employed the Victor recording company (before they were acquired by RCA) to have an orchestra do a soundtrack recording just for this short. It also features some great synchronized sound effects. I refer you to the Laurel & Hardy Blogcast link at the end of this review for more information behind the recording from Laurel & Hardy historians-authors Patrick Vasey and Randy Skretvedt, and my own insights on how much Charles Gounoud’s classical piece, The Funeral March of the Marionettes (aka the Alfred Hitchcock Theme) sounds like an inverted, dissonant version of The Dance of the Cuckoos (aka the Laurel & Hardy Theme).
The intro of the boys in this short is great. We get Ollie’s pomposity firsthand… literally, as it’s just a shot of Laurel & Hardy’s hands! Of course, Ollie brushes away Stan’s hand so he can knock first, maintaining his character’s “me before you” mindset which would manifest itself in the pair’s talkies whenever Ollie introduced he and Stan thusly: “I’m Mr. Hardy… and this is my friend, Mr. Laurel.”
A lot of the stock Laurel & Hardy personality traits show up in this short right from the beginning as they talk to the professor. Much of it has to do with facial expressions and body language, especially with Hardy. You get that wonderful Hardy combo of embarrassment, followed by the false awkward acceptance of something odd, and culminating in Ollie’s sideways glance over to Stan indicating, “are you kidding me?!”
As for that professor, we know he’s not all there not only because his various askew facial expressions and dialogue tip it in, but also due to the fact anyone willing to pay L&H $500 to do anything has to be nuts. Some of the professor’s eccentric nuances include putting cigarette ashes in his pocket and pouring water into it, too (the type of thing that would later become more of a Stan “white magic” thing to do), and doing a quirky little salsa dance which the music and sound effects on the synchronized soundtrack really puts over.
On the way to the graveyard, Stan questions the professor’s sanity and Ollie replies that he’s just as sane as the two of them! It’s interesting that Stan is questioning the professor’s sanity at all however Ollie’s response is a very Hardy-like answer as he falsely fancies himself both an authority and intelligent. This bit could very well be the genesis in Stan’s mind of the “hand-twist” motion to indicate someone is a little “cracked” or “eccentric” or “twisted in the head” which of course became a staple for Laurel & Hardy showing up again in various films like Wrong Again, Dirty Work, and The Big Noise.
Speaking of The Big Noise, it takes one of its key sight gags from Habeas Corpus: Stan and Ollie can’t make out the address atop the street sign, so Ollie climbs up to read it, only to find it says, “wet paint”… and now he has a black and white suit! It’s a classic bit as they make their way to the graveyard, and of course, it’s the main passage in the graveyard that provides most of the laughs here, including the following scare comedy bits:
• Ollie offers to stay outside the graveyard to “protect” Stan while he’s in there digging. It’s one of those things that ended up in a lot of other comedians’ films, where there’d be a straight man or a bossy member of a two- or three-man team (like the Three Stooges’ Moe or Bud from Abbott & Costello) keeping themselves out of the action under the guise of “helping” the patsy characters.
• There’s a handclap bit where Stan claps and he hears a clap in return (provided by the phony butler/real detective). This is a riff on a music hall/vaudeville stage staple where a comic would call something out and there’d be a voice parroting it in echo, however by the third time there’d be a different answer from the disembodied, echoing voice, startling the comic. Again, this ultimately turned up a lot with the Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello and others. One note to make is this routine in Habeas comes over best if you’re watching the version with the original synchronized soundtrack.
• Stan & Ollie hilariously tangle with various critters. Ollie is scared by a black cat zooming by, Stan accidentally places a lantern on a turtle's back and believes the light is moving on its own (a variation of the “moving candle” stage bit that later became a big part of Abbott & Costello’s act), and a bat bedevils Stan… a sequence that must have stuck in his mind when he went to work expanding on the mayhem a bat can cause in The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case!
• That old, dusty stand-by, a man under a sheet being mistaken for a ghost is pulled out of the closet, although in 1928 those sheets were a bit more fresh!
The Live Ghost.
Of course, not all the bits here are of the “scared” variety. The film gets in some stock Laurel & Hardy sight gags and slapstick, too. For a brief moment, they do the “mixed-up hats” routine (though curiously it’s very brief here, as opposed to Do Detectives Think), Ollie falls... and sinks!... into the perennially deep puddle he would in countless films (perhaps most notably in Way Out West), and then there’s a whole set-piece where Ollie is trying to boost Stan over the cemetery walls after the gates are locked shut. It’s an extended bit and audiences are split on whether it goes on too long or whether the laughter is sustained (I’m in the latter camp – and it’s always a great experience if you can watch it with an audience).
The wall-scaling bit is bookended by two wonderful character moments. First, there’s Stan’s look of “self-satisfaction” on his face with an added head nod for emphasis – he’s thrilled the cemetery gates are locked and he doesn’t have to go back in! Ollie of course insists Stan goes back in and is determined to boost Stan over the wall as mentioned above. Ultimately realizing the effort is futile, Ollie resorts to his oft-repeated adage that if he wants something done right, he'll have to do it himself. So what happens when he attempts to scale the wall? He ends up running right through it!
Speaking of Ollie the bulldozer, I’m always awed and astounded by displays of his strength. In Habeas we get to see Stan balanced on Ollie’s back and even standing up on it as he tries to get over the cemetery wall. In Wrong Again Ollie bears the weight of not only a piano on his back, but a piano that a horse is standing atop it! And in Blockheads there’s the wonderful scene of Ollie carrying Stan in his arms because he mistakenly thinks Stan has lost a leg while simultaneously bending down to pick up the hat that he’s dropped. What a trooper!
When all is said and done, Habeas Corpus is a hallmark Laurel & Hardy short. If it just had one of the following things going for it, it would be considered so, but it actually has all three of these, in no order of preference: 1.) Laurel expanding on how to do a Laurel & Hardy scare comedy for the length of an entire film, as opposed to just a bit. 2.) Laurel further developing his Stanley character including how he would act when scared. 3.) The first-ever attempt to add sound to a Laurel & Hardy film, via the Victor company’s synchronized music and sound effects recording on disc. Of course, the main reason you should check it out: it’s funny, and therefore you’ll be scared silly!
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: The main supporting players of course are Richard Carle as the professor and Charley Rodgers as the detective-disguised-as-a-butler. Carle had a distinguished career as a stage actor and director, and ended up with copious credits in every genre of film. That includes not only more Laurel & Hardy films, but also films with Wheeler & Woolsey, W.C. Fields, and Abbott & Costello!
Charley Rogers went on to be joined at the hip with Laurel & Hardy, not just acting in dozens and dozens of their films, but more significantly directing several and becoming one of Stan’s trusted stable of co-writers, too. In front of the camera, he also appeared alongside such film comedy stalwarts as Harry Langdon, Shemp Howard, Andy Clyde, and the daffy duo of Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly. One of his most beloved appearances among Laurel & Hardy fans is as Simple Simon the Pie Man in Babes in Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers).
While Chester A. Bachman as one of the policemen seems to have a resume primarily made up of Laurel & Hardy films, it’s Leo Sulkman (the detective on the telephone) who really got around in the world of film comedy, mixing it up with funnymen including the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Ben Turpin, Clyde Cook, Billy Bevan, and more. Most notably for Scared Silly fans, he’s in One Spooky Night, a silent horror-comedy short that as of this writing appears to be a lost film.
HABEAS REDUX: I can’t conclude a review of this short without mentioning its title got a cute little ribbing in a later Laurel & Hardy movie, my favorite of the final group of films they did. The 1940s 20th Century Fox feature, The Big Noise not only contains the above-mentioned reprise of the “wet paint” gag, but also features a delightful bit of verbal nonsense between Stan and Ollie where Ollie insists, “Habeas Corpus is a town in Texas.” It’s followed by a knowing glance to the audience, as if Ollie is asking us, “get it?” Indeed we do!
If you missed my interview on Patrick Vasey’s essential Laurel & Hardy Blogcast where we discussed all things Habeas Corpus, here’s a handy YouTube link of the episode… ENJOY!
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