Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Big Business (1929)

They are best known for their talkie films, indeed, perhaps their voices are as well known as their faces, so the 30 or so silent movies of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy sometimes get overlooked. This is a shame, for two reasons; firstly, taken as a whole they help provide a fascinating insight into the development of cinema, both as a medium and a business, and secondly, taken individually, the best of them are some of the funniest silent comedies ever made. 

Big Business is definitely in that second category, and features all of the classic elements of a Laurel and Hardy short. We have the established characters of the leads, Stan the well-meaning but dim bungler, and Ollie, with his trademark “withering glance” to the audience, trying and failing to maintain his dignity in extreme circumstances. We also have the duo making a mess of a simple job (selling Christmas trees door-to-door), a hapless third party caught up in the middle (in this case, one of their regular comic foils, James Finlayson), and a situation that, bit by bit, spirals out of control. In this case, a misunderstanding leads to an argument, which leads to tempers flaring, which leads to tit-for-tat destruction, which does not stop until Finalyson's house, along with Laurel and Hardy's car, are both destroyed.

The way it escalates is all too real and believable, and something that could have been stopped at any point by one of the parties taking a step back and acting like an adult. This makes Laurel and Hardy the precursor to comedy such as Fawlty Towers.

However, the way it is presented, by contrast, is deliberately artificial and plays up to the fact that we are watching a film. The escalating chaos is treated almost as a ritual or a chess game with each side standing patiently, waiting while the other takes their turn. This means, rather than rushing straight into a free-for-all, which would get boring after a few minutes, by starting with each bout of destruction as a deliberate and distinct thing, and gradually shortening the gaps between each one, it allows the pace to wind gradually up. By the end, the red mist has descended, and we have Finlayson lobbing an explosive at the car, at the same time as Stan is taking an axe to the piano.

The film also reveals a fascinating and often overlooked side of how Laurel and Hardy interact with each other. For all their bickering and infighting, they can quickly and easily band together against a common foe, almost as though sometimes, if there is one thing that annoys them more than each other, it is other people.

Finally, Big Business is  an excellent demonstration of the part that title cards play in silent films. The captions helps set the sharp, unsentimental tone of the film at the start ("The story of a man who turned the other cheek - and got punched in the nose"), emphasise Ollie’s boundless self-confidence ("it's personality that wins") and drily underscore his reaction to a furious tirade from Finlayson ("I don't think he wants a tree"). Overuse them and you might as well be reading a comic strip, but deployed in just the right levels, they are the perfect complement to the images, which remain the primary source of plot and gags.