Helpmates is one of the best of Laurel and Hardy's short talkie films, a textbook example of them doing what they do best. The blueprint is a familiar one: a simple task for the pair to carry out, which means there is ample room for them to mess it up, in a permanently destructive manner.
In this case, while his wife is away, Olly has held a particularly raucous party. Next morning, it's panic stations, as a telegram arrives, informing him of the imminent return of the love of his life. Clearly not thinking straight, Olly, turns to the one person he thinks can help get his house back in order – Stan.
The direction is straightforward, apart from some cinematic touches at the beginning, with the camera panning around the post-party wreckage, and Olly giving a lecture on the evils of partying – which we pull back to reveal is being addressed to himself in the mirror. However, when the gags are this good, the performers this engaging and the running time so short, this lack of anything flashy is not a problem.
The humour comes from the classic Laurel and Hardy formula of slapstick and wordplay, with the pacing deliberate and calculated, compared to the sometimes frantic pace of their silent work. Gags are set up and allowed to work at a natural, unrushed pace, sometimes repeated and built up to an excruciating but hilarious climax.
It is interesting to note how much of the situation Olly brings on himself. Obviously, throwing the party was his idea in the first place, and expecting to involve Stan and not experience some complications is naïve at best. But, beyond that, along the way, there are also small lapses in concentration (tripping over a sweeper), oversights (leaving the gas on) or losses of temper (throwing a plant pot) that have wider consequences.
Nevertheless, he is not an unsympathetic character, largely because, thanks to one brief scene of dialogue, and a less than flattering photograph,
When Olly finally gets out to the station to pick up his wife, he is wearing an ornate military uniform, complete with feathered hat and ceremonial sword, the duo having destroyed every other item of clothing he owns. When he returns, he has a black eye
but more significantly, the sword, the symbol of his manhood has been bent out of shape.
This is not the only time they have trashed a home, but unlike the work they did on James Finlayson in Big Business, this is entirely accidental. Nevertheless, here they are again desecrating that most sacred of middle class status symbols, the well-kept, well-decorated and well-furnished home, and while many of their fans, not just in the US, but around the world would be suffering from the effects of The Great Depression, maybe having lost homes of their own as a result.
Joan Crawford is once reported to have said "I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door", and it is probably true that the appeal of many celebrities is that they are so utterly different from us normal folk. This is not the case for Laurel and Hardy though, as their appeal feels more like something we can identify with, folk engaged with constant and sometimes futile struggles against everyday life and everyday people, struggles often entirely of our doing. Even if we cannot learn anything from Stan and Olly, we can take heart in knowing that it is not just us.