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Laurel & Hardy



MGM, 1929.  Directed by James Horne.  Camera:  George Stevens.  With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Tiny Sandford.

Laurel & Hardy are Christmas tree salesmen whose salesmanship in sunny California in mid-July is not producing very concrete results, even when they follow up a turndown by trying to get advance orders for the following year.  Taking refusals in their stride, they determine to make of James Finlayson a "test case" to prove their salesmanship when his obstinacy becomes a little too firm.  Soon Christmas trees are forgotten, and in the battle royal that follows, their business-and his home-are totally wrecked.

The apotheosis of all Laurel & Hardy films, and a subject that one could not imprudently label the funniest two reels on film, Big Business is one of the comedy classics from any star, any country and any period.  Even non-Laurel & Hardy devotees are automatically caught up in the maelstrom of fury which, in its precise mounting excitement, attention to detail, meticulous editing, and no-pause-for-breath action, is to the comedy film what The Birth of a Nation is to the historical spectacle.

Even the preliminary skirmishing, which has to be on the intimate, personal level, is hilarious.  Finlayson takes, examines, and winks approvingly at Hardy's watch, assuring him that it is in perfect working order, and then in one wild gesture smashes it to the sidewalk, and tramples on it.  Hardy slices slivers of woodwork from Finlayson's front door, but has his shirt clipped in retaliation.  Laurel pries the street numbers from Finlayson's front door, and when Finlayson tries to call the police, the phone wire is cut in half in his very hands.  Time for honorable negotiation and settlement now being past, the implements of war are brought forth:  gardening hose, shears, spades, bricks.  As Laurel & Hardy break a window, so Finlayson breaks the windshield of their car, via a brick hurled at two paces.

Soon even the back-and-forth, eye-for-an-eye warfare is discarded; Laurel & Hardy dedicate themselves to the full-scale destruction of Finlayson's house, while he launches an offensive against their car.  When Laurel & Hardy have finished with the house, there is still the garden, and when trees have been toppled and shrubbery yanked out by the roots, the boys fall back on the smooth lawn, which is soon filled with potholes.  Their car offers Finlayson less potential; after he has ripped off the gas tank and broken doors and wheels, he does battle with their supply of Christmas trees.  Then a match applied to the leaking gas tank, and everything explodes in a mass of burned rubble.  Still Finlayson seeks to add injury to insult. With a hammer, he skips gaily and triumphantly over the wreckage, seeking out any piece of it that still has a shape, and hammering it flat.

This incredible spectacle has of course been watched by a growing number of curious but passive neighbors and passers-by, including policeman Tiny Sandford, whose expression indicates contempt for such childish goings-on, but whose respect for the due process of law impels him to remain silent, making copious notes, until he is galvanized into personal intervention by a spade landing on his foot, when Mr. Hardy, adopting the stance of a baseball player, hits and demolishes all the vases and other bric-a-brac that Laurel is throwing from inside the house.  The presence of the law brings Hardy up short; Laurel, as yet blissfully unaware of it, trundles a piano onto the lawn, reduces it to kindling with a few deft strokes of an axe, and then, when he too becomes cognizant of the forces of law and order, strives somewhat fruitlessly to reassemble the shattered keyboard.

The opposing forces are brought together in a truce and survey the battlefield.  Finlayson's home has been ruined, but presumably can be repaired.  Laurel & Hardy's loss is more serious.  Their business, their stock, their transportation, one suspects also their home—all totally gone.  The erstwhile enemies dissolve into sentimentality and forgive each other; to show his good faith, Hardy presents Finlayson with a cigar.  But alone, their faces take on a conspiratorial air and they break into chuckles; their remorse but a sham, they are honest enough to admit having enjoyed the fracas to the full.  The policeman sees their mirth, however, and takes after them—their flight punctuated by an explosion from Finlayson's cigar, the last gesture that establishes them as the victors in the titanic struggle.

The Films of Laurel and Hardy
by William K. Everson
The Citadel Press, 1967