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Laurel & Hardy





Hal Roach-MGM, 1932. Directed by James Parrott (Charley Chase).  With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall.

Laurel & Hardy, in business with a horse and cart, are hired to transport a piano to an address which turns out to be on the top of a hill, reachable by a long flight of steps.  The long arduous haul begins, with frequent interruptions which send the jangling piano careening down the steps to street level again, often with Mr. Hardy in tow.  Late in the afternoon they reach the summit, only to be told that they could have come the easy way—by road.  Dutifully, they retrace their steps, and bring the piano back the right way.  There is nobody home, and the difficult task of hoisting the piano through a window and unpacking it inside the house is not accomplished without a great deal of mishaps and destruction of property.

Finally the piano is all assembled.  But the owner of the house is incensed, and insists that they have made a mistake.  He hates and despises pianos, and to prove his point he hacks it to pieces with an axe—just as his wife arrives to explain that it was a surprise birthday present.  Suddenly contrite, he forgives the boys for having wrecked his home, and signs the receipt that Ollie gives him.  But their pen "backfires" and, covered with ink, he chases them from his home in a blind rage.

An Academy Award winner (as the best short subject of 1932) The Music Box is one of the richest and most rewarding of all the Laurel & Hardy films and one of the best edited.  Despite the fast that a full three reels are devoted to one basic gag, there is a continual variety of action, and a small but steady flow of new characters to lend punctuation to the various episodes.  In its cutting as well as in its visual concept, it is almost like a very light-hearted equivalent of the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's Potemkin! The piano itself jangling its muttered asides, is almost as much of a "star" as the two comedians, imbued with a personality which enables it to make decisions and to move of its own accord.  Despite the length of time that the operation takes (approximately two-thirds of the film have elapsed before the top of the steps is reached), the actual footage devoted to the laborious upward hauls and the rapid downward plunges is not as extensive as appears.

In between are Laurel & Hardy's inevitable encounters with blustery Billy Gilbert, a cop, and a nursemaid.  Hardy chivalrously attempts to remove the piano from its precarious perch halfway up the steps so that the nursemaid can squeeze by with her baby carriage.  But the piano is more than a match for him, and drags him headfirst down to the street again.  The nurse howls derisively at his stupidity, and when Hardy understandably remonstrates, she slowly and deliberately removes his hat and smashes the baby's bottle over his head.  Unwilling to see his friend thus mistreated, Stanley gives her a swift kick, in the derrière.  Complaining to the rather unfriendly cop on the beat that she has been kicked "right in the middle of my daily duty," she leaves the scene, while the cop and his nightstick pick up and continue the action.

Such scenes effectively break up what might have been the monotony of a one-track gag of frustration, and even during the haulage scenes, "outside" gags are introduced as cutaways.  At one point a hat is thrown from top to bottom of the steps, bouncing gaily all the way down to come to rest in the street just seconds before a truck arrives from nowhere to squash it flat.  (Such gags, carefully and deliberately using the whole area of the screen, are often ruined when the films are shown today on wide screens, with the top and bottom of the frame completely lopped off ).

When the top of the stairs is finally reached, the emphasis of the film shifts a little: it is now what will happen to Laurel & Hardy, rather than what will happen to the piano, that becomes our concern.  Unaware that he has reached the last step, Hardy blithely retreats backwards up the steps to a lily pond, and plunges in, the piano on top of him.  Still later, the gag is repeated and expanded when, with the piano finally hoisted into a window, he guides it down the stairs, backs out of a landing window, and once more falls into the waiting lily pond, the piano toppling after him seconds later.  And in the house, the customary wreckage done to the fittings, the front of Hardy's shoe cleaved off by a badly aimed stroke from Laurel's axe, the piano can now be removed from its wooden packing.  As the boards are pried loose, gallons of water pour out, flooding the rapidly deteriorating living room.  Hardy, sidestepping the deluge, manages to stand on one of the boards from which huge pointed nails protrude—an extremely painful gag, which softens its cruelty almost immediately, however.  The sole of Hardy's shoe is ripped off, and he delicately tries to wrap the gashed leather around his exposed toes, to achieve dignity if not comfort.

Cleaning up the rubble, the boys decide that music might help them so they turn on the player piano.  In one of those charming and seemingly off-the-cuff musical interludes that they performed on occasion, they clean up the room by semi-dancing to the jaunty strains of Turkey in the Straw and finally join hands for a graceful minuet.  But the peaceful and satisfying conclusion to their mission is shattered by the arrival of the wrathful Billy Gilbert, who proceeds to destroy the piano—although he too comes under its spell briefly.  Nearly a total wreck, the machine plays its own taps with a gradually faltering Star-Spangled Banner, while the three men stand at respectful attention.

The Music Box was by far the best of all their three-reelers, and together with 1933's Busy Bodies, the last of their handful of genuinely great shorts.

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