Monday, July 30, 2007

The Music Box (1932)

“The Music Box” (1932) displays the ebullience of entrepreneurship in the darkest year of the Great Depression. With a capital sum of $3.80, Laurel and Hardy go into business for themselves with the same optimism that must have moved pioneers across the prairie. Today we’ve traded that for the desperation of lottery tickets, but Stan and Ollie did not know desperation. Frustration, many times, as with their new venture as freight delivery men. Even disaster.

We’ve covered the famous Music Box Steps where this film was shot (see entries March 6th, and April 17th) but let’s have a look at the actual film, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, the only Oscar given to the team of Laurel and Hardy.

They start their new business with a horse-drawn freight wagon, and their first assignment is to haul a player piano, a gift bought by his wife, to the home of a man who happens to hate pianos. The incomparable Billy Gilbert plays the blustering, arrogant and self-important loudmouth.

His home is at the top of a set of cement stairs, 1127 Walnut Avenue, which is really Vendome Street in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. There are 131 steps which the boys must navigate with the piano in a crate. The boys wear overalls and white work gloves, but are still dapper in their trademark derby hats and wing collars. The movie is essentially like a silent movie with sound. It does not rely on dialogue. Their routine is based on sight gags, not a lot of clever repartee.

The daunting task of carrying a piano up the steps is made more difficult by a nanny with a baby carriage who wants to pass. This is one of many attempts at ascending the stairs where the boys lose the piano and it rumbles down the steps with them in chase. The nanny laughs at them and Mr. Laurel boots her in the bottom, and she responds by socking him in the pus, then smashing a glass baby bottle over Mr. Hardy’s head. Good clean fun. She complains to the cop on the beat that Mr. Laurel assaulted her, where? “Right in the middle of my daily duties.”

Next Billy Gilbert makes his officious way down the steps and wants them to move aside so that he can pass. By this time, the boys have made a lot of progress getting the piano up the hill, and they won’t budge. They knock his hat off and send it sailing down the hill. Shots like this, from the top of the steps looking down towards the street below with Mr. Gilbert’s hat sailing in the breeze and rolling down the steps is what make this film so much fun. We view the steps from bottom to top, from top to bottom, from all angles so that we can appreciate how difficult their chore is, and how the steps become a character in the movie. In part we may agonize for them and want them to succeed getting the piano to the top, but part of us is really looking forward to the next time they lose their grip on it. At one point, the crate slips from their grasp again and this time Oliver is dragged down with it on his belly, clinging desperately but in vain to the crate.

Oliver Hardy’s body English in demonstrating frustration is his special comic bit, and the way he looks in exasperation at the camera, and the many wails and whoops he emits when Laurel accidentally drops things on him. Hardy expresses our feelings more than the obtuse Stan Laurel, who is oblivious to everything, us included, except for an occasional glance to the camera like a plea for help.

When the piano is finally deposited in Billy Gilbert’s house, the boys plug it in and give us a little impromptu dance to the accompaniment of patriotic tunes. Gilbert returns and takes an ax to the piano, briefly stopping when the piano plays the first few strains of the “Star Spangled Banner.” All three men salute. It was only the year before this film was released that the “Star Spangled Banner” officially became the national anthem, in 1931. The boys are clearly as patriotic as they are optimistic that the hard times need not touch them as long as they are able bodied and can work. Being utterly clueless does not seem much of an impediment for them, either. We should all be so accomplished.

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