Big Business (1929) is a particularly feral Laurel and Hardy two-reel comedy -- one of the last produced by Hal Roach before sound. The film is a masterpiece. The comedy duo are Christmas tree salesman, driving a flimsy-looking jalopy through the barren and equally ephemeral suburbs of Los Angeles. In the back of their car, the boys haul a couple of pathetically emaciated evergreens. (Laurel ostentatiously puts on a glove to lift the sprigs of tree to keep the needles from biting his delicate hands.) After a couple of failed attempts at door-to-door solicitation, the pair encounter a curmudgeonly and highly irritable householder played by James Finlayson. When Finlayson slams his door in their face some of the miserable Christmas tree's branches get pinned between door and door-frame. This leads to Hardy repeatedly ringing the house's doorbell, an offense that leads to Finlayson emerging from his home with clippers that he uses to cut the tree into three sections. Hardy has a small knife and he gouges out Finlayson's door bell, triumphantly yanking it from the structure. This leads Finlayson to uses his clippers to cut Hardy's tie and, then, rip open his shirt over his belly. The boys, then, retaliate by throwing the clippers through Finlayson's window, breaking its glass. Enraged, Finlayson attacks their car and the other trees they are peddling. As he is disassembling their vehicle, Laurel and Hardy rip his house apart and use a shovel to dig up his lawn, all of this mayhem occurring according to strict rhythm of tit-for-tat violence. A beefy cop comes on the scene as does a crowd of onlookers, but, of course, the spectacle is so enthralling that no one intervenes -- the gawkers (and the policeman) simply enjoy the escalating property damage. Of course, in the end Finlayson is doing a kind maddened jig around the smoking debris of Laurel and Hardy's jalopy while the boys systematically shred his house. Finally, the cop intervenes. Everyone bursts into tears and the cop himself is moved -- sobbing, he goes back to his squad car. Laurel and Hardy can't resist flashing mischievous grins at him and the film's final shot shows the fat cop swinging his nightstick and in hot pursuit of boys fleeing down an endless avenue between treeless yards and shoddy stucco houses, running toward a dismal-looking Golgotha of an oil field.
The film is hilarious and, on some level, profoundly disturbing. Everything is orchestrated so carefully and with such precision that we can predict each move a second before it is made. We can predict those events because we understand what is happening, at a primal level the logic of the film is encoded in our DNA. The landscapes are as stark as something from a Beckett play, sun-bleached and thirsty-looking lawns with wretched anorexic-looking trees -- one of them is uprooted in the battle royale between Finlayson and our heroes. The streets seem to run to infinity between corridors of ugly utility pools -- everything is gimcrack construction, provisional, made to be destroyed just like the battered car with its detachable steering wheel and fenders that can be peeled off the chassis like ripe fruit. The camera doesn't move. It impassively records the mayhem with the cold, indifference of the mise en scene in a Bresson film. Effortlessly profound and deliriously funny, the film poses innumerable questions. But here is one that is particularly haunting -- in principle it should be easy to duplicate this movie. There are no special effects and the set is as simple as could be imagined: an old car, a lawn with a garden hose coiled like a serpent and a battered and tiny sapling -- the house has a chimney, readily knocked down by a thrown brick, a door with a rounded Mission-style top, and a couple of windows in the stucco façade. Would it be possible to remake this film, shot by shot, maintaining the exact rhythm of the original and staging each retaliatory move in precisely the same way? I'm certain this could be accomplished. But would the remake be funny without Laurel and Hardy and Jimmy Finlayson? Hardy is fantastically cute in these silent films; not so much a bully as a soft balloon. Laurel is grim-faced, his long features a relentless mask signifying revenge. Finlayson squints at the camera, does double-takes, and literally twitches with melodramatic rage. My surmise that an exact duplicate of this two-reeler, without the ineffable magic imparted to the proceedings by the three stars, would be depressing, perverse and melancholy -- perhaps, too sad and troubling to watch. (On second viewing, Big Business seems an allegory for World War One -- no one can exactly figure how the mayhem began, but the result is catastrophic; in the end, everyone is absurdly sorrowful, weeping copiously and swearing friendship, and, yet, within fifteen seconds, the true is over and the warring parties are again at one another's throats.)
Habeas Corpus is a 1928 two-reeler, another Hal Roach Laurel and Hardy comedy. I have seen clips from this silent film before but never the entire picture. Habeas Corpus is also amazing, although less minimalist and uncompromising than Big Business. Down and out as always, the boys apply for work as body snatchers with a mad professor. The professor is a husky madman, so distracted in thought that, when he shifts his pondering head leaning on his palm, he pokes himself in the eye. To Laurel's bemusement, he suavely flicks the ashes from his cigarette into the pocket of his smoking jacket and, when the men in white lead him away, he does dignified pirouettes at the threshold of his door. Murnau's Nosferatu is subtitled Eine Symphonie des Grauens -- that is "a symphony of horror." Habeas Corpus could be subtitled "an encyclopedia of fear". The two-reeler is devised to allow Laurel and Hardy opportunities to display every possible type of terror, all known registers of fear -- there is nonchalant fear concealing itself, growing panic, fear rationally controlled and, ultimately, several spectacular episodes of full-blown hysterical terror: Hardy's knees quiver so much he seems to be doing the Charleston and Laurel literally shakes like a leaf -- I don't recall the emotion of fear ever portrayed so nakedly. The plot, such as it is, has the boys digging vainly for corpses in a graveyard while a police officer, veiled in a long white sheet, spooks them. The movie also features two extended sequences in which Laurel and Hardy attempt to scale a ten-foot masonry wall -- in the end Hardy simply breaches the wall by accidentally plowing into it. These sequences of Sisyphean slapstick have a nightmare quality and remind us why children often find Laurel and Hardy films disturbing and, even, unbearably frightening -- the scenes goes on and on, consisting of repeated attempts by the comedians to scramble up and over one another to climb the wall. Each time, the effort to climb the wall absurdly fails and the heroes become more and more dilapidated, their hair disheveled and, ultimately, their clothing shredded -- the effect is not really funny, but weirdly monotonous and protracted, and strangely distressing: the viewer begins to measure the wall himself and assess how he would climb over and, with each failed attempt, becomes more and more invested in the scene, not in its characters but rather in the exact geometries and physical forces shown in the picture. It's the effect of running endlessly in a dream but reaching no place at all. Laurel and Hardy comedies have the curious effect of absorbing and, then, displaying adjacent movie culture, but in a distorted way. Habeas Corpus invokes the world of the early horror films -- pictures like The Cat and the Canary and Lon Chaney's London after Midnight. Similarly, Laurel and Hardy's films from the early thirties often invoke the World War One -- probably because sets were available at the studio built for big budget war pictures then under production. Similarly, Way out West seems made for nickel on the slipshod sets used for Hop Along Cassidy movies. The bargain basement use of movie sets built for other films, when the boys are not shown in the desolate reality of suburban LA, also give their films their unique and slightly disreputable forlorn aspect.