Last night at the “Hollywood Party”/Sons of the Desert Meeting, Grand Sheik Stan Taffel showed one of my all time favorite Laurel and Hardy shorts, “Oliver The Eighth” on a terrific 16mm print. I want to take the time to deconstruct this short, because it’s not only very funny, it’s got an excellent story structure that’s worth delving into. Take a look at the short first if you have the time (its about 26 minutes), and then you can read my thoughts on it below. Or read my thoughts anyway, and decide if you’d like to check out the short!
It’s been a little while since I’ve seen this short. The first time I saw it I remember thinking that they coped out on the ending a bit by having the whole scenario just be a dream. We all know that’s the easiest way for writers to scape goat a situation by telling us it never really happened to begin with. In 1934 when this short was made, audiences we’re more willing to go along with this device because most comedy shorts then were less about great storytelling and simply about entertainment. But there were some filmmakers then who started seeing it more as a cop out device, and if it was going to be used they tried to make something out of it. Thankfully on Oliver the Eighth, one of the writers didn’t want to simply cheat the audience out of the story (I’m guessing maybe Stan Laurel, who had a major hand in the writing gags and structuring the plots). If you notice in the film, Ollie’s dream is actually a guilt dream. The reason for it is because Ollie didn’t mail Stan’s inquiry about marrying the rich woman, even though the idea was Stan’s to begin with. So Ollie is basically getting his comeuppance in the dream for going behind Stan’s back.
As with every Laurel and Hardy short, there is always a quick establishment of the relationship between the two characters. Even though everybody at that time knew who Laurel and Hardy were, they still work to establish the characters as if it were the first time for somebody seeing them. The most common routine they would use is the “Tell me that again” routine, where Stan would lay out a plan that sounded pretty intelligent, then Ollie would say to him, “Tell me that again”, and Stan would try to say it over only stumbling on all his words to say it right. It wasn’t used every time, but it was a simple effective (and funny) device to establish the characters personalities and get the plot going. It’s one of the ongoing jokes about the two is that Ollie never learns every time he listens to one of Stan’s idea’s, and he always winds up screwed over. Once Ollie cheats Stan by not mailing his letter, Ollie gets a shave from Stan and the dream begins. Another thing I found a bit interesting is the point when the dream begins, Ollie is packing up in the Barber Shop when Stan walks in, who tells Ollie he was down the street getting a shave (a subtle hint to the audience that we’re in Ollie’s dream.)
All the situations Stan and Ollie get into are about building on the relationship between the two characters. The supporting cast gets strong credit for being characters in of themselves, but they also wisely never get in the way of Stan and Ollie, since its important for us to remember the films are always about them. There are some great, funny bits in this film, especially when Stan gets caught up in the invisible card game with Jitters the Butler. After Ollie slaps Stan’s hands, Stan points to the floor to Jitters, “Look what he did”…and then as Jitters is picking up the invisible cards…”You missed one.” The soup eating scene is also another excellent bit of acting, as we stay on a two-shot of Stan and Ollie, watching as Ollie goes along pretending to eat the fake soup, and Stan who starts off pretending, but then starts making gestures crumbling the crackers in the soup, adding more pepper, then eventually the payoff to the whole gag, Stan going, “YOUR NUTS!”
The fake painted gold brick is another brilliant gag, which somebody tricked Stan into taking to sell off the Barber Shop. Instead of being a one off gag, the gold brick winds up becoming a story device, and is brought back to be used to knock out Ollie before he‘s about to get his throat cut. The set up for it is also very clever by having Ollie use the brick to make a contraption to keep Stan awake. What they‘ve done here is taken a simple throwaway gag and made it an important part of the story. This kind of storytelling was more finely developed during this period by major film comedians of the day, like Chaplin and Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy, where all the humor and situations were built around moving the story forward. It’s rare to see a gag that is simply a throwaway.
The other thing I love about this short, at least when I saw it the first time, is that they do a really good job building the suspense to Ollie getting his throat cut. The psychotic widow is actually pretty scary! There is a good use of staging, lighting and camera angles to build the dreading sense of horror. In the dream sequence, playing the psychotic widow is Mae Busch and the terrific Jack Barty. Mae has played regular supporting characters in most of the Laurel and Hardy shorts, everything from a shopkeeper, to Ollie’s domineering wife, to love interests, to villains. Like James Finlayson and Charley Hall, she’s always terrific and very funny. This is probably her creepiest and most fun role out of all of them. Jack Barty is another terrific character actor, playing the crazed widow’s disturbed Butler, Jitters. I think this is the only time I’ve seen him in a Laurel and Hardy film.
This is a terrific short and one of my favorites. I‘m thinking maybe in the future I might do posts like this to try and deconstruct some of these comedy shorts to see how they work.