US (1938) Dir. John G. Blystone
It’s 1917 and World War I is in progress. Just as a platoon of US troops are about to go over the top in France Private Laurel (Stan Laurel) is told to guard the trenches until relieved. Fast forward to 1938 and the war is long over but no-one told private Laurel to stand down, so he’s been patrolling the same spot for twenty years. Meanwhile his old friend Ollie (Oliver Hardy) is celebrating his first wedding anniversary with his wife (Mina Gombell) having planned a special dinner. Unfortunately this happens the same day Ollie discovers that Stan has been discovered and pays him a visit at the soldiers’ home, inviting him back for dinner. What could possibly go wrong?
As we know whenever Stan and Ollie get together everything can go wrong and this film is no exception. Aside from the opening premise of Stan patrolling the same trench for twenty years the bulk of the material for the second half of the film is lifted directly from the first Laurel & Hardy short talkie Unaccustomed As We Are (1929) right down to the closing gag. Perhaps a sign that long time collaborator Hal Roach was running out of steam this being the last film he made with the boys for MGM. Yet despite this blatant bit of recycling Block-Heads remains a popular and successful feature length outing for the duo.
Ollie is happily married – and by happily I mean his wife hasn’t killed him yet. He pretends to forget their one year wedding anniversary (which he had) and is rewarded with one dollar and 25 cent bonus on his 75 cent allowance – just for the day – and use of the car for an hour. But after seeing Stan’s photo in the paper his plans are derailed. In fact if it wasn’t for the photo in the paper, Stan would have known it was him either! The first truly amusing gag comes when Ollie thinks Stan has lost a leg (he’s merely sitting on it) and struggled to carry his able bodied friend around. After some mishaps with a dump truck and an automatic garage door they boys arrive home only to find the lift is broken down and they have to walk fifteen flights of stairs. Only Stan and Ollie can create a litany of disasters performing such a fundamentally straight forward task.
From hereon in is the rehash of the older short film. Mrs. Hardy is miffed that Ollie was out longer than an hour, blowing her stack when Ollie expects her to cook Stan a steak. She storms out and Ollie’s attempts to cook ends in the expected chaos and destruction. Step forward next door neighbour Mrs. Gilbert (Patricia Ellis) who offers to help only to end up the recipient of a bowl of fruit punch over the head. However she is locked out of her flat so Ollie offers her something of Mrs. Hardy’s to wear. Speaking of Mrs. Hardy she decides to return home as does Mrs. Gilbert’s big game hunter husband (Billy Gilbert). If you’ve seen the original short (or even if you haven’t) you know the frantic event filled farce that ensues.
With the prolific turn over of the studio system during this “golden age” period of Hollywood, perhaps it isn’t so much a surprise or a crime that so much material was regurgitated or replicated en masse with comedy acts repeating themselves let alone other people’s works. We could also assume that in an age where there was no TV, home video or YouTube to constantly re-watch films that the loyal Laurel & Hardy fan base had forgotten the plot of the original short from nine years earlier so it was as though they thought they could get away with delving into their back catalogue for ideas without anyone noticing. This is not a criticism, just an observation.
Of course they manage to make it hugely entertaining and even feel fresh, such was the skill of these two legends and their mentor Hal Roach. For long time fans they are ably assisted by favoured foil Jimmy Finlayson who plays a pompous tenant of the apartment block who challenges Ollie to a fight. Also of interest to note is that one of the screenplay writers was none of other than babyface silent comedian Harry Langdon (who actually partnered Ollie for a film a year later when Stan was locked in a contract dispute with Roach), and former Stan and Ollie writer and director James Parrot.
It feels a little churlish and possibly even dismissive to describe Block-Heads as a “typical” Laurel & Hardy film but ultimately that is what it is. Then again is that necessarily a bad thing? It means that they deliver the kind of bumbling yet spirited slapstick fun, clever sight gags and smart verbal jousting that we fans have become accustomed to and what the boys made their own. The only criticism I could make is that one can see the incipient warning signs of creative stagnation (although they would continue in earnest for the next seven years) but they work through this with characteristic aplomb, still riding high where many of their contemporaries had long since fallen.
At 55 minutes Block-Heads doesn’t outstay its welcome so there are no real complaints to be made about it. Enjoy!