Friday, April 20, 2012

`More Loveable Than Anyone Who Is that Funny'

Go here and watch for the moment in Block-Heads (1938) when the father of the brat turns Oliver Hardy around and prepares to kick him in the seat of his pants. He does so twice. Watch Hardy sigh and await his punishment. In his passivity, his refusal to flee or resist, he stands in for anyone who ever felt misused by the world; that is, for most of us. Bruce Charlton observes of the great Oliver Hardy: 

“What is signalled is a desperate desire to do the right thing, which never succeeds, a tremendously considerate and compassionate uncertainty which always backfires.”

In the scene from Block-Heads, Hardy is treated wrongly by the other characters – the brat, the brat’s bullying father and Stan Laurel, who kicks the father and lets Hardy take the blame, but who ultimately (and satisfyingly) knocks out the bully with a punch and a push. Only together, as a team, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, like Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, can they succeed in order to blunder another day. Charlton’s reading of Hardy is close and precise:

“After which he looks at the camera with infinite weariness, expressive of the shared knowledge that `life’s like that’-- before some final overwhelming insult crashes down upon him.”

Watch one of their greatest scenes, from Men O’War (1929), when Hardy pulls Laurel aside (at 2:09) to explain a second time why he shouldn’t order a soda. He does a slow burn, threatens a slap, mimics strangulation and pats Laurel roughly on the chest. Laurel coughs and plucks a hair from Hardy’s chest. Hardy whimpers, makes a Lear-like gesture with his right hand and asks, “Can’t you grasp the situation?” Laurel, of course, grasps nothing. Charlton writes:

“Even Hardy's aggression seems without malice, and always backfires against him.”

In Laurel and Hardy we see Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, likewise in bowlers and baggy pants, in Hugh Kenner’s words: “one of them marvelously incompetent, the other an ineffective man of the world devoted (some of the time) to his friend’s care” (A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, 1973). Kenner goes on:

“They journeyed, they undertook quests, they had adventures; their friendship, tested by bouts of exasperation, was never really vulnerable; they seemed not to become older, nor wiser; and in perpetual nervous agitation. Laurel’s nerves occasionally protesting like a baby’s, Hardy soliciting a philosophic calm he could never find leisure to settle into, they coped. Neither was especially competent, but Hardy made a big man’s show of competence. Laurel was defeated by the most trifling requirement.”

Hardy always proceeds as though he knows what to do and how to do it. Kenner calls it “a big man’s show of competence”; Charlton, “grace.” It’s the way we would proceed if we knew what we were doing and how to do it. Charlton concludes:

“This is why Hardy is the best of all comedians, because he is as funny as anyone but more loveable than anyone who is that funny.”

1 comment:

mike zim said...

The Godot connection never occurred to me.
Some trivia, Homer Simpson's "doh!" was a takeoff on the actor who portrayed the soda jerk in the second clip.