Saturday, May 10, 2008

`He Can't Think Without His Hat'

When he was 4 I took my oldest son, now almost 21, to a Laurel and Hardy film festival at the public library in Glens Falls, N.Y. “Festival” is misleading. For four hours on a Saturday afternoon in winter, a middle-aged fan rolled his collection of their films in 8-mm prints. Mostly he showed their best work, the short films from the nineteen-thirties (“County Hospital,” “Big Business,” “Liberty,” “The Music Box” and so on), and the features Way Out West and Sons of the Desert. The audience, but for the impresario running the noisy projector and me, was very old or very young. Despite the metal folding chairs and the festival’s length, interrupted only by reel changes, Joshua sat through every movie and I was proud of his iron butt and excellent taste in comedy.

Joshua has returned the favor by passing along a video of the duo’s final appearance together on film, made in 1956, the year before Hardy’s death by the last of many strokes. The home movie is shot in washed-out color. That and Hardy’s massive weight loss give the film an artificiality that heightens its sadness. The boys are uncomfortable and self-conscious, recycling well-known bits on command – Hardy poking Laurel’s eye and fluttering his tie. An unspeakably depressing finale for the funniest team in film comedy. The poet John Mole wrote “Stan Laurel” about his fellow Englishmen:

“Ollie gone, the heavyweight
Balletic chump, and now
His turn to bow out, courteous,
A perfect gentleman who
Tips his hat to the nurse.

“Or would, that is, if he were
Still in business. She
Adjusts his pillow, smooths
The sheets until their crisp-
And-even snow-white starchiness

“Becomes his cue. It’s time
For one last gag, the stand-up
Drip-feed: Sister,
Let me tell you this
I wish I was skiing,

“And she, immaculately cornered
For the punch-line: Really
Mr. Laurel, do you ski? A
chuckle –No, but I’d rather I was doing
That than this,

“Than facing death, the one
Fine mess he’s gotten into
That he can’t get out of
Though a nurse’s helpless
Is the last he hears.”

My middle son had his tonsils and adenoids removed Friday morning. For diversion while he recovered on the couch, I played two Laurel and Hardy shorts – the wonderful “Be Big!” (1931) and their debut as a duo, “The Lucky Dog” (1921). The latter is disappointing. The former includes a 15-minute tour de force in which Laurel struggles to remove a riding boot from Hardy's foot. All the fooling around with hats and footwear plays like a retrospective echo of Waiting for Godot:

“Silence. They put on their hats.

“ESTRAGON: Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!

“VLADIMIR: (to Pozzo). Tell him to think.

“POZZO: Give him his hat.

“VLADIMIR: His hat?

"POZZO: He can't think without his hat.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a good point about Beckett. Apparently, he was very fond of Buster Keaton and, if true, he must have also liked the boys.