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Laurel & Hardy





Hal Roach-Pathé, 1929. Directed by Leo McCarey.  Camera:  George Stevens.  With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Tom Kennedy, Sam Lufkin, Jean Harlow.

Escaping from prison, Laurel & Hardy are picked up by confederates and put on civilian clothes in the cramped quarters of a car.  Out on the street, they find that each is wearing the other's pants, and attempts to change clothes with each other finally lead to their being stranded on the high girders of a sky-scraper.  Ultimately they do manage to change pants, avoid a suspicious cop, and escape to presumably permanent freedom.

An unusual and skilful excursion into the building-climbing comedy-thrill domain of Harold Lloyd, Liberty (for years known as Criminals at Large, because of bootlegged prints bearing that title) has some of Laurel & Hardy's funniest material.  Pursued by cops at the beginning, they slip out of their escape car as it rounds a bend, and instantly strike a pose of nonchalant and approving inspection of a stationary auto, as the law races by. The pants-changing routine affords them some of their choicest and most risqué comedy of embarrassment, for they are forever being discovered behind walls or packing crates, furtively lowering their pants.  A woman looks out of her apartment window at the scene below and screams.  A cop sees and pursues, only to lose them.  He stands bemused in front of a pile of packing cases—which then descend below street level on an elevator, to reveal the boys behind it, fussily trying to expedite the exchange of the too-tight and too-loose pants. Discovered, Stan beams broadly, innocently unaware of any dubious interpretations that could be placed on their actions. Hardy, all too aware of the obvious reactions, twiddles his tie, shifts his feet sheepishly, offers a coy smile and hopes that no questions will be asked.

At one point the pants gag seems to have been dropped in favor of a new story tangent.  A cab stands waiting at a corner, and a young man and his girlfriend (Jean Harlow) step into it.  But before they are fully inside, the girl recoils in horror and steps back.  Out steps Oliver, hastily buttoning his pants, followed by Stan.  Inspecting the inside of the cab carefully this time, Miss Harlow and her escort deem it reasonably safe, and get in. The pants gag is developed still further when, during one of the thwarted exchanges, a lively lobster drops himself into Laurel's trousers.  He nips Laurel at such regular intervals that Laurel retraces his steps to see what there is about that particular stretch of sidewalk that so affects him!  James Finlayson, store proprietor, comes on to the street with a large pile of phonograph records, pop-eyed and scowling at the audience in general, defying anyone to risk defiling such an obvious slapstick prop.  His immediate encounter with Laurel not only demolishes his entire stock within seconds, but convinces him that he is threatened by a maniac!  Another attempt to change the troublesome pants—this time on a construction unit—where again they are discovered, by rugged he-man laborers who glare at them in contempt!

Liberty's last half, enacted high up on the skeleton of the skyscraper, sees the pants finally changed despite the opposition of loose girders, falling sandbags and a still-rampaging lobster.  It is flawlessly done, technically quite up to the Harold Lloyd standards, though rather alien to Laurel & Hardy's usual style.  However, the confrontation by a situation of real danger permits the exploitation of Laurel-Hardy character traits often untouched.  Hardy, nervous, nevertheless steels himself to go to the aid of Laurel, hanging from a girder. But as he hauls him to safety, his own position duplicates Laurel's; hastily he shoves his friend back into jeopardy, re-establishes his own security and, then on his knees, offers up a brief prayer in lieu of risking his life again!

In their few prison films, Laurel & Hardy more than paid for their (usually unspecified) crimes, and escapes were transient things at best.  Here, however, they go scot-free, after first crushing their cop-pursuer in an elevator and transforming him from a vigorous six-footer to a pint-sized midget.

The Films of Laurel and Hardy
by William K. Everson
The Citadel Press, 1967