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Laurel & Hardy





Hal Roach - MGM, 1932.  Directed by George Marshall.  Camera:  Richard C. Currier.  With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Mae Busch, Billy Gilbert, George Marshall.

After one of the customary rows between Mr. and Mrs. Hardy, Stan suggests that a baby in the home might produce the desired harmony, and goes out to adopt one.  Returning with the infant however, Hardy finds that his wife has left him.  Moreover, she is suing him for divorce and Laurel for the alienation of her husband's affections.  Morosely, Stan and Ollie tackle the job of feeding their new charge and getting him to sleep.

A classic in its way, despite a meandering and inconclusive final third, Their First Mistake is one of the best and most original Laurel & Hardy comedies.  The opening scenes of short-lived domestic bliss are superb.  Laurel wants Hardy to sneak out with him for the evening: "I've got tickets for the Cement-Workers' Bazaar; they're giving away a steam-shovel." Ollie manages to persuade his wife that it's a big business banquet which will provide him with valuable contacts and chances for advancement.  His hands floridly punctuating and emphasizing his words, he wins her over easily, darting frequent looks of guilt at the audience as she swallows lie after lie.  Just as the scheme is working flawlessly, Stan phones
and glibly spills the beans to Mrs. Hardy, who immediately gathers her weapons of war—saucepans, rolling pins, etc.—and unleashes her fury on her hapless mate.  Stan arrives to witness the carnage, and when it is all over asks Ollie: "What did she say? Can you go?"  Ollie wearily tells Stan, "She says I think more of you than I do of her," and, not unreasonably, Stan replies "Well, you do, don't you?"

Like two small boys who have been told they cannot go out to play, they retire to the bedroom, and in a beautifully conceived and executed sequence, literally retreat into childhood.  They stretch out on the bed and, in frustration, boredom, and for the lack of anything else to do, shift positions, contort their limbs and try to change their "prison" into a kind of game—but boredom is still the end result.  Then, while Laurel is propped on his back, feet in the air, one shoe being polished by a drape, an idea comes to him. "What you need in your house is a baby!" he says emphatically.  Hardy is intrigued, and Laurel, in one of his rare moments of inspiration and lucidity, goes on to explain that a baby will give Mrs. Hardy something to think about and keep her occupied, so that she could have no objection at all to her husband going out at nights with Laurel.  Impressed, Hardy replies with the expected: "Tell me that again!"  Laurel of course is unable to collect the thoughts of a moment ago, and the idea re-emerges as a disorganized garble.  But the message has sunk in and, duly impressed, Hardy takes Laurel with him and they go out and in typically simplified movie fashion, return shortly thereafter with an adopted baby.

But their careful plan falls apart at the seams:  Mrs. Hardy has left for good, to sue for divorce.  The hilarious sequence that follows is another reshaping of the betrayed-maiden satire that Laurel delivered so successfully in Putting Pants on Philip, except that here it is Hardy who plays the victim, Laurel the betrayer, in dialogue and pantomime that beautifully spoofs the time-honored central situation of Way Down East and other melodramas of that ilk.  Laurel wants to leave, but Hardy protests:  "It was you that wanted me to have the baby and now that I'm in this terrible trouble, you want to leave me flat!" Laurel is sympathetic, but firm:  "I don't want to get involved in this; I have my future to think of―my career!"  By now Hardy is almost in tears: "You should have thought of that before we had the baby!"

It is largely Hardy's subtle facial expressions of despair and helplessness, coupled of course with the deliberately cliché dialogue, that makes the sequence work so well, and it is not surprising that the latter part of the film hardly lives up to three such excellent opening episodes.  Problems of feeding, washing and pacifying the frequently crying baby allow plenty of opportunities for good sight gags, and they make the most of them. A rubber nipple on a hard-to-handle baby bottle; Hardy's falls and tumbles as he seeks to minister—quietly—to the baby's needs in the middle of the night; the old gag of Laurel offering to feed the baby and methodically sitting down to unbutton his shirt (of course to take the bottle from there) ; and Laurel's own withdrawal into infantilism when it is he who falls asleep while sucking on the baby's bottle; all of this material is amusing and sometimes far more than that.  But despite the comedy framework, Laurel & Hardy's comedy was usually close to recognizable reality, and the humor here is lessened by one's concern for a baby left in such incompetent hands. Furthermore, the sequence starts too late in the film for it to have time to develop story sense or a climax; thus it becomes no more than a series of funny gags which never resolve the situation, and the film merely comes to a rather unsatisfying halt on another gag rather than a conclusion.  Nevertheless, despite the weaknesses of its last half, Their First Mistake must certainly rank as one of the best Laurel & Hardy comedies.

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