Written May-June, 1938. Filmed June-July, 1938. Released by MGM, August, 1938. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by John G. Blystone. 58 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Minna Gombell, Billy Gilbert, Patricia Ellis, James Finlayson, Tommy "Butch" Bond.
STORY: It is headline news when Private Stan Laurel is found walking the trenches 20 years after the end of World War I (nobody told him the war was over). Old pal Oliver Hardy reads about Stan in the papers, and visits him at the Old Soldier's Home. Thinking Stan is an amputee (he is sitting in a wheelchair with his leg folded under him), Ollie invites Stan home for a steak dinner and indulges him by carrying him to his car before discovering he has two fully functional legs. Back home, they discover that Mrs. Hardy has stormed out in a huff, so The Boys attempt to cook their own meal. They blow up the kitchen, and the film ends as a partial remake of Unaccustomed as We Are.
|This is a film that almost wasn't. For eleven years, Hal Roach Studios had distributed their films through MGM. In 1938, Roach signed a new deal with United Artists, but still owed MGM one film under the old contract. Determined to make a film quickly and cheaply, a new L&H feature was the choice. The production was hurried and chaotic, Stan and Roach were not on the best of terms, and Stan's personal problems with his third wife Illiana distracted him from his work. In addition, both Stan and Babe were nearing the end of their Roach contracts, and there were strong rumors that this would be the last Laurel and Hardy film. Despite the problems, BLOCK-HEADS emerged as one of their best-ever features.|
JB: BLOCK-HEADS, my favorite L&H feature, is divided into three roughly equal sections, all of which tie seamlessly together.
In Part I, which could be titled "The Reunion", Stan and Ollie show us what they are like when they are forced to live separate lives. Stan, unable to think for himself, continues to carry out the last instructions he has received, like a computer caught in a programming loop. Meanwhile, Ollie becomes insufferably dull, living a life that is made memorable only by the occasional burnt finger or skinned knee. BLOCK-HEADS is the film that definitively states why these two people need to be together. Without Oliver, Stanley doesn't know what to do with himself. Without Stanley, Oliver has no excitement in his life.
One of the funniest sequences The Boys ever created comes when Ollie arrives at the Soldier's Home to bring Stan back with him. Thinking Stan has lost a leg in the war (see the story summary above for further explanation), Ollie insists on wheeling him to the car. When another veteran demands the wheelchair, Ollie carries Stan instead. Not one to ask questions, Stan just enjoys the ride. Though based on a darker than usual premise, it is never tasteless thanks to the brainless innocence of these two characters.
The sequence is milked for all it is worth. Stan cannot help being Stan, and so within moments, he has accidentally soaked Ollie with a hose. But Ollie, overcome with the sad thought of Stan's missing limb, represses his anger. And so on it goes, as Ollie carries Stan, drops his derby, drops Stan, picks him up again, struggles to get him into the car - all the while never noticing that Stan is still in full possession of both his legs. Although there are few gags in the sequence, the laughter keeps building in anticipation of the moment when Ollie finally realizes the truth. When he does - after both men tumble out of the car - he angrily blurts out "Why didn't you tell me you had two legs!?" to which Stan can only reply what Stan always replies to such questions: "Well, ya didn't ask me."
Part II, which could be titled "Up and Down We Go", is a freewheeling sequence in which all the The Boys have to do is go up to the 13th floor and enter the Hardy apartment. But it is not as easy as it sounds. Fifty years before TV's SEINFELD, Laurel and Hardy knew how to tell stories about nothing. For twenty minutes, the film's plot (what little there is of it) is dropped completely in favor of seeing how many ways The Boys can be interrupted on their mission to get upstairs. They go up 13 flights only to be forced to go down again to retrieve a child's football or to duke it out with irritable neighbor James Finlayson, whose appearance in this film is almost a cameo role. They stop so that Stan can pull down the shadow of a window shade, a feat that is completely beyond Ollie, who, unlike Stan, lives in the real world. And as they walk up the stairs, Stan keeps mulling over the word "jiffy", a new word to him which Ollie has not so helpfully defined as "three shakes of a dead lamb's tail." It's all held together with running gags, magnificent tracking shots of the cutaway apartment building set, and Marvin Hatley's lively background music.
The final section, which could be titled "Still Unaccustomed", is a remake of their first sound short Unaccustomed As We Are, and it is a tremendous improvement over the original, even as it uses many of the same gags and situations. Minna Gombel, in her one and only appearance as Mrs. Hardy, isn't as violent as Mae Busch, but is just as handy with her sharp tongue. When she complains about Ollie bringing home another one of his "tramp friends", Ollie explains that he hasn't seen Stan in twenty years, to which she snaps "I couldn't see him in a hundred years!" (Another classic reply follows Ollie's declaration that Stan is different: "I'll say he's different!"). As in Unaccustomed, the Hardy's tend not to have arguments but rather shout over each other, with Stan joining in this time. Lost in all the noise and confusion is a classic Laurelism: "If you want me to go, I'll stay as long as you like."
Fast-paced, loud and sometimes veering close to being obnoxious, this final third of BLOCK-HEADS successfully pulls out all stops to make us laugh. Some of the gags are perfectly in character (Ollie accidentally blowing up the kitchen), others are just gags for gags' sakes. But they all work to create a furious and funny finish to the film. Billy Gilbert, memorable in his final appearance with The Boys, plays big game hunter Mr. Gilbert, who is not happy to find his own wife locked in Mr. Hardy's trunk, and displays his prowess with an elephant gun by chasing The Boys out of the building in the final moments of the film.
BLOCK-HEADS is a tremendous comedy filled with energy and wit, but quite different from the other classic Laurel and Hardy features, SONS OF THE DESERT and WAY OUT WEST. Something Charles Barr said in his book LAUREL AND HARDY may be true - this is not a film to use to make somebody a Laurel and Hardy convert. The Laurel and Hardy of earlier films were much more sympathetic, whereas the Laurel and Hardy of this film are almost like cartoon caricatures of themselves. BLOCK-HEADS assumes you already know Laurel and Hardy, and in 1938, who didn't? By this time, Laurel and Hardy had done just about everything they were going to do in their generous and unmatchable contribution to comedy, and were now content to refine, polish and explore the limits of their screen relationship..
Five writers, including Harry Langdon, contributed to the BLOCK-HEADS script, and what keeps the momentum going is not the story or the characters, but the enormous amount of gags those writers (plus, undoubtedly, Stan) keep throwing at us, and the still youthful enthusiasm Stan and Ollie show in the execution of those gags. It is their wildest and funniest film, and the last completely great movie they would ever make.
JL: BLOCK-HEADS is that rare film for which the mere thought of any scene brings a smile to my face. I still hold out for WAY OUT WEST as their best feature, if only because it strikes the perfect balance between high laugh content and a well-made film. But I more than agree that BLOCK-HEADS is their wildest and funniest film. (And to take issue with Brennan and Barr on a minor point, my experience has been that BLOCK-HEADS goes over great with newcomers. But that's just one man's experience.)
It's not just the abundance of gags in BLOCK-HEADS, it's their quality. Many L&H films feature stock routines or jokes we've seen and heard a thousand times, yet we laugh because of the skill of their execution and the inherent joy that Laurel & Hardy bring to everything they do. But in BLOCK-HEADS, nearly every gag is one-of-a-kind. The film contains what I believe to be the two funniest sight gags in movie history. The first has Ollie seated in his "practically new" car, up to his neck in sand, the result of Stan's little mishap with the dump truck. Here is also an example of Stan Laurel's genius at topping a gag: just when we think the moment couldn't be any funnier, he sends us into hysterics by attempting to dig Ollie out, one handful of sand at a time (I have no idea if Stan conceived this, but it seems like such a "Stan gag"). The second is the exploding oven that sends Ollie sailing out of the kitchen, falling splat! on the living room floor. It usually takes two or three viewings of this scene to catch the subtle touches throughout -- Ollie grabs the focus on first viewing, but closer inspection reveals the shaking, falling pictures and knick-knacks, and the seated Stan floating up in the air. These two bits are, of course, only the top of the laundry list of inspired moments in BLOCK-HEADS. Stan with his mountain of bean cans, Ollie carrying the obviously two-legged Stan, Stan crashing the car into Ollie's garage, the window-shade business, the ice water in the pocket, Stan smoking his thumb -- all are unique and perfectly executed. The final scenes of the film may constitute a remake of Unaccustomed As We Are but they alter the gags and set-ups to the extent that the earlier film seems like a mere rehearsal. I'd never complain about seeing Thelma Todd in her slip after having her dress burned off by the Boys in Unaccustomed but drenching Patricia Ellis with the punch bowl, thereby adorning her with grapefruit slices, is much funnier.
Another indication of the skill with which this film was made is the seamless nature of its episodic structure. The patchwork quality of PARDON US calls attention to itself, but in BLOCK-HEADS we soon forget about the film's original premise of Stan walking the trenches 20 years after the end of the war. One scene may not have much to do with the scene that came before, but the transitions are so logical, we never notice. What John B. says about Stan and Ollie needing each another has something to do with this. Once the Boys are reunited, we accept that they will naturally fall back into their normal relationship. Aside from the poignant moment at the Old Soldier's Home, the film does not dwell upon L&H's extended separation, and we never question that two friends who've been apart for so long would normally take some time to warm up to one other again. Five minutes after seeing Stan for the first time in all those years, Ollie is again easily annoyed by his partner's denseness ("You're better now!"), and we accept that no additional exposition is needed for them to return to being Stan and Ollie. We also, therefore, accept the existential nature of this film: the Boys drift from one event to the next, reacting to the action around them, rather than initiating the action themselves. It's a trip through a crazy, almost surreal world with Laurel and Hardy as our guides, and the film's loose structure is rendered unnoticable by the consistency of the Boys' relationship.
I agree with Barr on the point he makes about the Boys' physical appearance, especially that of Ollie. He speaks of the "boyish expressiveness" of Ollie's face in films up to about 1931. Notice how in the early films, Ollie's youthful appearance allows for some wonderful "naughty schoolboy" looks of petulance. By 1932, a bit of age and the loss of a few pounds has robbed him somewhat of this quality. This hardly matters with a comic as skilled as Babe Hardy, but it does give his early performances an added kick. By the time of BLOCK-HEADS, Babe has regained his former size (and then some) and we again delight in the comic facial expressions he exhibits on such lines as "Ooh, I shudder to think!". I hate to suggest that anyone is funnier the fatter they are (and, of course, Babe Hardy was never less than hysterical in any film he made), but it does seem to apply to those performers such as Hardy and Jackie Gleason, whose appeal is based in part on their portliness.
It was thought BLOCK-HEADS might be the final Laurel & Hardy film, and I'm glad they operated under this sense of finality. The film had a troubled production, but they managed to go out with one for both themselves and their most loyal fans.