Laurel and Hardy

Berth Marks (1929). Laurel and Hardy and the Comedy of Confined Spaces.

As I tell students year after year – “nearly all of you are used to far more personal space and guaranteed privacy than nearly all of your great-grandparents”. Try to imagine a world where other people are “in yer face” almost all the time that you’re indoors.

In this film, Stan and Ollie “a big time vaudeville act” are on their way to Pottsville Pennsylvania by train, apparently an important venue for aspirant performers in the 1920s. The advent of sound enables a nice joke at the beginning about incomprehensible station announcers. Indeed, when considering Laurel and Hardy’s earliest sound films, it’s remarkable how intelligently they carefully integrated particular opportunities without ever compromising the core of their act. They didn’t panic, they didn’t resist – they evolved.

Nearly all the film takes place on the train, which of course, they have to run to catch, having lost their music. A train offers many chances for comic compression of too many people. Some Like it Hot, made 30 years later but set in 1929, similarly equally enjoys how a sleeper train can risk exposure and embarrassment for all concerned.

Accidentally, Stan manages to initiate a large scale clothes ripping tit for tat battle which steadily involves most of the train. The satisfaction of this contest lies in the distinctive sound of seams ripping. It’s an auditory more than a visual delight. Stan and Ollie remain oblivious orgiastic shredding insanity because they are absorbed by the significant technical challenge of climbing into a tiny top bunk without waking other people in the carriage. Once they’ve somehow climbed into this tiny berth, there remains the additional challenge of somehow getting undressed. A large proportion of the film is devoted to this feat.

As Ollie continually complains about crowding, no matter what hefty percentage of the berth he occupies, we reflect on the fact that Stan and Ollie are constantly placed in situations where they get confused as to where one of them stops and the other begins. Even the clothes on their backs, despite the significant discrepancy in back size, do not belong securely to one or the other. No sooner are they finally settled in what might be regarded as some sort of soporific configuration than the conductor calls out “Pottsville”.

They are left at the Pottsville station, partially clad, without their instrument and indeed without any plausible means of subsistence. There’s nothing left but to throw rocks at one another.

Fifteen years later, the train sleeper berth routine would be recycled for use within one of their last feature films – The Big Noise. As played by significantly older men, this scene becomes less funny and considerably sadder and the viewers reflect on the fact that their advancing age has failed to reward either of them with the smallest dignities that a modicum of privacy can confer.

If as Sartre observed “Hell is Other People”, then the train to Pottsville Pennsylvania is an eerie anticipation of a grisly afterlife.

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