Laurel and Hardy

Hasn’t he suffered enough? Stan visits Ollie in “County Hospital” 1932

It seems unimaginable nowadays that anybody would be allowed to park right in front of the main entrance to a hospital. But it’s an entitlement that Stan takes for granted.

Ollie lies in bed reading, his leg elevated, a picture of tranquil contentment. The instant Stan whistles his arrival, the die is cast and a succession of miseries unfold.

Why is it so funny watching Stan Laurel slowly eat a hard boiled egg? I suspect that if we knew the answer to this, then we’d be closer to understanding something profoundly instructive about the human condition. Ollie has no use for the nuts and hard-boiled eggs that Stan has brought and asks why Stan didn’t bring candy. Stan, who is incapable of framing a tactful falsehood, replies that candy is more expensive and Ollie never paid him last time he brought candy. As Stan sits there and eats his egg, the sheer pointlessness and redundancy of the ritualised hospital visit stands exposed. Why are we obligated to sit in rooms and fake conversations with people who’d just as soon be on their own? Or is this formulaic awkwardness what friendship is all about? Perhaps making meaningless time for people is the truest measure of making time for people? Within the painful and hilariouios slowness of Stan’s egg-eating dwell the answers to these questions.

The doctor is Billy Gilbert, a Stan and Ollie antagonist notable for his theatrical pomposity. In a complex but brilliant series of mis-steps, Stan sends the doctor out of the window of this top floor room, clutching the weight that’s attached to Ollie’s bandaged foot – thereby sending Ollie to the ceiling. Stan runs back and forth between trying to get the Doctor back through the window and Ollie back into bed. As the rope frays and snaps, the Doctor nearly plummets to certain death and Ollie crashes into the bed with force sufficient to destroy the bed.

I don’t know what passes for medical ethics in this hospital, but apparently a Doctor can just evict a patient from the premises, no matter what their condition.

Resigned to his fate, Ollie then asks Stan to help him get dressed, which presents Stan with the not insignificant logistical problem of how to accommodate the grotesquely bandaged limb within Ollie’s trouser leg.

Is Stan going to cut off the correct trouser leg, or the wrong trouser leg?

Sometimes Laurel and Hardy gags are all the funnier when you can see them coming some way in advance… when the long march of inevitability is seen and felt.

As it happens, the trousers, now reduced to shorts, actually belong to Ollie’s irritatingly aristocratic room-mate with the strangulated accent and the annoying laugh (William Austin).

Meanwhile Stan has accidentally sat on a needle full of sedative. Stan is not as other men and does not really register this painful and dangerous eventuality at the time. The thoroughly irresponsible nursing staff are too busy laughing at Stan to warn him not to try to drive a car. Which is exactly what he does.

What follows and concludes the film is some of the most bizarre back-projection work you’ll ever see, in which Stan’s soporific driving is superimposed on impossible traffic scenes. Eventually, after the noise of an almighty collision, the car is squeezed into a sort of right angle and can only go round in circles, to the predictable exasperation of a traffic cop.

These last four minutes have little to do with the rest of the film, but are enjoyable enough on their own terms.

County Hospital exhibits some of Stan’s best comic acting. He has two especially delicious moments. When arriving at the wrong “Room 14”, which turns out to be on the maternity ward, he takes the trouble to unwrap the swaddled face of an infant to see if it’s Ollie. Later on, when Ollie demands that Stan gets scissors to sort out the trouser problem, Stan’s first instinct is to try to figure out how to sever Ollie’s leg.

But mostly, this is all about sitting and eating a boiled egg. Slowly.

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