Laurel and Hardy

Laurel and Hardy in “Sailors Beware” ! (1927) the world’s first Eisenstein parody?

This is a busy little film, packed with ideas and never dull.

It is still not a Laurel and Hardy film but a Stan Laurel film with Oliver Hardy in an important supporting role. A liner (The Miramar) full of Millionaires is crossing the Atlantic in order to get to Monte Carlo. Stan plays a cab driver who is accidentally winched aboard and is subsequently treated as a stowaway by the wholly unreasonable purser (Hardy) and captain. He is forced to become a steward to pay his way (and avoid being thrown overboard). Stan, being Stan, respects no manifestation of hierarchy or chain of command, and stands up to the Captain right up until the moment when he seems to be about to be hurled into the ocean.

The remainder of the plot involves the thwarting of a husband and wife criminal partnership, disguised, disturbingly, as a mother and child.

The villainous leading lady (Madame Ritz) is played by Anita Garvin as a vampish criminal utterly unlike the innocent girlfriend of Why Girls Love Sailors, made only a few months earlier. You rub your eyes to believe you’re watching the same performer. The husband/baby meanwhile is played by Harry “Doll” Earles, one of four German born dwarf siblings, all of whom got to appear in Wizard of Oz. This tiny adult, dressed as a baby, gets to cheat Stan with crooked dice, and also helps with the signalling in a crooked card game. There is something profoundly disturbing about this man child. In the final frame we see that Earles has beaten up Oliver Hardy somehow, and is leering in victory even as he’s about to be clapped in tiny irons.

And so it comes to pass that two thirds of the way through this two reelers, just a year or two after Eisenstein’s famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, we get to see a “baby” pushed down a flight of steps in a wholly comic context. We know that there’s no baby in the pram but rather a very sinister adult, but it’s still a deliciously callous little gesture – even though the flight of steps (on board a ship) us rather briefer than the steps in Odessa.

I’ve given the idea of babies in prams rolling down steps in cinema some thought.

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