Laurel and Hardy

“See what a little kindness will do?” Laurel and Hardy in “Scram” (1932).

The judge in this film is a truly brutal piece of work bereft of anything resembling compassion. Poverty and destitution seem to especially enrage him and the only reason Stan and Ollie aren’t incarcerated for the dubious crime of vagrancy at the beginning of the movie is because the prison is full. Instead, he yells at them to get out of town within the hour – “Scram!”

Richard Cramer (Judge Beaumont) offers one of three remarkable supporting roles in this film. There are two others. Out in the pouring rain, Stan and Ollie meet a well dressed drunk looking for his car key. In this day and age, quite rightly, there’s a sane consensus that preventing such a person from retrieving their car key would be an act of charitable mercy, but people for some reason took a more generous view of drink driving in the 1930s – especially if the drunk driver was extremely wealthy. Drunkie is played by Arthur Housman. Arthur Housman played drunks. It was pretty much all he did, for a living – he was inebriated on film whenever a script called for a comedy drunk, He was, by all accounts, something of a method actor, whose total immersion in his one and only recurring role led him to a predictably early grave.

Stan has two thirds of a good idea when he suggests putting gum on the end of an umbrella to stick to the key that he’s spotted beneath the grate. Unfortunately, though the gum adheres to a key, the umbrella cannot be pulled upwards through a grate the same way it can be pushed downward. In the chaos that ensues, the grate is lifted up and every permutation of falling in is tried out. A cop becomes involved as the hidden Housman makes rude noises which are taken for Ollie offering cheek to the officer, who naturally feels empowered to deliver immediate corporal correction.

Meanwhile, the drunk is sufficiently grateful to invite Stan and Ollie to spend the night at his house. They somehow arrive at what’s assumed to be Housman’s house, but now Drunkie’s the door-key has gone astray. Every permutation of climbing through the window, falling through the door, walking outside and having the door lock behind you is worked through.

Finally, Drunkie tells Stan and Ollie to make themselves comfortable in the master bedroom but to be careful not to wake the wife. While they are out of sight, however, the butler meets Drunkie on the stairs and tells him he’s in the wrong house. Drunkie apologises and leaves.

Startled by Stan and Ollie’s appearance, the lady of the house passes out on the landing and needs to be revived with water. Except that its not water – but booze, that was accidentally poured into a water jug by Drunkie just prior to his eviction. Given this household’s vehement detestation of the demon drink, this booze has a very sudden and dramatic effect on her.

Scram has one of my favourite Laurel and Hardy endings, I must say. A foul-tempered booze-hating judge returns home to see his wife drunk and cavorting on the bed with the two guys he screamed to get out of town earlier in the day. In these circumstances, the scale of retribution to be meted out is so unimaginable as to defy representation. The camera lingers for quite a while on the judge’s face as it reddens and simmers. Then the lights go out and unspeakable violence is inflicted in total darkness.

This is a story with a relatively complex plot which takes a little while to describe. There are many little highlights along the way. Housman is a superlative good-natured drunk, whose circular swooping movements manage to be as plausible as they are elegant. There’s a moment where Ollie goes down on all fours so that Stan can stand on his back to climb in the window and Stan just goes down on all fours beside him. I’m not sure why that’s so funny. Timing, I suppose.

Laurel and Hardy films are sometimes described as “innocent”. This isn’t quite true. The characters of “Stan” and “Ollie” as played by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are certainly innocent of any lewd or abusive intent – but the world that they live in is decidedly not innocent. Vivien Oakland is delightful as the instantly liberated drunken wife who demands that the boys play and dance with her. Apparently in some places, this film was partially censored as scenes of Stan and Ollie cavorting around in a bedroom with a married woman were deemed objectionable. These places could not have known Stan and Ollie as well as we do.

This is one of those films, like Below Zero, that is fascinating in terms of its real injustice. Stan and Ollie’s initial crime is merely poverty. Their instincts are always generous. As Ollie remarks to Stan while they preen themselves in silken jimjams – “see what a little kindness will do?” They have every reason at this point to think that perhaps the divine economy of the universe is making them some recompense for their earlier unmerited misfortunes. There’s a kind of grim and admirable integrity to the fact that, generally speaking, Laurel and Hardy films refuse to reward good-natured idiocy with a contrived “happy ending”. In this sense, these film are far more tough-minded that most twenty-first century comedies.

I’ve some reflections on some other Laurel and Hardy films.

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