Saturday, 2 May 2015

Laurel & Hardy in "The Music Box"

When I was in school at least once a year, every year, our science teacher would tell us that we would not want to miss the next day as we would be covering some very important material. It never failed that following the day the important material would turn out to be two classic Laurel & Hardy shorts. In my four years in high school our science teacher showed some of the best known work Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy ever did: "Them Thar Hills" (1934), "Busy Bodies" (1933), "Helpmates" (1932), and, of course, "The Music Box" (1932).

"The Music Box" has always been my favourite Laurel & Hardy short, and I'm hardly alone in that. It is the favourite of many, perhaps most, of the Laurel & Hardy fans I know. In fact, of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's many short subjects, it has the highest user rating at IMDB. "The Music Box" has also been imitated several times over the years.

For those who have never seen "The Music Box", its premise is deceptively simple. Laurel & Hardy operate a moving company, the Laurel and Hardy Transfer Company. They are hired by Mrs. Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen (played by Gladys Gale) to move a piano that is a birthday present for her husband, Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen (played by Billy Gilbert). Unfortunately, the Von Schwarzenhoffen's house turns out to be at the top of some very steep steps. Those steps only turn out to be the beginning of Stan and Ollie's problems in moving the piano.

While "The Music Box" would prove to be one of Laurel & Hardy's most popular and influential shorts, it was actually in part a remake of their earlier silent short "Hats Off" from 1927. "Hats Off" involved Stan and Ollie attempting to sell a washing machine and then having to move said washing machine up the exact same steps where they would try to move the piano five years later. In fact, it was those flight of steps--an actual flight of steps between 923 and 937 Vendome Street in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles--that would provide the inspiration for "Hats Off". Hal Roach had earlier used the location for the 1925 Charley Chase short "Isn't Life Terrible?". Seeing the rather precipitous steps, it occurred to Mr. Roach that men moving a heavy object up them would make for great comedy. Sadly, "Hats Off" is a lost film; it has not been seen since 1930.

Of course, one of the major differences between "Hats Off" and "The Music Box" is that in "Hats Off" it is a washing machine that is being moved, while in "The Music Box" it is a piano. According to Billy Gilbert in an interview in the Sixties, it was decided to use a piano instead of a washing machine because a piano is not only heavy and unwieldy, but also somewhat fragile. Naturally this would not only create more dramatic tension (will the piano come crashing down at any moment?), but also more comedy. The crate that Laurel and Hardy moved in much of the film was actually empty, so that it was actually both lighter and more manoeuvrable than it would have been had it contained a piano. That having been said, for the scene in which it comes careening down all 131 steps an actual piano was used. While an actual piano was used for that scene, however, the piano that is destroyed in the climax of "The Music Box" was actually a mock up of a piano made of balsa wood and a few parts from an actual piano.

Shooting at an actual location did present some problems for the production. While most Laurel & Hardy shorts were shot in sequence, "The Music Box" had to be shot out of sequence because the cast and crew would often have to wait for the proper light from the sun due to changing cloud conditions. Another problem resulted from the sheer superstardom of  Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. During the shoot a special squad of police had to be assigned to the steps due to a crowd of  3500 fans gathered to watch the production. There are some estimates that during lunch breaks Laurel & Hardy signed over 2000 autographs. Not only was much of "The Music Box" shot at an actual location, but many of the sounds there are reportedly authentic as well. Recording engineers were sent to the location to record actual sounds from the area for use as ambient sound for the short.

The steps used in the filming of "The Music Box" are still there. There is even a sign at their top on Descanso Drive identifying them as "the 'Music Box' Steps". Of course, in reality the steps do not and never have led to a mansion at their top. The mansion that features in the film was actually a set at Hal Roach studios.  Despite the difficulty that shooting on location presented, "The Music Box" was shot in a little less than two weeks in December 1931.

"The Music Box" was released on April 16 1932 and proved to be incredibly popular on its first release. In fact, it became the very first short subject to win the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film (Comedy). Of course, this also means that it was the very first Laurel & Hardy short to win an Oscar. They would win one more Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy for "Tit for Tat" (1935). Over the years "The Music Box" has had an enduring impact on popular culture. Two short stories by Laurel & Hardy fan Ray Bradbury were inspired by "The Music Box":  "Another Fine Mess" and "The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair". One of a series of commercials made for Aamco that featured actors Jim McGeorge and Chuck McCann as Laurel & Hardy was a take off on "The Music Box". Blake Edwards's 1986 film A Fine Mess took its primary inspiration from " The Music Box". It was in 1997 that "The Music Box" was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Seen today "The Music Box" remains one of the finest achievements in motion picture comedy. That it has endured for over eighty years can be chalked up to a number of factors, not the least of which are the players. Stan and Ollie are in top form in "The Music Box". Stan is at his most child-like and innocent, while the frustration of moving the piano gives Ollie ample opportunity to display his patented slow-burn. In some ways "The Music Box" is the quintessential Laurel & Hardy short, in which two simple, sweet natured, but none too bright fellows struggle to accomplish something through mounting difficulties to no avail. Billy Gilbert also gives a great performance as Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen, M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F-F-F-and-F. Indeed, the professor is one of the best characters Mr. Gilbert ever played. Not only is he excitable and nervous, but he is arguably even downright psychotic. The combination of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's simple characters with Billy Gilbert's more worldly, but volatile character, proved to be comic magic in "The Music Box".

Of course, another factor in the enduring appeal of "The Music Box" is that it takes a simple situation and plays it for all it is worth. Many Laurel & Hardy shorts operated on the premise of starting out with a gag and then building upon it with more and more gags until reaching the climax. This is particularly true of "The Music Box". Laurel & Hardy attempt to move the piano up the steps, which are enough of an obstacle in and of themselves, only to find themselves consistently stymied by complication after complication. What is worse, moving the piano gets no easier once they reach the top of the steps. In many ways "The Music Box" is one of the most perfectly crafted Laurel & Hardy shorts, with the simple idea of moving a piano providing fodder for a whole thirty minutes.

It is because of the combination of memorable characters placed in the seemingly simple situation of moving a piano that "The Music Box" remains funny today. It proved to be a hit in theatres upon its release in 1932. In the Fifties "The Music Box" and the other Laurel & Hardy shorts found a whole new audience when they entered syndication on television. Today audiences find "The Music Box" as funny as audiences did in the Fifties. In the end "The Music Box" was not simply another comedy short from the Thirties. It has become a comedy classic.


Steve Bailey said...

Very nicely done! And I like your science teacher. In my senior year of high school, there were a few days between the first and second semester where not much work would get done because teachers were switching out their schedules. One teacher set up a film projector and spent the day showing Laurel & Hardy movies!

Steve Bailey said...

Very nicely done! And I like your science teacher. In my senior year of high school, there were a few days between the first and second semester where not much work would get done because teachers were switching out their schedules. One teacher set up a film projector and spent the day showing Laurel & Hardy movies!

Fritzi Kramer said...

Thanks so much for joining in! I loved reading the background information on this short (a piano IS much funnier than a washing machine) and the examination of why this thing is so hilarious.

Caftan Woman said...

"Seen today "The Music Box" remains one of the finest achievements in motion picture comedy."

When you're right, you're right!

Silver Screenings said...

You had the BEST science teacher! How great would that be?!

I didn't realize this was a re-make of an earlier film with a washing machine. That would be good, but a piano is so much better because, as you said, it's a pain in the neck to move but it's also fragile. This absolutely deserves to be called a motion picture classic. Great review and tribute to this talented team. (2,000 signatures in a lunch hour? Wow!)

KC said...

What a fascinating read! I love all the details you shared. This is my favorite Laurel & Hardy short and one of my favorite comedy flicks period. I even got my girls interested in this one; its appeal seems to be universal. We sort of went by the famous steps on the TCM bus tour, but I didn't get much of a look. I may need to go back some day and get a bit closer.

Joe Thompson said...

You were lucky to have such a science teacher. In grammar school we had a barrage of Flubber movies, Francis the Talking Mule movies and The Song of Bernadette. I love "The Music Box." I love Laurel and Hardy. I love Billy Gilbert.