Saturday, September 20, 2008

Big Business

Big Business

Directed by James W. Horne, United States, 1929, 19 minutes
Source: Big Business, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Hal Roach Studios (VHS 3981)

The comic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy did wonders for the popularity of the short film in the 1920’s and 30’s. In all, the pair appeared in over 70 shorts (silent and talkie). Of these, the silent Big Business and talkie The Music Box received the most official recognition (see final paragraph for more details). To watch Big Business (with Christmas-themed music), go here.

Big Business sets its comic tone early. A title card announces that the film is “A story of a man who turned the other cheek - and got punched in the nose.” We then get our first view of the back of (Stan) Laurel and (Oliver) Hardy’s car, packed with several Christmas trees, and after this, a face shot of the two in the front seat, in thick wintertime coats, looking about for customers in sunny California. Already, we know they’re facing an uphill battle.

This tightly-structured film takes us to three houses. At the first house, Stan aggravates an unmarried female customer by asking her “if you had a husband, would he buy a Christmas tree?” At the second house, Oliver pushes Stan aside, ignores a sign that says “no solicitors” by declaring “it’s personality that wins!” and then gets promptly whacked on the head with a hammer. The two will obviously have to combine their efforts.

At the third house, they try their luck with a particularly grumpy homeowner (common Laurel and Hardy foil James Finlayson) and end up getting into more trouble than they bargained for. Here, the movie switches into high gear “escalation and retaliation” comedy. Finlayson gets annoyed with Laurel after he appears for the umpteenth time at the door and lops off pieces of the Christmas tree. The pair retaliates by hacking off the numbers on his house, and the war is on. The rest of the film then becomes a tit for tat “You did what? Well, what if I do this?” raising-of-the-stakes between the two sides, which results in the total destruction of both Finlayson’s house and Laurel and Hardy’s car. Neighbors come to watch the battle, and bemused policeman sits and writes out a ticket before interrupting things.

In the end, Laurel and Hardy persuade everyone that they’re sorry when they break down crying. Finlayson starts to weep and Laurel hands him a cigar, saying “Merry Christmas.” When the policeman steps away, thinking all is done, he glances back and sees Laurel and Hardy laughing, knows they were not serious in their contriteness, and chases them down the street. Finlayson, who “turned the other cheek” at first, sits back to light up his victory cigar, only to have it blow up in his face (which takes us back to the beginning title card).

The film feels structurally perfect (with its three-house format) and is still very funny despite the passage of time (and has probably inspired more than a few imitators). The juxtaposition of these disparate elements (Christmas trees and California, good will and property destruction) works perfectly as a short comedy, and the deliberate manner in which both sides go about their childish war of one-upmanship is well-orchestrated and fascinating for the level of property destruction achieved (there were even rumors going around for some time that the crew destroyed the wrong house in the process of filming).

And the official recognition? Big Business was the first of only two Laurel and Hardy films (the other being the Oscar-winning The Music Box) to be selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry (which recognizes films that are culturally, historically, and/or aesthetically significant). Not bad for 19 minutes of film.


stone said...

I think it is interesting to reflect on the overall mood of the country at that time. The U.S. had enjoyed many years of high prosperity in the roaring 20’s and the financial markets were at an all time high. It was business as usual as we watch Laurel and Hardy try to sell Christmas trees in California. Indeed it was a time when perhaps anything seemed possible and everyone wanted in on it. Making money, greed and ‘Big Business’ was first and foremost on the mind of the everyman. Seemingly out of favor was the holiday spirit of giving, generosity and love thy neighbor. At a time of such prosperity it might seem that generosity would be abound, yet I argue that ‘Big Business’ makes a statement on humanity; and a lesson to remember. Just six months following the release of ‘Big Business’ Wall Street and investors worldwide suffered greatly – only to be followed by The Great Depression. I find it interesting to reflect upon given the news of the past week.

Anonymous said...

I love the way the mayhem in the film escalates from controlled tit-for-tat to absolutely uncontrolled -- indeed almost playfully exuberant (baseball with vase and shovel!) -- destruction. If the short in some way comments on the overabundance of the 1920s, it does so perhaps most tellingly in the way so much property is so available to be so wantonly destroyed.