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Big Business

Big Business

By Simon Powell • February 11th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
BIG BUSINESS (SHORT FILM)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Original release: April 20th, 1929
Running time: 19 minutes

Directors: James W. Horne, Leo McCarey
Writer: H.M. Walker

Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson

Big Business

They’re best known for their talkie films, indeed, perhaps their voices are as well-known as their faces, so the 30 or so silent movies of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy sometimes get overlooked. This is a shame, for two reasons; firstly, taken as a whole they help provide a fascinating insight into the development of cinema, both as a medium and a business, and secondly, taken individually, the best of them are some of the funniest silent comedies ever made.

Big Business is definitely in that second category, and features all of the classic elements of a Laurel and Hardy short. We’ve the established characters of the leads, Stan the well-meaning but dim bungler, and Ollie, with his trademark “withering glance” to the audience, trying and failing to maintain his dignity in extreme circumstances. We also have the duo making a mess of a simple job (selling Christmas trees door-to-door), a hapless third party caught up in the middle (in this case, one of their regular comic foils, James Finlayson), and a situation that, bit by bit, spirals out of control. In this case, a misunderstanding leads to an argument, which leads to tempers flaring, which leads to tit-for-tat destruction, that doesn’t not stop until Finalyson’s house, along with Laurel and Hardy’s car, are both destroyed.

The way it escalates is all too real and believable, and something that could’ve been stopped at any point by one of the parties taking a step back and acting like an adult. This makes Laurel and Hardy the precursor to comedy such as Fawlty Towers.

Big Business

However, the way it’s presented, by contrast, is deliberately artificial and plays up to the fact that we’re watching a film. The escalating chaos is treated almost as a ritual or a chess game with each side standing patiently, waiting while the other takes their turn. This means, rather than rushing straight into a free-for-all, which would get boring after a few minutes, by starting with each bout of destruction as a deliberate and distinct thing, and gradually shortening the gaps between each one, it allows the pace to wind gradually up. By the end, the red mist has descended, and we have Finlayson lobbing an explosive at the car, at the same time as Stan’s taking an axe to the piano.

The film also reveals a fascinating and often overlooked side of how Laurel and Hardy interact with each other. For all their bickering and infighting, they can quickly and easily band together against a common foe, almost as though sometimes, if there’s one thing that annoys them more than each other, it’s other people.

Finally, Big Business is an excellent demonstration of the part that title cards play in silent films. The captions help set the sharp, unsentimental tone of the film at the start (“The story of a man who turned the other cheek – and got punched in the nose”), emphasises Ollie’s boundless self-confidence (“it’s personality that wins”) and dryly underscore his reaction to a furious tirade from Finlayson (“I don’t think he wants a tree”). Overuse them and you might as well be reading a comic strip, but deployed in just the right levels, they’re the perfect complement to the images, which remain the primary source of plot and gags.

Big Business

Simon Powell

Simon Powell

Simon grew up on a steady diet of James Bond and Ray Harryhausen films, but has been fascinated with the horror genre since a clandestine viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager. Since then his tastes have expanded to take in classic horror from the Universal and Hammer Studios, as well as branching out into Video Nasties, Sci-Fi, Silent Comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen.

Apart from getting married, one of his fondest memories is buying a beer each for both Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse at a film festival, and listening to their equally fascinating stories of life at totally different levels of the industry.

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