Well, I hate to say this, but I have a huge problem with this film!
Let me explain. It’s 1928 and the Laurel & Hardy team is now well established. Their films are no longer being distributed under the ‘All-Stars’ banner, the series is now labelled as out and out ‘Laurel & Hardy’ comedies. The Stan and Ollie characters are well defined, instantly recognisable and gaining in popularity with each new film released by the Hal Roach Studios. With classics such as ‘The Finishing Touch‘, ‘The Battle of the Century’ and ‘You’re Darn Tootin’‘ under their belt, it’s pretty obvious that at this point the boys and the studio had got it sussed! The formula had been perfected and it’s plain sailing from here on in – right…? Then along comes ‘Early to Bed’…
From the outset, it’s probably worth noting that this film was (unsurprisingly) the one and only L&H film, indeed the only Hal Roach film directed by Emmett J. Flynn, whose previous work consisted mostly of westerns or costume dramas.
The film starts fairly typically, with the boys and a cute dog sitting on a park bench. Stan has a perfect vacant expression – the lights are on, but no-ones at home. Ollie opens and reads a letter which contains a revelation that he is now rich having inherited his uncle’s fortune. Stan, at first happy for his friend, then bursts into tears, wondering what will now become of him, given his friend is off to live a new life. Ollie shows concern, gives it some thought and declares that he will take Stan with him to be his butler.
All fine so far! Pretty standard fare in the first couple of minutes – but for me, it’s downhill from here.
The rest of the film sees butler Stan trying to get his drunken master Ollie to bed at 3am, following his night out on the town. My first issue is the sudden change in the relationship between the boys. Okay, so we know that Ollie was making Stan his butler, in order to keep the friends together, but Stan is now deferential and addressing Ollie as ‘Sir’, and that just doesn’t sit comfortably.
Secondly, Ollie’s drunken behaviour towards Stan, I just find abhorrent. It begins fairly playfully at the door, as Ollie plays a practical joke on Stan and shuts him out, but it quickly falls into very tiresome and cruel treatment of his long time friend. Having said that, Ollie’s performance is very convincing and does therefore show Hardy’s skills as an actor – indeed it’s also quite pleasant to see Ollie looking all dapper, with his hair slicked back, something we only usually see in private photos and at award ceremonies etc.
If Hardy’s acting performance is convincing, so too then is Laurel’s. I couldn’t help but feel massive sympathy for Stan’s character, as his cries and complaints seem to come truly from the heart and eventually he tells Ollie that he is quitting his position and will leave in the morning, breaking their friendship for good. I couldn’t help but feel very glad at this – to think that I would celebrate Laurel & Hardy parting ways is unthinkable, but kind of confirms to me just how off the mark this picture is.
I initially considered that maybe a lot of my displeasure with the film is down to my own personal dislike of the way people can behave when they’re drunk, but then the thought struck me that I find Arthur Housman, the famous L&H drunk, hilarious and really enjoy his performances. I also enjoy other drunken scenes in the boys’ films such as Blotto (1930) (granted the boys had convinced themselves they were drunk, making it all the funnier), Them Thar Hills (1934), Scram! (1932), Fra Diavolo (1933) etc, etc. So, I can’t say this is solely down to my personal prejudice against drunkenness, this is more about the changes in character and ceaseless cruelty inflicted by one friend on another – in particular these two individuals that I have a real fondness for myself.
There are a small few decent gags throughout, which I feel are better seen as part of the compilation movie ‘The Further Perils of Laurel & Hardy (1967)’, as they are disassociated from the context of ‘Early to Bed’. The film does seem to be picking up a little towards the end, notably during the chase of destruction sequence through the house, as Stan attempts to get himself fired by breaking every Hardy possession in sight, followed in hot pursuit by Ollie.
The finale is also pretty strange and leaves a sour taste, as after all the cruelty, fighting and chasing, Ollie seems to have had a change of heart and offers the open hand of friendship, seeking to forgive and forget, which Stan takes with his usual childlike smile, only to be pushed backwards into a fountain by Ollie, who we see laughing insanely once again as the camera fades to black.
That’s just not right. That’s not Laurel & Hardy, not to me anyway. I was keen to see what the L&H aficionados made of this film and find it interesting that the, usually informative description given for each film in the DVD booklet, give this film about two lines of not very much. Simon Louvish in his ‘Stan & Ollie: The Roots of Comedy‘ doesn’t even make a single reference to the film at all, whilst Glenn Mitchell’s ‘The Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia‘ addresses it a little more- but then by its very ‘A to Z’ nature, it kind of has to. Mitchell’s brief synopsis points out that the film has a “mixed reputation” and his use of words like “unsettling” and “unnecessary vindictiveness” along with his suggestion of viewing the gags in isolation, confirmed my own views (somewhat to my relief).
As always, the best source of information on this film (and indeed on all the L&H films) is once again Randy Skredvedt’s “Magic Behind the Movies: Ultimate Edition“. It appears that, along with Glenn Mitchell, my views also mirror those of Randy’s – so I feel that I’m in good company here. However, Randy Skretvedt does go on to say that some Laurel & Hardy scholars, namely Charles Barr and Richard W. Bann rate the film very highly – which is a mystery to me, but just goes to show, it takes all sorts and you have to draw your own conclusions.
On that note, I’ll happily leave ‘Early to Bed’ behind and move on, with a sense of relief and higher expectation to the next picture that the boys made – ‘Two Tars’, hoping it will take away the uncomfortable memory of watching a Laurel & Hardy movie and looking forward to the title card that reads ‘The End’.
I’d love to hear your take on ‘Early to Bed’. Can you convince me to like it…please??
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