Whilst I don’t think this is one of their best films ‘Habeas Corpus’ has unique historical importance in the Laurel & Hardy canon. It’s also a film that often appears to fly under the radar of the casual L&H fan – but to be honest that’s probably not a disaster. Although I hate to negatively criticise anything directly related to my heroes, this film is certainly not one of my favourites.
There isn’t anything really terrible about it, but there isn’t anything great either – and I suppose that’s my problem with it. ‘Habeas Corpus’ is essentially a ‘Horror-Comedy’, a genre that was very popular during the late twenties and one that many stars including Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton had enjoyed success with. Stan and Ollie had dabbled in this area the previous year in ‘Do Detectives Think’ (1927) and ‘Habeas Corpus’ is basically an extended version of the graveyard scene in the aforementioned film.
The boys are, once again, cast as down and outs and arrive at the door of a nutty professor (Richard Carle), essentially begging for food. The Professor invites them in and offers to pay them $500 if they successfully exhume and deliver a corpse from the local graveyard. Although surprised and perturbed, the boys’ desperate situation forces them to agree…and that’s the basic plot.
Unfortunately, the gag counter is kept pretty inactive throughout and I find the pace of the film, even for a Laurel and Hardy comedy, fairly slow with very little happening.
Having said all that, there are some stand out moments that rescue the film from being a total write off. The first is when the boys are trying to find out which street they’re on and Ollie pushes Stan aside and clambers up a nearby signpost, with Stan helping out by pushing Hardy’s ample posterior. Once at the top of the post, Ollie comes face to face with a sign that reads ‘Wet Paint’. Once back down we then see Ollie has a big white stripe of paint down the front of his clothes and Stan’s two big white hand-prints on the seat of his pants. This exact gag, minus the hand-prints, would be re-used sixteen years later in The Big Noise (1944). Interestingly, in the preceding scene of this film, Ollie is on the phone and tells the caller that their “…manager is in Sacramento with a habeas corpus…”. Then, once off the phone, the boys have a discussion of the meaning of ‘habeas corpus’. Perhaps this was the boys’ way of giving a nod to their earlier film, from which they were about to blatantly borrow a gag.
The second stand out moment, and my favourite part of the whole film is the scene where Ollie is trying to assist Stan in scaling the graveyard wall. The boys get a good few minutes worth of gags out of this one situation – this is proper L&H slapstick and laugh-out-loud funny. I find it interesting and amusing to note that Glenn Mitchell, in his Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, considers this scene to be “far too long” and a “particularly frustrating sequence”. He goes on to quote Stan as having once said that the boys sometimes ‘over-milked’ some situations in their films, and whilst I agree that this probably did happen from time to time, I would argue that this scene wouldn’t have been one of those times. It’s all subjective of course and good for sparking discussion and debate, but I personally like this scene and can’t imagine how dull the film would be without it.
Also worthy of note in the cast is one of Stan’s closest friends and fellow British national, Charlie Rogers. Rogers joined the Roach studio during this same year (1928) and plays the part of the Professor’s butler, who is actually an undercover detective. As well as being a close friend of Stan, Rogers also worked on many of the boys’ films, sometimes as a supporting actor, but more often as a gag writer and also as a regular director. Glenn Mitchell, again in his ‘Encyclopedia’ suggests that while Rogers was credited as the boys’ director, this was in name only, as a sort of “figurehead”, with Stan doing the actual directing.
A final scene/gag worth mentioning for a couple of reasons leads up to the film’s finale. It is the sequence where Stan is carrying the assumed dead body in a sack over his shoulder. The body in the sack, is, however, that of the very alive Charlie Rogers. As Stan is carrying the sack down the street, Rogers’ legs pop out of the bottom of the sack and begin to walk in step behind Stan. As Randy Skretvedt asserts in Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies: The Ultimate Edition, this gag has been recycled from earlier comedies by both Clyde Cook and Max Davidson, but even so, it works here and is still a funny scene. I may also be imagining it, but during this scene, I keep thinking that when Stan shouts Ollie to come back, he seems to be shouting “Babe” as opposed to Ollie… Has anybody else noticed this? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that.
At the start of this blog, I mentioned that ‘Habeas Corpus’ is a historically significant part of the Laurel & Hardy canon, and I should qualify that statement. Its significance is due to it being the first Laurel & Hardy picture ever released with sound. “What?“, I hear some of you cry, “No, ‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘ is the first film with sound‘ you might understandably argue. But no, whilst it’s true that ‘Unaccustomed As We Are‘ (1929) was the first ‘talking’ picture released, that is to say, the first film with a synchronised spoken dialogue track, ‘Habeas Corpus’ was actually released with synchronised music and sound effects. Detailed information on this can again be found in Randy Skretvedt’s above mentioned indispensable volume, but I’ll try to give a very brief overview.
In October 1928, Hal Roach signed an agreement with ‘Victor Talking Machine Company’, based in New Jersey, to produce synchronised soundtracks for a number of pictures and to install sound recording equipment into the Roach Studios. After filming and re-takes for ‘Habeas Corpus’ finally ended in August 1928, Richard Currier, Roach’s Head of Film Editing, was sent to Victor’s New Jersey studios to create and record music and sound effect tracks for a number of completed and shelved Roach pictures, including the boys’ Horror-Comedy.
To watch the film with its original synchronised soundtrack click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5i7DiJa8lA&t=111s
The film was eventually released on 1st December 1928. The studio’s press sheet gave it an impressive build-up, describing the film as a hilarious “grave-yard knock-out”. Hmmm…I’m not sure I’d go that far myself. It feels a very serious, tense and dark comedy, with barely a single smile from Stan to light the screen up. An important film for the collection? Absolutely! One of the boys’ finest examples? Absolutely not. (Although I still enjoyed it more than ‘Early to Bed!).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film and/or any of my comments. Please share your views either in the comments box below or on our Facebook page.