‘Liberty’ is a great comedy and, for me, ranks in the top four of Laurel & Hardy’s silent shorts. It’s strange in a way when you think that a good portion of the film was actually the unwanted bits, the cast-offs from their previous outing. That may seem remarkable, but it’s absolutely true. A number of scenes, where the boys are wearing each others’ trousers and have to swap back, were shot and then discarded in the cutting room, in order to shorten the length of ‘We Faw Down‘ (1928). These scenes were then used and expanded and given a beginning and an end to create an entirely new film in its own right.
The plot of ‘Liberty’ is fairly simple (as it is in all the boys’ best films). Stan & Ollie are freshly escaped convicts, still in their stripey prison uniforms and fleeing from their pursuers. A pre-arranged getaway car picks them up and the boys hastily discard their prison gear and begin to change into their trademark suits and derbies. It’s not long before a police motorbike is hot on their tails and the boys have to make a quick exit from their vehicle. This is quite a stunt in itself as both actors leap from the moving vehicle (the film must be sped up here, but the effect is wonderful) and they pretend to admire a parked car, until the motorbike cop tears past.
They then emerge from behind the car and realise that they are wearing each others’ trousers. The rest of the picture is taken up with the boys attempting to swap trousers.
This is such a simple idea, but it’s just so funny. The way they try to discretely hide behind boxes, down alleys or in stationery taxi-cabs, only to be discovered in compromising positions by passersby (including the first appearance in a Laurel and Hardy film by Jean (Jeanie Weenie) Harlow), who are left quite shocked by their discovery, unsure as to what these two fellas have been, or are trying to get up to.
Even though Laurel & Hardy films are renowned for being ‘innocent’ and ‘good, clean fun’, I love this subtle and cheeky adult theme that underlies these sequences. This is not an isolated occurrence either, as little adult jokes do pop up from time to time in others of the boys’ films, such as the scene in ‘Angora Love’ (1929), where landlord Edgar Kennedy enters the boys’ room to tell them “I want you guys to know this is a respectable hotel!”, whilst in the background, a lady is seen walking along the corridor to her room followed by a sailor, who roguishly cocks his hat. A seemingly innocent gesture that alludes to something far less innocent. Better still, a string of sequences that has me crying with laughter every time, is in ‘That’s My Wife’ (1929), where Ollie is trying to discretely retrieve a stolen necklace from the down the back of Stan’s dress (!) Again, they keep on being discovered in hilariously compromising positions, which I just find uproariously funny. Anyway, I digress…
During these scenes, the boys attempt, unsuccessfully, to switch trousers behind a fishmonger’s, among crates full of the fruits of the sea. While they’re in the throws of changing, a live crab is knocked out of a crate and it falls into the back of Ollie’s trousers, that are still being worn by Stan. The boys get rumbled once more before they’re able to complete the clothing exchange and so proceed on foot, down the street and then the crab starts to pinch Stan…right in the middle of his daily duties!
As mentioned above, the trouser-changing sequences were filmed originally as part of ‘We Faw Down’ (1928). They were cut from the film at the point where Stan and Ollie are escaping from ‘One-Round Kelly’s’ apartment, after being found with his girlfriend and minus their clothes (see the previous blog for more details). To get away the boys speedily get dressed and jump from the ground floor window into the street. In the original scene the boys are mistakenly wearing each others’ trousers, hence the need to swap back. This then forms the basis for the entire middle section of ‘Liberty’.
Once again, I find myself repeating the same phrase, that much of the best comedy in Laurel & Hardy movies is in reactions – and so it is here. Stan and Ollie’s embarrassed reactions at being discovered, literally with their pants down, combined with the shocked and/or disgusted reactions of the unsuspecting passersby are just wonderful. I especially like the way the burly builders look over our boys, (with trousers around their ankles), with much suspicion as they exit the construction site elevator. It’s on this same construction site that the film’s finale takes place.
‘Liberty’ then develops from a farce into a ‘thrill’ comedy seamlessly, as the boys suddenly find themselves tottering along the girders of an unfinished skyscraper, hundreds of feet in the air, with the aforementioned crab still nipping! ‘Thrill Comedy’, very much like ‘Horror Comedy’, was a very popular genre during the twenties and arguably the most famous for plying this trade was fellow Hal Roach star Harold Lloyd, who’s most iconic image was from his film Safety Last (1923), wherein Lloyd dices with death at great heights, ending up hanging precariously from the hands of a giant clock. Interestingly, Randy Skretvedt notes that the Western Costume Company building used by the Roach Studios for the skyscraper scenes in ‘Liberty’ had also been used for the filming of the 1927 ‘Our Gang’ comedy ‘The Old Wallop’. In addition, a number of other productions, including Harold Lloyd’s ‘Feet First’ (1930) and MGM drama ‘Day of Reckoning’ (1933) to name but two, were all filmed in and around the same group of neighbouring buildings. For more in-depth information relating to the films and locations of all these thrill comedies, check out Randy’s invaluable (and now in paperback) ‘Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, but I also strongly recommend ‘John Bengston’s wonderful blog entitled ‘Laurel & Hardy’s Liberty Rooftop’.
This thrill sequence is fabulously constructed and bravely shot by both actors and crew. During the ‘This is Your Life’ programme dedicated to Laurel & Hardy in 1954, Director Leo McCarey recounted a story of the shooting of ‘Liberty’ where Stan became scared of the dangers involved in shooting these scenes and so, in an attempt to reassure and comfort him, Ollie demonstrated how any fall would result in them landing on a ‘safety’ platform a few feet down. However, the safety platform broke and Ollie fell a further twenty feet, landing in a safety net.
The resulting film was well worth the efforts and risk involved as it’s a real Laurel & Hardy masterpiece. It’s a perfect silent comedy, as it’s so visual in nature, from start to finish. I could have easily described each scene, gag by gag, but I would rather encourage you to watch the picture for yourself. You’ll find a film that is full of heart and humour and it’s a must-see for any fan of the boys, or of silent comedy or just by anyone at all.
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