“‘Big Business’ is regarded today as the greatest of all the Laurel & Hardy silent comedies“, is the opening sentence to Randy Skretvedt’s entry for this silent classic. Glenn Mitchell in his ‘Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia’ goes even further to say “Big Business is probably the greatest comedy ever filmed…(and) is by far the more consistently acclaimed, even among critics usually unresponsive to the team“. This is high praise indeed and so who am I to now argue against the views of two of the most respected L&H aficionados out there!?
Well, I certainly don’t disagree that ‘Big Business’ is indeed a great comedy and is certainly one of their best pieces of work. Is it THE best…? I’m not sure… I have to admit that I don’t find myself laughing as hard at this one as I do at ‘That’s My Wife‘, for instance. Those sequences in The Pink Pup have me in stitches, but maybe it’s because I’ve watched ‘Big Business’ so many times, that it doesn’t grab me by the funny bone as much anymore…or maybe it’s more a reflection of my own personal sense of humour and how taken I am by a number of particular risqué gags in a Laurel & Hardy film.
One can find destruction and specifically ‘reciprocal destruction’ gags in any number of the boys’ films, it is after all their bread and butter. But, I think it’s true to say that the risqué brand of humour employed in both ‘Liberty’ and ‘That’s My Wife‘ is pretty rare within the Laurel & Hardy canon and so maybe that’s why those sequences stand out so well and just knock me sideways with laughter.
That’s not to take anything away from ‘Big Business’. On the contrary, the way the film is constructed, building to a frenetic crescendo of destruction is quality film making at its best. The plot is simple, the performances sublime and the gags are thick and fast. The theme of ‘reciprocal destruction’ has never been better executed than here.
The boys are Christmas tree salesmen, touring the streets of sunny California and going door to door trying to sell their wares. The first two stops are unproductive, apart from Stan insulting the lady in the first house and Ollie twice getting hit in the head by a hammer at the second. So surely, third time lucky? The third house belongs to non-other than firm fan favourite James Finlayson, and as soon as you see him answer the door, you just know there’s soon going to be fireworks.
The build-up to the inevitable chaos is wonderfully done. Fin refuses a tree and slams the door trapping the boys’ Christmas tree. The boys ring the bell in order to free the tree. Fin answers the door, is surprised to see the boys still there and slams the door again before Stan has time to move the tree – therefore the tree is trapped again. Ollie rings the bell and Fin answers, a little more annoyed, but this time Stan’s on to it and moves the tree before Fin slams the door. The boys attempt to leave, but now Stan’s winter coat is trapped in the door. The bell is rung, Fin answers, he berates the boys, the door slams and here we go again – the tree is once again stuck. After Ollie rings the bell one last time, Fin appears, but this time he grabs the tree from Stan and throws it into the garden and tells the boys, in no uncertain terms, where they can go!
Back at the boys’ Model T, Stan has a big business idea and he goes back to the door, rings the bell and asks to take Fin’s order for next Christmas. Fin tells Stan to wait and disappears back in the house, causing Stan to assume he’s been successful. He gesticulates to Ollie that he’s made a sale, and Ollie excitedly brings a tree to the door. Fin reappears with a pair of tree-loppers and cuts the tree into three pieces…and the blue touch paper is well and truly lit!
From here on in the film turns into a wonderful tit for tat of destruction. Stan and Ollie destroy Fin’s garden, his house and it’s contents and in return Fin totally destroys the boy’s car, that is until Police Officer, Tiny Sandford steps in and stops the scenes of utter chaos.
All four men end up in tears, forgiving each other and going their separate ways. Until Cop Sandford, returning to his car, spies the boys peering up from out of their hankies and giggling to each other. The film ends with Sandford chasing the boys on foot, down a long straight road – although why he didn’t use his car is a bit of a mystery!
As well as being a fantastic example of silent comedy, the film also has its fair share of Hollywood mythology surrounding it. Firstly, unlike a number of writers’ claims, ‘Big Business’ was not set during the summertime. The weather does look decidedly sunny, however, this was a Californian winter and Randy Skretvedt confirms that the filming was actually done during Christmas week 1928. It’s kind of strange today to think of a Christmas film actually filmed at Christmas, (unlike today’s TV Christmas ‘specials’ that are clearly recorded during the summertime – with the sunny weather and deciduous trees in the background, still in full leaf. Yet the addition of some tinsel and a festive jumper or two is supposed to convince us!) Anyway…
The second and perhaps better-known myth is much more interesting. Many years ago, Hal Roach related a story that an employee of the studio made an agreement with Roach that his house could be used and destroyed for the film whilst he was away on holiday. Roach agreed to pay an amount of money for this and to also put the house back the way it was before the employee returned. However, the film crew arrived at the wrong house and basically destroyed it over the following few days. On the next to last day of filming a car pulled up outside containing a man, his wife and their two children, who turned out to be the real owners of the house! Only then did the crew realise, they’d destroyed the wrong house!
This is a great story – if it was true! The interesting thing is that Randy Skretvedt mentions in his book ‘The Magic Behind the Movies‘ that Stan Laurel, writing a reply to a fan in the 1960s, confirmed that this story was completely made up. The house, a rental property, had belonged to a Roach studio employee, a certain film editor named William H. Terhune, but he had worked with the crew during the filming and the correct house was in fact used. Further, Stan also confirmed that this story was untrue in a phone call that was recorded, against his knowledge in 1964 – this can be heard by clicking HERE
So, if we’re to believe Stan, this story is untrue. However, there are, of course, two sides to every story and on this occasion, we should give the last word to Hal Roach.
Laurel & Hardy historian, Richard W. Bann was friends with Hal Roach for 25 years, interviewing him many times and spent much of his career immersed in the papers and films constituting the history of the studio. On the subject of the ‘Big Business-Wrong House’ myth, Richard confirmed to me:
“When the damage to the wrong home took place, Laurel was not there. When the location manager and crew went out to prep what they thought was the house for filming, they weren’t going to shoot that day. Laurel wasn’t needed on location until the entire production unit was geared up for cameras to turn. So Laurel wasn’t there. Nor was Laurel there when Roach had to write the check for damage to the wrong house. You don’t forget writing the check for mistakes your company makes.
Roach never explained this when telling the story, because he was entertaining whatever audience he had — on TV, radio, or friends. What fans fail to appreciate is that filmmakers on both sides of the camera were not reporters, or historians. Roach was a producer, again, and what they did is take incidents and adapt them for whatever medium they were working in. In other words, Roach was an entertainer.”
So, there we have it. The story was true all along. But, whatever you think about the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding the film, the team at the Roach Studios got it just right, as ‘Big Business’ is an absolute cracker.
But, what do you think about ‘Big Business’? Is it a silent smash, or a mythological misadventure?? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page – we’d love to hear your thoughts.