Despite its title, ‘They Go Boom!’ is not an explosive Laurel & Hardy comedy – at least not compared with their own high standards anyway! Yet, to be fair, it does have its funny moments, as you would expect with Messrs. Laurel, Hardy, and Charlie Hall pitted once more against each other.
Although I never like to be negative about any of the boys’ work, I do feel the need to cast a critical eye over the films – after all, there’s not much point in just blowing smoke!
To begin with, I will say that I did enjoy the film and sat watching it with a big smile on my face and laughing out loud at many parts, however, because many of the boys’ films, especially the Roach films are SO good, the Laurel & Hardy bar is set high and so, being critical, I do find this one lacking in a few areas.
Everything about the film is very simple, and that in itself is not a bad thing. There are no twists or turns in the plot, the sets are restricted to just two rooms and for the vast majority of the film, it’s just Stan and Ollie in front of our eyes – and again, nothing wrong with that either.
Ollie is unwell, his ailments diagnosed expertly by Stan as having “the sniffles”, but fear not dear viewer, for (un)fortunately he has his good friend Mr. Laurel by his side to care for him…enough said! And that in a nutshell is the plot.
The film opens with the boys fast asleep in bed, Ollie is gently coughing and Stan is snoring. This provides the short’s first inventive and funny use of sound, as Stan’s snores are followed by a noisy exhalation that sounds a bit like a kids’ fart whistle. Ollie then sneezes himself awake and becomes immediately and incredulously aware of Stan’s ridiculous noises next to him, and of course, his facial reactions are typically brilliant, especially when, as Stan stirs in his sleep, his breathing makes a noise akin to a slide whistle.
All sleep is ended for them both suddenly, when Ollie lets out a huge sneeze, which makes the roller blind, covering the window, shoot up and noisily spin around. As the story (such as it is) unfolds, Ollie’s massive sneezes become very central. His next two sneezes firstly make the blind shoot back up again and fall off the window frame completely and secondly, make the picture that is above the headboard fall off the wall and land directly onto his head.
“Why don’t you stop sneezing?” asks Stan. “There you are! No sympathy” returns Ollie, “I’m liable to die of ammonia!”
This clever wordplay is not only another example of the studio’s inventive use of the relatively new sound medium but is also a feature of the boys’ comedy that will recur in many of their future projects and is still greatly loved and repeated by their legions of fans today. (An example that springs to mind from ‘The Live Ghost’ (1934):- Stan: “Well, I heard the ocean is infatuated with sharks”…Ollie: “Not infatuated, he means infuriated”).
Stan’s failed attempts to nursemaid Ollie make up the majority of the remainder of the picture. A burst pipe spurts water all over Ollie whilst he’s lying in bed; Stan trips and throws a bucket of water over him, and an arguably over-used gag has Ollie’s head continually being banged by Stan opening doors onto it.
It also struck me that, in a way, the medicinal care that Stan attempts to give to Ollie throughout serves to date the film to a bygone era, with mustard plasters intended to be affixed to Ollie’s chest and a mustard footbath being prepared to soak his feet into.
I raise this point only because I’ve always considered the boys’ films to be timeless and as a result the canon of work has aged well and can therefore still be enjoyed today, having an old-world charm, yet managing to still be relevant and relatable to modern audiences. Therefore, the use of these antiquated remedies, whilst undoubtedly being familiar and relatable to contemporary audiences, changes the feel of the piece to a modern viewer by presenting us with old-fashioned, out-dated, and unfamiliar curiosities, snapping our conscious brains away from the story and the characters, even for a split second and smacking us in the face with evidence of how these films and the people therein do not belong to and are not of our time. Does it matter, you may fairly ask…? No, not really, I just don’t care to be reminded of it.
The mustard footbath is a good source of humour in itself as Stan uses far too much mustard powder and Ollie ends up putting his feet into a horrid looking mush that looks more like a bath full of mushy peas. Its use in the picture doesn’t end there either. Charlie Hall, who plays the boys’ landlord, enters the room to complain about the noise and threatens to evict them and after an altercation, Ollie pushes Charlie a little too hard and he ends up diving head-first into the bucket of mustard mush – it couldn’t have happened to a nicer landlord!
The finale of ‘They Go Boom!’ is a very inventive gag and is where the film’s name derives. During the boy’s earlier shenanigans, their airbed mattress is deflated leaving Ollie to blow it back up. Using a bit of questionable initiative, Ollie attaches a gas pipe to the mattress and uses it to inflate the bed. But, during Ollie’s tussle with their landlord, the gas tap gets knocked back on, unbeknownst to everyone. As Charlie rushes off to fetch the police, to help him evict his troublesome tenants, the boys hide in bed and pretend to be asleep. Whilst their eyes are closed tight the airbed inflates higher and higher and higher, to a preposterous level. It’s a great gag, completely ridiculous and akin to the freak endings of some of their later films, but it’s very funny and that’s the point.
The boys, becoming sensible of their situation, are terrified and it all comes to an end when the landlord rushes back into the room with the cops just as Ollie lets out an almighty sneeze and the air bed goes boom!
To carry out this ‘special effect’, Randy Skretvedt describes how director James Parrot arranged for three employees from the Roach studio, who were proficient in the use of firearms, to stand off-camera and, when given the instruction, the fired their weapons at the over-inflated mattress. Interestingly, Glenn Mitchell notes in his ‘Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia‘ that:
“There are some prints in which They Go Boom! belies its name, the climactic explosion consisting only of a muted thud and some isolated noises. Blackhawk Films had the film in release for some time before deciding to dub in a more convincing effect, which is included in today’s copies.”
This is probably just as well – ‘They Go Thud!’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!
I do feel that the film suffers a little from its lack of scope. The action being limited only to the boys’ bedroom and kitchen makes the film feel small scale and maybe as if the production was rushed, just to get another movie in the can. This last point is certainly not the case, as Randy Skretvedt confirms that this particular film took a lot longer than usual to complete, for a variety of reasons.
I’ll leave the last word to Glenn Mitchell as he perhaps puts it best, describing the film as a “claustrophobic but entertaining short”.
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