Although there are some hilarious moments in ‘The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case’, I feel that this film fails to live up to the standard of the majority of the boys’ other shorts from their golden period. It’s very subjective, of course, and I’m aware that there are many fans that count this film amongst their favourites, which is great. But, for me it’s not as good as many of the others.
In its defence, I would quickly qualify that statement by saying that the bar was set very high, with classics such as ‘Hog Wild‘, ‘Blotto‘ and ‘Men O’War‘ to compare it to, it is extremely easy for films to fall short.
‘Murder Case’ is a three-reeler and this may account for why it drags along in certain sections. Owing to the fact that there is a very definite plot to communicate to the audience, there are large portions of the film that are quite dialogue heavy, unusual for a Laurel & Hardy short. Their initial foray into talkies, ‘Unaccustomed As We Are’ (1929), was also self-consciously heavy with dialogue, but the team at Roach soon realised that the boys’ best and most effective comedy was their wordless pantomime and so they tried, as much as possible to stick with that. Possibly, if it had been kept to two reels, as the majority of the boys shorts were, it would zip along a little faster and be better for it. But, having said that, it’s always a joy to watch the boys on screen and I’m certainly not going to complain about having an extra reel worth of a Laurel and Hardy film.
It’s also important to take into account that only a few days into the filming of this picture, Stan suffered a very traumatic event in his private life. On 7th May 1930, Stan’s wife Lois gave birth to their first son, Stanley Robert, but, being born two months premature, the baby sadly didn’t survive and died nine days later. As author Simon Louvish explains, “Stan was devastated”. Louvish also goes on to say that “It is no wonder that the movie remains one of the weakest in the Stan and Ollie canon“. Further to that, Laurel & Hardy historian, Randy Skretvedt suggests “…this may well be the reason why the film is largely devoid of the inventive gags common to L&H films“.
When watching these old movies, it’s so easy to forget that the two characters on the screen, who still, almost a hundred years on, bring us so much entertainment, were real men, with real lives, experiencing real heart-wrenching traumas. It’s well documented that Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy had their fair shares of domestic upsets, yet, on a daily basis, they turned up at the studios, put their private lives to one-side and plied their trade, making incredible, timeless films that made complete strangers laugh themselves into hysterics, all across the globe. Therefore, it’s understandable that ‘Murder Case‘ may not be as strong a film as we may usually expect, but in light of the above, in my opinion anyway, it’s pretty bloody miraculous.
The picture itself seems caught between two genres, the murder mystery and the comedy horror. The boys had dabbled with comedy horror once before, in their 1928 silent short, ‘Habeas Corpus‘, and that wasn’t one of their stronger outings either. I’m not altogether sure that this is a format that works all that well for Stan and Ollie, being perhaps a little too contrived. It’s fun to watch them in this setting, but its not the best showcase for them. Both films are far from disastrous, but I prefer to see the boys in more natural, normal settings, such as repairing a boat, delivering a piano or even just attempting to go out for a family picnic. It’s in simple, everyday situations that I find their comedy even funnier.
There’s something that struck me right at the beginning of ‘Murder Case’, contained within H.M. Walker’s opening title cards, which read:
“Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy decided they needed a rest – They had been looking for work since 1921”.
I can’t help but wonder if this is just pure coincidence, or was it a nod to the fact that the boys’ first film together, ‘The Lucky Dog‘, was filmed in 1921. It would be funny if it was intentional, after all the historic speculation over the date of that first picture and the answer was there all along…
The first scene of the picture acts, really, to set up the main thrust of the movie, but it contains some nice bits of ‘business’ and dialogue. The boys, our favourite pair of vagrants, are sitting on a very high dockside, Stan is fishing and Ollie is sleeping, with his head resting on a wooden post.
Babe Hardy’s performance is, once again, sublime, with his dainty mannerisms and lovely little camera looks aplenty. I especially love the way he tries to rest his head back on to the stump and go back to sleep, after being woken by a caught fish, flapping under his bottom – nobody could do something so small and mundane funnier than Babe. During this same scene, Ollie is awoken again as Stan’s fishing line hooks his hat from off his head and dumps it, like an extravagant fishing float, into the water. The hat is quickly reeled in and then returned to Ollie’s head, but of course it is now full of water and poor Mr. Hardy gets a soaking.
Ollie notices an advert in the newspaper asking for heirs to the late Ebeneezer Laurel’s $3,000,000 estate, to attend the reading of the will that evening at the Laurel Mansion. A plan starts to form in Ollie’s mind, leading to a minute or two of questioning, including:
Ollie: “Where were you born?”
Stan: “I don’t know”
Ollie: “Fancy not knowing where you were born!”
Stan: “Well, I was too young to remember!…How do I know where I was born?!”
Ollie: “Didn’t you once tell me that you had an uncle?”
Stan: “Sure, I’ve got an uncle…why?”
Ollie: “Now we’re getting some place! Is he living?”
Stan: “No…he fell through a trap door and broke his neck…”
Ollie: “Was he building a house?”
Stan: “No, they were hanging him!”
And one of my favourite passages:
Stan: “Three million dollars…Is that as much as a thousand?”
Ollie: “Why man alive! It’s twice as much!!”
So, determined to convince the executors that his friend is the rightful heir, Ollie throws Stan’s fishing line into the water and together they set off to claim their fortune.
With a bit of movie magic, we’re transported from the sunny dock-side setting to the creepy mansion home of the recently deceased Ebeneezer Laurel. It’s a dark and stormy night. Rain is lashing down, lightning flashes across the sky and the sound of someone off camera shaking a large metal sheet can be heard…oh, my apologies, the sound of thunder can be heard (don’t you just love those classic sound effects…).
Inside the mansion, the rest of the claimants to the Laurel fortune are assembled,
waiting to hear the reading of the will and you’d be hard pressed to find another room filled with more sober, shifty and suspicious looking characters, anywhere. But, the prize for the strangest looking pair in the mansion has to go to the Housekeeper, played in drag by Dell Henderson (the millionaire in ‘Wrong Again‘) and the scary-faced butler, played by Frank Austin.
It transpires that Ebeneezer Laurel did not die a natural death, but was murdered in his own home. Therefore, three police detectives are also present, the chief detective played by Fred Kelsey, who was famous for playing this type of role in hundreds of other films. The detectives are also supported by a police officer, a nonspeaking role played by L&H regular Tiny Sandford.
Kelsey drops the news to the impatient gathering, that there “ain’t gonna’ be no reading of no will!” and explains about the old man being murdered and that everyone in the room, was under suspicion of having done the deed. This causes some mixed and frankly some bizarre reactions and everyone is eventually instructed to pipe down and go to bed.
This is the point where Stan and Ollie rejoin the action and there are some nice interchanges between the two of them when they arrive at the front door, in the pouring rain, and also once inside the hallway.
Ollie excitedly surveys the interior of the mansion and comments to Stan how it will soon be ‘all theirs’, to which Stan replies, “What d’ya mean ‘ours’, it’s mine!“. Ollie, of course, is disgusted and feigns to leave, but Stan stops him at the door and says, “Oliver. Are you really going?”, to which Ollie moodily nods confirmation. Stan flashes a big smile across to him and Ollie, thinking that all is being made right, smiles back. His smile quickly disappears, however, when Stan hands him their umbrella, as his charitable donation to Ollie, before he sending him out into the rainy night.
Ollie slams the umbrella to the ground and tells his friend, in no uncertain terms, that he will be staying right by Stan’s side to make sure he gets half of whatever Stan receives.
The next few scenes are amongst the funniest sequences of the entire film. The boys, having been briefed by Detective Kelsey, are led by the spooky butler to their bedroom – which just so happens to be the same room that old man Laurel was murdered in! The room, lit only by a solitary candle and the occasional flashes of lightening, is the stuff of nightmares and the boys do a great job of scaring themselves witless. All the furniture is covered over by large white dust sheets, which appear very ghostly in the gloom.
The gags are hammy but very funny. Hiding under the bed sheets, they peer out to see what strange apparition is making unearthly noises in their room and a cat jumps onto the bed and runs over them, making them jump out of their skins.
As they creep around, ‘bravely’ exploring, Stan slips Ollie’s trousers on over his nightshirt and the braces/suspenders attach themselves to a standard lamp that’s still covered over with a white sheet. As Stan walks around he unwittingly pulls along the ghostly lamp, until it bumps into Ollie, frightening him to death and both boys end up rolling down the stairs, wrestling with the ‘ghost’ whilst shouting and screaming at the top of their lungs. They land at the foot of the stairs, where all the police are waiting, wondering what all the commotion is. Cue embarrassed looks and the boys retreat red-faced, back up the stairs to their room.
Meanwhile, the largest and most unrealistic looking bat ever seen seems to let itself in through the bedroom window. It flies around the room and slides under the boys’ bed sheets. The subsequent screams from the boys, as the unseen bat takes off, lifting the bed sheet with it, is just hilarious. The boys run around in a panic as their phantom bed sheet flies around after them. It chases them comically around the rooms and down the stairs, even scaring the police, who quickly scatter in all directions. Eventually the sheet falls and the bat is revealed, causing yet more embarrassment for the boys.
While all this has been going on, the butler and the housekeeper are revealed to us to be the plotting and scheming villains of the piece. They have a crafty little ruse going, whereby the butler informs one of the heirs that they’re “wanted on the telephone, in the library room‘. The victim then enters the library, sits at the desk and lifts the telephone receiver. This sends the chair tipping back and dumps the body through a gaping trapdoor, with a bloodcurdling scream. The ‘chief detective’ witnesses two or three of them enter the room, hears the screams and afterwards finds the room empty each time. He then announces to his colleagues “Say, I think there’s something mysterious going on here!”, demonstrating just why he’s the chief detective!
Detective Kelsey decides to investigate this strange disappearances himself and so sits down alone in the library and lifts the telephone receiver and is never heard from again.
With just Stan and Ollie remaining, the butler approaches them and informs them that they’re also wanted on the telephone. But, of course, Laurel & Hardy can’t play by the rules and go quietly. Ollie sits at the desk, Stan stands at the other side and reaches across and lifts the telephone, sending Ollie backwards into the trapdoor. But, unlike the others, he reappears a second later, still gripping the chair. As the boys, come to grips with what is happening, the housemaid sneaks out of a secret door, concealed within the wainscot paneling and is sneaking up on them with a huge knife. Stan spots her just in time and instinctively punches her on the chin, which knocks her wig off, revealing her to be a fella! Ollie grapples with him, trying to wrestle the knife from his grasp and then…the scene cuts to Ollie wrestling around with Stan on the floor of the docks. So, it was all just a dream after all.
I was taught in High School never to write a story that turns out to be a dream. Apparently that’s bad form. Maybe it wasn’t thought of in the same way back in the 1930s, it was certainly a popular tool used by he great Buster Keaton in his heyday, but here in this picture it does seem like a disappointing pay off, having built up to it over three reels. The boys would even return to the dream scenario four years later in ‘Oliver the Eighth‘, although it does seem to work a little better for that film.
Following on with the current trend at the Hal Roach studio, ‘Murder Case’ was filmed in multiple languages, including Spanish, German and French, but interestingly, as if three reels wasn’t enough, the picture was extended for the foreign language versions, by incorporating the majority of scenes from their 1929 short ‘Berth Marks’. The train scenes are meant to be the boys travelling to the Laurel mansion, instead of to Pottsville as in the original. A lot of footage from ‘Berth Marks‘ was simply re-used, but the boys did have to recreate a number of scenes, including one shot with Charlie Hall which precedes the clothes ripping scenes in the train carriage. The Spanish version, ‘Noche De Duendes‘ exists and is available on DVD and, according to author Glenn Mitchell, writing for ‘The Laurel & Hardy Magazine‘, a copy of the German language version, ‘Spuk Um Mitternacht‘, was discovered, relatively recently, in Russia and is now also available on DVD.
In addition to the foreign language versions, Murder Case also has the kudos of being the first talkie short to have its own trailer released to theatres, as described by Variety, 20th August, 1930:
“The first talking trailer for a short subject has been made by Metro for a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler, “The Murder Case”. It is now being distributed on a nationwide scale to all accounts having booked it. Trailer is 100 feet in length and is in the nature of an experiment, with Metro to decide later whether other shorts will be similarly trailerized.”
Although it’s fairly easy and arguably unfair to pick faults with ‘Murder Case’ it was well received and reviewed on its 1930 release and even today still has a very large and loyal following amongst fans, many of whom describe it as a firm family favourite.
“…All the familiar eerie hokum dragged into this, and very effective, especially with these dead-pan buffoons. Ghosts, trap-doors, leering characters, mysterious butlers, cops, dicks, lightning, gruesome sound effects, etc. had the customers in shrieks throughout…Laurel and Hardy as a draw in themselves in shorts. This will only heighten their vogue…” Variety, July 1930
“A three-reeler with the famous and funny comedy team…Stan Laurel and Babe Hardy give one of their inimitable performances…Went over emphatically with the audience at the Capitol in New York, although its length cut down the number of laughs considerably…” Motion Picture News, August 2nd 1930
“This is a screamingly funny burlesque on the murder mystery thing…all the old foolery gets gales of laughs. Another boost for this team.” Variety, October 1930
How would you review ‘The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case’? Do let me know your thoughts on the film and your comments on this blog.