Filming began 8th December 1930. Released 7th February 1931. Three Reels
Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Anita Garvin, Isabelle Keith, Baldwin Cooke Director: James W. Horne
“Mr. Hardy is a man of great care, caution and discretion – Mr. Laurel is married, too -“
‘Be Big!‘ is a film that gets a bit of stick and in my opinion, a little unfairly! Admittedly it is primarily known for one gag – i.e. the boys trying to get Stan’s boots off Ollie’s feet, and that’s where the weight of the criticism lies, as many consider that too much time is spent milking this gag and that that’s basically all there is to the film. However, I would argue that this is far from the case.
Firstly, I don’t think that the boot gags are too extensive, in my opinion I think they timed it perfectly and what’s more those sequences are hilarious! So, if you’re one of those people that dismiss this film as a one trick pony, I implore you to think again, as there is SO much more to it than the just the boot gags!
As explained in the previous blog, ‘Another Fine Mess (1930)‘ at the tail end of 1930, the boys’ filming schedule was running behind, due to the production of their first feature film, ‘Pardon Us‘, taking much longer than had been anticipated. So, one could be forgiven for concluding that, once again Stan and his fellow writers found themselves with less time to create a brand new short than they were normally used to, which could be a likely explanation for the re-using of old material in ‘Another Fine Mess‘ and the limited scope of ‘Be Big!‘ However, an essay written by Laurel & Hardy/Hal Roach historian and officianado, Richard W. Bann, shows that the preparation for this latest film, originally entitled ‘The Chiselers‘ was not as rushed as we might at first think:
“Roach discussed it in story conference with Stan Laurel in the summer or early fall of 1930. Then Laurel developed their concept into a surprisingly comprehensive five page script with 36 scenes. On Monday, December 8, when principal photography began, the Laurel & Hardy unit pretty much faithfully adhered to this detailed outline.”
In the same essay Mr. Bann also mentions the fact that originally ‘The Chiselers‘ actually ran to four reels and so, whilst I’m happy to defend the current three-reel version of ‘Be Big‘ as not being too long in milking one gag, I have to agree that four reels would very likely have been pushing it! Indeed, Richard goes on to make a very insightful comment that:
“…the shortened cut issued to theaters as we know it now could have appeared streamlined and fast-paced to Messrs. Roach, Horne, Laurel and company when compared to four reels of THE CHISELERS.“
Ultimately, it is the three reel version that the world, that is the English speaking world, was left with (the Spanish and French versions are a different kettle of fish altogether, but more on those later), and so, it is this version that I discuss and, dare I say it, defend here.
In the opening scenes, and rather untypically, we find Ollie with his wife, Isabelle Keith, in their apartment, behaving like a couple of nauseatingly gushy newly weds, preparing to depart on a joint trip to Atlantic City with the Laurels. Ollie is clearly very excited and happy about the trip. He’s instructed to go across the hallway to the Laurel’s apartment, in order to see if Stan and his wife are ready to leave. There’s a nice gag here, which makes full and good use of the benefits of the now established sound technology. The gag has Ollie ringing his own doorbell, just so that he can enjoy the melodic chiming sound it makes, then across the hall he is disgusted by the contrasting noise that Stan’s doorbell makes, which is the abrupt sound of a multi-tone car horn.
Laurel and Hardy’s official biographer, John McCabe, makes a lovely mention of this sequence in his biography ‘Babe: The Life of Oliver Hardy‘. He uses this particular reference to illustrate Babe’s wonderful skill in demonstrating Ollie’s fussiness over the smallest gestures, especially with his hands:
“Ollie…is a fuss-budget, devoted to useless precision. He is one who adores the exactness of small effect for its own sake. This is seen nowhere more memorably than in the use of his hands. In Be Big, 1931, the utterly prosaic task of ringing a doorbell becomes for Ollie a happy act of manual affirmation. Before he pushes the bell with one finger, he revolves his entire hand in a precise circle, then triumphantly puts his finger forward. Ollie is alone; he does not do this for effect, that is – for anyone else’s effect but his own. Ollie does this because manual movement must ever be ritualistically fancy…”
And as we know, Ollie is the master of being unnecessarily fancy. How quickly though, Ollie’s demeanour changes from the playful, self-satisfied, happy husband, to an exasperated and annoyed friend and neighbour.
Once Mr. Laurel’s ridiculous doorbell is rung (or rather blown), Stan appears, evidently ready for his little vacation, holding a toy boat and is soon joined on the doorstep by Mrs. Laurel, played by Anita Garvin, who disdainfully hands him his bucket and spade (She clearly still hasn’t forgiven him for stealing her liquor!). Ollie, sharing in Mrs. Laurel’s disapproval of Stan’s childishness, grabs the toys and throws them down the hallway and disgustedly shoves his friend against the wall, causing Stan’s doorbell/horn to comically sound again and Ollie stomps off back to the sanity of his own apartment.
As Ollie enters the apartment however, this ‘sanity’ is immediately called into question, as Ollie’s telephone rings, but it does not ring as a normal phone would, but with the protracted sound of a slide-whistle. This single phone call will change not only the course of the evening dramatically, but also shatter the domestic bliss of Ollie’s marriage.
The caller is a guy named Cookie, played by L&H regular Baldwin Cooke. It’s made clear that Cookie is one of the boys’ fellow club/lodge members and he’s calling to inform them both that all the guys from the club are holding a surprise stag party in their honour tonight. The gang are already assembled and wearing the “full regalia” and both Ollie and Stan are required to get changed and get straight over to the club.
To our relief, Ollie apologises and firmly tells Cookie that they can’t go as they already have plans to take their wives away for the weekend. Ollie is unshakeable and informs his friend that “When a Hardy makes his mind up, it’s as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar“. This firmness lasts for about 20 seconds, as Cookie explains to Ollie some of the ‘pleasures’ they have lined up for them. This is very cleverly done, as we are unable to hear what Cookie is telling Ollie, but we can tell from the changing expressions on Mr. Hardy’s face that if we could hear, we’d likely be pretty shocked and the film’s censors may have to step in!
At this, Cookie can sense victory and he says a line which gives the film it’s title:
“…Remember the old saying, no man is bigger than the excuses he can make to his wife, so don’t forget, be big, ya get me…BE BIG!!”
With this questionable advice ringing in his ears, Ollie quickly hatches a masterplan (note the sarcastic tone), to enable both him and Stan to attend their surprise party, without the ladies suspecting a thing…and the best plan that Ollie can come up with on the spur of the moment, is to feign a sudden illness.
He approaches his wife and clutches his head in dramatic fashion, and groans loudly…”Ohhhhh!!!”. It is totally over the top and over dramatic, but very funny with it. He secretly powders his face with some white make-up powder from his wife’s dressing table and Mrs. Hardy becomes very alarmed. Next, the Laurel’s arrive all ready for departure, but they’re quickly informed of the problem. They rush in, but not before the door is brilliantly slammed in Stan’s face, knocking him to the ground.
Mrs. Hardy may well have been fooled, but Ollie now has an even bigger challenge. Getting Stan to understand what is happening and to play along, but without giving the game away to the girls. This, of course, is easier said than done, after all, this is Stan we’re talking about.
Stan: “What’s the matter, did you swallow something?” Ollie: “I’m a sick man, an awful sick man...” Stan: “…Sounds funny to me…You were alright a minute ago!”
And just to add to it, Stan then proceeds to rub some of the make-up off Ollie’s cheek. It comes to something when Stan is the only adult…, I’ll re-phrase that, the only person in the room to see through an obvious deception.
The ladies gloomily decide that they’ll have to postpone the trip, but Ollie – being big about it, won’t hear of it and tells them to go on alone. He volunteers Stan’s services to stay behind to care for him, predicting that he’ll magically feel much better in the morning and they’ll join up with them by catching the first train.
Somehow, the ruse works and the ladies go off to the train station, assisted by bellboy Charlie Hall. Stan, still mystified by Ollie’s suspicious illness, is somewhat disgruntled at having to stay behind, that is until Ollie fills him in on the real reason for the deception.
And so, the game is afoot. With the wives gone, Stan and Ollie begin to change into their club regalia, which consists of a V-Neck pullover, riding jodhpurs and knee-high leather boots – and it is these boots which cause the boys SO much trouble.
Ollie really struggles to pull on his boots, until finally, when he’s squashed his feet right into them and Stan has stood by idly watching, he realises that he’s crammed his feet into Stan’s boots by mistake, whilst Stan is standing there in Ollie’s larger pair. So, now its a simple matter of taking the boots off. But, it’s not so simple, and therefore the rest of the film is taken up with their attempts to pull the boots off.
Just to add to the excitement, unbeknownst to the boys, the wives arrive at the train station, only to realise that they’ve missed the last train of the day. So they have no choice but to head back to the apartments, with a ‘Won’t the boys be surprised…’ conversation. We, the viewers, all know that it’s not just the boys who are in for a surprise…!
I really feel for Ollie throughout these boot sequences and that is testament to Babe’s wonderful acting. He very convincingly conveys his frustrations as well as moments of physical exhaustion and you can’t help but sense his building anxiety and almost claustrophobic desperation to get the boots off his feet.
There are some fantastic visual comedy moments during these scenes, with pushing, pulling, chairs smashing, breaking boot-jacks, curtains ripped down, windows smashed – just typical Laurel and Hardy carnage whilst attempting a simple task. At one point, the force with which Ollie is pulling against Stan causes him to go careering across the room and dives head first into the obligitory sunken bathtub, full of water. The gag continues as Ollie climbs out and the water has caused his woollen pullover to preposterously stretch to below his knees.
Inevitably, the wives do indeed eventually return and when the boys realise their arrival is imminent, they attempt to hide in a pull-down bed. They jump under the covers and then pull the cord that folds the bed away into a wall cavity. Any Laurel and Hardy fan will know that this is not enough to stop an angry wife on the warpath, and yes as always, they are tooled up. There just happens to be a couple of double-barrelled shotguns propped up against a chair. The ladies take aim and blast the husbands, bed and all through the wall and down into the garden below.
Maybe I’m very undemanding of what I want, need or expect from Laurel and Hardy comedies, but I find ‘Be Big!’ meets my needs easily. Although the dialogue is sparse, what there is is good, the acting is perfect and the physical/visual comedy is flawless.
I suppose a simple, undemanding comedy like this may not stand up to regular viewing, as we are able to do today with our home video systems, but then we must remember that films were never intended to be watched in that way. In the 1930s, films were made to be enjoyed at the cinema and then they would disappear, possibly getting another release or airing at some point down the line, but they were in essence made as disposable items.
I believe ‘Be Big!‘ is the kind of comedy that is best seen on a big screen and in a room full of people who are out to have a good time and be entertained by their favourite comics. This view is arguably supported by the film’s contemporary reviews:
“Swell Comedy. Another nifty from the Hal Roach plant. It has the audience laughing even before the action starts…Will please anywhere.” Film Daily, 21 June 1931
“Hal Roach scores again!” Motion Picture Times, 11 August 1931
Despite its current reputation, I haven’t been able to find a bad word said about it from back in the day, so maybe this confirms my theory!?
As had become the norm, the boys filmed phonetic versions of this picture in both Spanish and French, and interestingly, as Randy Skretvedt points out, the titles ‘Los Calaveras‘ and ‘Les Carottiers‘ translate from the film’s original title ‘The Chiselers‘ and not from ‘Be Big!’
Along with the boys and Charlie Hall, Anita Garvin played her role in all three versions of the film, although, this was to be her last with the boys until her role in ‘Swiss Miss’ in 1938.
For both foreign releases, the ‘Chiselers/Be Big!’ footage was expanded into feature length by merging it with the extended versions of ‘Laughing Gravy‘. The reason for turning them into feature-length pictures seems to be purely financial, as higher rentals could be charged for feature films over short subjects, and as Laurel & Hardy films were incredibly popular in these foreign countries, excellent returns could be anticipated.
As ‘Laughing Gravy‘ wasn’t filmed until February, ‘Los Calaveras‘ and ‘Les Carottiers‘ weren’t released until later that year, the earliest release being April 1931 and stretching through until at least December.
There are a few additional scenes in the foreign language version that do not appear in the standard English version, mostly involving more attempts to remove the boots. One commonly referenced gag has Stan almost shoving Ollie out of a window, then burning his bottom on a radiator, before pushing him across the room and he lands with his face stuck in a vibrating excercise band. The film is comically sped up and Ollie’s face vibrates hilariously. It’s a shame this wasn’t included in the original version as it is a funny segment.
I may be going against the grain, but I really like ‘Be Big!’ and I think it’s certainly worthy of its place in the Laurel & Hardy canon. For those that disagree I’ll leave the final words to Mr. Hal Roach, from an interview in 1966 and taken once again from Richard W. Bann’s essay, which I think may serve as an explanation for this and indeed any other film failing to please its audience:
“Sometimes the fun you have making a picture, can distort your perception of how well the thing is going to play in front of an audience. You like to think you know, but comedy is a funny business.”
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog, please let me know your thoughts on it and also, of course, on ‘Be Big!’ itself. You can share your comments in the box below or on my Facebook and/or Twitter pages.