“Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy decided to re-organize and re-supervise their entire financial structure – So they took the $3.80 and went into business”.
As The Great Depression continued into 1932, so too did the economy drive, instigated and enforced by Henry Ginsberg at the Roach studios. The artists, especially the Laurel and Hardy unit, were under increasing pressure to produce top-quality short subjects on shoestring budgets.
Creating and executing new and expensive films and even costly individual gags, such as the building and burning of a bungalow in their previous picture, Helpmates, was now out of the question. Ginsberg maintained a tight hold on the purse strings, making him a very unpopular figure on the lot, but, be that as it may, he was very successful at reducing the studio’s expenditure. One studio strategy that was encouraged at this time was to dust off old story ideas and re-work them, rather than devising brand new ideas, saving time, and all importantly, money.
As a result, the boys’ first release for 1932, The Music Box, was yet another shameless re-working, at least in part, of another one of the team’s earlier pictures. Unusually though, we are unable to state whether or not the remake improved upon the original, as the predecessor just happens to be the only remaining ‘lost’ Laurel and Hardy film, Hats Off!
What’s interesting to note is that although The Music Box was a simple rehash of an old idea, the Hal Roach studio did not feel the need to hide the fact. On the contrary, the Roach studios Press Sheet actually drew attention to it:
“Imagine anyone, especially two popular screen comedians, waxing sentimental over a flight of stairs. But that is precisely what happened to Laurel and Hardy when they began work again on a long flight of stairs which play an important part in “The Music Box”… The aforementioned stairs are an anniversary memento to the careers of these famous stars. It was on these stairs that Laurel and Hardy performed their funny antics for “Hats Off”, the first comedy in which they were teamed as stars. Although they appeared together in “Duck Soup” the cast was an all-star and little thought was given to them as a team.
Reminiscing, the two comedians said that only a few people were at hand to watch them at work on their first picture and many walked away before they had made one scene. But during the filming of “The Music Box” a special squad of police officers was obtained to keep the interested spectators from interfering with the production.
With all the guard, however the two comedians were swamped at lunch time by autograph seekers and regular fans. During their three day location at the stairs they signed approximately 2000 autographs and more than 3500 people watched them at work.”
The two and three reelers are widely considered to be Laurel and Hardy’s greatest work, a view held by Stan Laurel himself, who was very reluctant to commit the team to feature-length productions. It is also a popular opinion that The Music Box is the very best of these shorts and again, Stan Laurel is amongst those that identify this picture as the team’s finest.
The Music Box is quite simply a masterpiece. It sets the standard that all other Laurel and Hardy comedies are compared against. When asked, it is the Laurel and Hardy film that so many people recall instantly, even those with only a mere passing interest in the team. They likely can’t remember the name of the picture, but they can certainly describe the action. That image of Stan and Ollie endlessly struggling to carry a crated piano up a ridiculously long flight of steps. It’s such a strong and iconic image, almost en-par with that of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock. Once seen, rarely forgotten.
The picture places the boys’ as owner-operators of their own removals firm, The Laurel & Hardy Transfer Company – Foundered 1931 – Tall Oaks, From Little Acorns Grow. They have been employed to deliver a player piano to 1127 Walnut Avenue, a house that they are informed by Postman Charlie Hall, is located atop a huge flight of steps.
“That’s the house up there…right on top of the stoop!”
As in all the boys’ best pictures, the plot is a very simple one. Stan and Ollie have to carry the crated piano up the steps and deliver it to the house at the top. This task would likely be difficult for anybody, but for our heroes, it is even more challenging because everyone they come across seems to be against them. This includes a nanny, a cop, an entitled upper-class twit, their own horse, and, of course, themselves!
The boys set to their task in typical undaunted fashion. The first problem they face is how to get the piano down off the back of the cart. Stan begins to drag it off but is stopped by Ollie who has given the matter ‘a little thought’. “Now, ease it down on my back!“, he says. With this one decision, the viewer is immediately reminded of just how stupid these fellows are. The absurdity of the suggestion is completely lost on Stan, of course, who begins to do as he’s told and pulls at the piano, whilst Ollie is on all fours waiting to take the entire weight of the instrument on his back.
Their faithful horse, Susie, so named by Babe Hardy after his beloved Aunt, proves that even an equine has more intelligence than our boys. Susie glances around and quickly comprehends the situation. As Stan pulls, she walks forward a few paces, causing the piano to roll quickly off the cart and crash down, flattening Ollie underneath it.
The crated player piano has almost an anthropomorphic quality as it clangs and chimes with every knock, shunt, and drop. It is so vocal in its disgruntlement, that it could almost be considered a third member of the comedy team. There is so much character in these sounds, played by T. Marvin Hatley, that the piano appears to be grunting and shouting its displeasure to the boys.
In his expert commentary on the newly restored version of The Music Box, now available on Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations, Richard W. Bann recalled Hal Roach confirming to him just how important the sounds of the piano were to the film. Stan’s vision for the film’s soundscape was to have no incidental background music playing at all, as this would distract from the unhappy sounds of the instrument taking one hell of a hammering and causing the audience to miss the point of the entire film.
Cerebrally challenged as they may be, there are a couple of qualities that the boys display that can not be criticised – their willingness to graft and their determination to succeed. Their efforts to carry the heavy load up the steps are thwarted numerous times throughout the course of the first two reels, and each time the piano ends up at the bottom and the boys have to start all over again. It is an obvious take on the ancient story of Sysiphus, from Greek Mythology, eternally fated to push a boulder up an endless hill, only our boys are in this together and to the bitter end.
During their trials, they stop for a breather on the steps, only to be met by a nanny on her way down, pushing a pram. Displaying his chivalrous southern manner, Ollie is quick to try to help the lady to pass them, but as Stan comes to assist, the piano takes a shunt and hurtles back to the street below.
The boys chase it all the way, unable to stop it from its solo descent and followed by the nanny in hysterics. She looks the boys up and down and disrespectfully laughs “Of all the dumb things!”. This is too much for Stan, who does not have Ollie’s social manners or chivalrous instincts. His attitude or moral code is a very simple one. Everyone is equal – If you deserve it, you get it! As the nanny walks away, Stan boots her up the backside! After a brief tit-for-tat sequence, the nanny leaves in search of a cop, and the boys begin their next assault on the steps.
As they take their next break, this time possibly three-quarters of the way up the steps, the next character to hinder them is the cop. He’d been informed that the nanny had been kicked right in the middle of her daily duties, and had come to have words. Again according to Richard W. Bann, this ‘daily duties‘ line was improvised by Stan on the set. The cop, played by Sam Lufkin, appears at street level, far down below, and calls the boys back down for a word. Ollie sends Stan down to “see what he wants“, but once Stan has reached the sidewalk, the cop growls one of the best lines in any film, “I don’t want you! I want that other monkey!” Stan hilariously relays this to Ollie, who reluctantly makes his way down the steps. Sure enough, the piano is quick to follow and appears to chase Ollie down, until he trips and falls flat on his face, and the piano rolls right over the top of him and continues its way to the bottom.
On their final assault on the steps, they stop once more, to catch their breath, and this time they are met by the brilliant Billy Gilbert as the haughty “Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen? M.D., A.D, D.D.S, F.L.D, F.F.F und F”. Gilbert wants to get past the boys and becomes incensed by the suggestion that he should walk around them. Following a small altercation, Stan knocks the Professor’s top hat off his head and they watch it bounce all the way down onto the road below, where it is immediately crushed by a passing truck…”Very Lovely!” is the Professor’s remark, and he storms off in a fury, threatening to have the boys thrown in jail.
Stan and Ollie finally arrive at the top and once again meet postman Charlie Hall. Hall is incredulous that the boys have carried the piano all the way up the steps:
“Have you fellas carried that piano all the way up these stairs?.. You didn’t have to do that!.. You see that road down there? All ya’ had to do was to drive around that road, to the top here..!”
If the nanny thought the boys were ‘dumb’ before, that was nothing compared to what happens next. The boys look at each other, and then unbelievably carry the piano all the way back down the steps, in order to drive it up the road and deliver the piano the ‘right way’.
Simon Louvish, in Stan & Ollie: The Roots of Comedy, discusses this bizarre mentality:
“It is not so much…the doing of the deed, but the manner in which it is done – as Ollie says to Stan in more than one movie, ‘There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things.’ And then they proceed to do the wrong.”
Adding to this, in his book, The Art of Laurel and Hardy, Kyp Harness also expertly analyses this moment:
“Granted, it’s pretty idiotic even for Laurel and Hardy to carry the piano down the entire length simply to bring it up by carriage. It’s a pretty far-fetched expression of their “logic”, yet it is done in service to the mythic entity at the center of “The Music Box”, which is those stairs. The sheer intractable daunting fact of them and the sweat and toil they demand are a metaphor for life, for every torturous journey and impossible task Stan and Ollie face. The piano, borne between them, is their burden, and as each needs the other to carry it, working in tandem, with full co-operation, as they do here, we see it represents their relationship – it is their birthright, which they must transport unharmed to its proper destination.”
To any rational mind, lugging the piano down to the street, simply in order to drive it back up the road is absolutely absurd. What it does do though, is to unequivocally confirm the mentality and the commitment of Stan and Ollie, that they must do their best and they must do it right, no matter how long it takes or the effort that is required.
The final reel contains one further challenge for the boys. As there appears to be nobody home, they must now find a way to enter the house and complete the task of delivering the piano.
There are a number of films in the Laurel and Hardy canon, in which Stan and Ollie have the task of finding a way into a house, and they never fail to make this an entertaining spectacle. Here these sequences are once again very inventive, extremely well-executed, and downright hilarious.
One type of creative and effective gag, used here and in a number of the boys’ films, is that of the ‘hidden injury’. For instance, when Ollie is stooped unseen behind the piano and Stan walks into the shot carrying a ladder. The end of the ladder disappears from sight as it travels behind the piano and comes to a sudden full stop, followed immediately by a yell of pain from Ollie. Ollie stands up holding his eye, which has obviously just been rammed by the foot of the ladder. Just as in previous films, such as Unaccustomed As We Are and Another Fine Mess, where Stan flies dramatically out of shot and down a flight of stairs, this tactic of leaving the moment of impact and injury to the viewers’ imagination is a touch of genius and is far more effective than if they attempted to show all the gruesome detail. What’s more, it was cheap to shoot and would likely keep Mr. Ginsberg happy.
More hilarity ensues as the boys spot an open door on a first-floor veranda and attempt to lift the piano with their trusty block and tackle. Once in the house, it’s not long before they both fall off another veranda and end up floating in a decorative pond, along with the piano. The studio’s Press Sheet mentions this very scene and provides a little more detailed information:
“All the pleasures of a morning bath were experienced by Laurel and Hardy in what appears to be a very uncomfortable accident in ‘THE MUSIC BOX’… Both comedians are subjected to an untimely bath in an outdoor pool. The water was kept at a 65 degree temperature so neither Laurel and Hardy suffered undue shock or discomfort.”
Once inside, the boys begin to open the piano’s crate, but as it’s now full of pond water, they flood the owner’s room as the water is released. This entire reel is simply delightful, with many hilarious gags, looks to camera, reactions, and tit-for-tat fights. Perhaps one of the highlights of the whole picture is the wonderful little soft shoe-shuffle performed by them both, as they get busy tidying up the place. The dance is in time with the music played automatically by the player piano and as Randy Skretvedt confirms, it was to the tune ‘The Arkansas Traveler‘ and was played in real-time, just off-camera by T. Marvin Hatley.
Eventually, after the boys have wrecked most of the room, the homeowner arrives and it is none other than the aggravated toff from the steps, Professor Von Schwarzenhoffen (Billy Gilbert). The Professor is understandably incensed when he sees the state of his house and he becomes even more livid when he sees Stan, Ollie and the piano.
Billy’s contribution to The Music Box is exceptional and is arguably his best performance, certainly in a Laurel and Hardy picture. But, according to an interview with Billy in Pratfall Magazine (Vol. 1, No.3, 1969), he was originally slated to do more than act in the film.
“Billy’s role in The Music Box, like Topsy, “just grew,” He was originally the writer and director, but the search to find a proper owner for the house proved frustrating. In his efforts to convey what he wanted from a performer, Billy was so convincing that it was decided he should play the part. It is universally agreed that no one could have begun to match his performance.”
Billy’s story may have been a little enhanced in order to romanticize and/or embellish the story, or perhaps his 76-year-old memory was just a little unreliable, but as Leo M. Brooks points out, in his book, The Laurel and Hardy Stock Company:
“There is no record that Gilbert was ever considered for the director’s role. He had no film directing experience and Hal was using James Parrott for all of the boys’ films, at that time.”
Whatever the background, Gilbert’s role of the Professor is truly memorable as he works himself into a fit of pique over the situation before him. To say he is less than pleased with his delivery is something of an understatement. “A piano!! I hate and detest pianos! They are mechanical blunderbusses!!” he spits.
Before long, the Professor is frenziedly hacking the piano to pieces with an axe, stopping only as the piano begins to blurt out, “The Star-Spangled Banner“. All three men pause to salute the national anthem, until the crazed homeowner becomes sensible of the situation and continues to destroy the object of his rage – the piano that had been delivered to him by mistake.
The film ends with the Professor’s wife returning home and she sees her husband standing amongst the wreckage, axe in hand. She corrects him, that it wasn’t a mistake at all, that she’d bought the piano for him as a birthday present. In a fleeting moment of remorse for his actions, Gilbert goes to sign for the piano, but Stan’s pen squirts ink all over the Professor’s face and he chases the boys out of his home and the film fades to black.
As one may expect, for a picture of this quality, The Music Box was received enthusiastically on its release.
“Laurel and Hardy again, and again supplying an unusual number of laughs for all and sundry. The combination of more than a little slapstick, as the pair know how to handle that comedic form and numerous amusing lines well spaced and well rendered, aid in making this an exceptionally amusing comedy…Unusually long for a comedy, it is worth the extra length.” Motion Picture Herald, March 12th, 1932
“Laurel and Hardy Also Has Crowd Roaring: If you want to laugh loud and hearty, (and who doesn’t) Laurel and Hardy’s “The Music Box” will have an effect on you that you haven’t a care in the world. You can’t go wrong on this one.” Shamokin News Dispatch, April 26th, 1932
“Completing the program of “All Laugh Week” at Loew’s is a new and undoubtedly the best Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy comedy called “The Music Box”. Half again as long as their ordinary comedies, according to advance reports it has sent many audiences out of the theatres with their sides aching…” The Morning News, June 1st, 1932
“Three reels of Stan and Oliver delivering and installing an electric piano, up and down the same flight of steps they delivered that washing machine four years ago. Same old hokum, same old gags, same old audience reaction – they loved it.” Delmar Theatre, Morrill, Nebraska in Motion Picture Herald, July 29th, 1932
Praise for The Music Box was overwhelmingly positive. What’s more, the film was actually honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the winner of the ‘Best Short Subject (Comedy)’ for 1931-32. This was the only time that one of Stan and Babe’s pictures won an Academy Award, and a large part of the credit for landing this award needs to be attributed to none other than the man Stan Laurel nick-named ‘The Expediter’, Henry Ginsberg.
The reason was that, prior to 1932, the Academy did not include short subjects in its award categories. As Craig Calman reveals in his book, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach, this all changed due to a letter sent by Ginsberg to the Academy, dated July 5th, 1932, in which he suggested short subjects deserved their attention and recognition.
“Would it not be in keeping with the Academy’s purpose to include in your yearly awards some token of recognition for the accomplishments of the comedy and short subject producer, player, writer and director?”
Clearly, the Academy agreed with Ginsberg’s suggestion and responded by inviting submissions for consideration for the forthcoming awards ceremony that coming November. This development was recorded in The Film Daily on August 22nd, 1932:
“Recognition of the short subject by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hereafter will include an award in this class, will act as a stimulating influence in efforts to make better shorts, says Henry Ginsberg, general manager of the Hal Roach Studios. “When it is considered that short subjects constitute at least 40 percent of a theater’s performance, the significance of this type of entertainment becomes apparent,” states Ginsberg. “Many of today’s star players and directors in the feature field were developed in the ranks of the short comedy, and the Academy’s action not only will give an impetus to these artists, but it will encourage producers of shorts generally to strive for more novel, more individualistic and more entertaining subjects”.
More than fifty short films were submitted for consideration, from seventeen studios, with only three prizes up for grabs. Laurel and Hardy bagged the award for Best Short Comedy, Walt Disney’s Flowers and Trees won for Best Animated Short and Mack Sennett’s, Wrestling Swordfish took the prize for Best Novelty Short.
Further acknowledging the film’s importance, in 1997 the National Film Preservation Board recognised its cultural, historic or aesthetic significance by choosing The Music Box for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Today the magic of The Music Box endures and remains at the top of many fans’ lists of their favourite Laurel and Hardy pictures. Not only that, on Vendome Street, located in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, the steps themselves have also survived the intervening years of progress and development and have become a site of special pilgrimage for movie fans. An official sign denoting ‘Music Box Steps‘ is in place, making the site easy to locate and a commemorative plaque has been installed at the foot of the steps, informing all passers-by of the historical importance of this simple but iconic landmark.
Is The Music Box your favourite Laurel and Hardy film? Let me know your thoughts on this classic short.