Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy try their hand at grave-robbing when a mad scientist offers them $500 for a fresh corpse. Grim and ghostly mayhem ensues when the pair try to snatch the occupant of a new grave.
One of the most impressive things about the teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is how quickly their partnership and screen characters gelled. In March of 1927, Duck Soup was released and showcased the Laurel and Hardy chemistry for the first time. By November of the same year, the duo were a proper team with bowler hats and everything. By the time Habeas Corpus was released in December of 1928, the duo seemed like they had been together for decades.
The plot is a little dark, to say the least. Professor Padilla (Richard Carle) has an experiment that simply calls for a cadaver. Sure, he could get one the normal way through a medical school or the like but Padilla is off his rocker. He decides to hire some men to dig up a fresh corpse from a nearby graveyard.
And you’ll never guess who knocks on his door just at that moment.
(The plot of this picture is sometime compared to the story of serial killers Burke and Hare as it concerns two men obtaining a corpse for a scientist. However, the boys aren’t interested in murder, they just want to snatch a corpse as a one-off and they’re not too keen on that task.)
Stan and Ollie have come to borrow a piece of buttered toast and are interested in Padilla’s offer of $500 for a corpse (that’s about $7,000 in modern cash). Stan has misgiving seeing as the professor is ashing his cigarette into his waistcoat pocket but Ollie declares that the professor is “just as mentally sound as you or I.”
As it turns out, Ledoux (Charley Rogers), Padilla’s butler, is actually an undercover cop assigned to keep an eye on the old loon. As corpse-snatching is a definite no-no, the professor is taken away and Ledoux sets out to stop the grave robbery already in progress. To that end, he dresses himself in a white sheet and sneaks into the cemetery ahead of the boys.
The rest of the short is taken up with attempts to enter the graveyard and get that corpse. At one point, Ollie shimmies up a pole with Stan pushing his backside—but at the top of the pole is a wet paint sign. Ollie spends the rest of the short with a white stripe down his front and Stan’s handprints on his fanny. Later, Stan tries to scale the brick wall surrounding the graveyard but can’t quite figure out how a leg up works. William K. Everson dismissed these gags as standard slapstick but I think Stan and Ollie add enough of their magic to make them fresh.
As stated before, Laurel and Hardy are completely in character. While I find that some of their silent comedies are a little rougher than their sound work, Habeas Corpus could be mistaken for one of their 1930s productions if it had total synchronized sound. Stan is delightfully dim but still has the right idea to steer clear of Professor Padilla. Ollie, meanwhile, puts all his misgiving aside for a grab at the brass ring of $500. Naturally, this all leads to another fine mess but that’s what we’ve come to see.
While some of the gags drag a bit, this short is generally fast-paced and zippy. Supervised by Leo McCarey, directed by James Parrott and with titles by H.M. “Beanie” Walker, this short has all the usual suspects behind the camera and the team pulls it all together beautifully. (In his book The Complete Films of Laurel and Hardy, Everson states that McCarey was the sole director of the film.)
Habeas Corpus is also notable as an early Hal Roach title with a sound-on-disc score. The movie is still silent as the soundtrack discs contain only music and sound effects, similar to the release of Don Juan a few years before. It’s a highly effective score, though it does not contain the famous Laurel and Hardy sound. One of the pieces featured is Funeral March of a Marionette by Charles Gounod. If it sounds familiar, Alfred Hitchcock used it for his television show but the piece was actually written in 1872 and was a perennial choice for that scary/funny tone.
The discs were thought lost for decades (this is a common issue with early talkies as a good number of them stored image and sound on separate media) but they were found at last and reunited with the film. I have to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the music. I usually find early soundtracks to be a bit of a chore but this one is light, fun and appropriate. Maybe writing something spooooooky inspired better music.
It doesn’t seem to be discussed as often as their other comedy ingredients but Laurel and Hardy did show a penchant for the macabre and morbid and their films. Oliver the Eighth, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and Do Detectives Think? all include dark elements and they are by no means the only titles to do so.
The boys were employed by a different mad scientist in Dirty Work (1933) and it contains the wonderful quote: “Somewhere an electric chair is waiting.” They would also deal with a white sheeted “ghost” in an extended chase scene in A Chump at Oxford. In a 1925 Hal Roach comedy entitled Moonlight and Noses, Clyde Cook and Noah Young attempt to steal a body from a graveyard. Laurel wrote and directed the picture but, alas, a complete copy does not survive.
Habeas Corpus is on the darker end of the Laurel and Hardy canon but hardly out of place. The boys are completely in character and most of the gags land beautifully. In fact, I would call this one of their stronger silent era efforts. I showed it to a large group at a family gathering (we are all Laurel and Hardy fanatics) and I’m fairly certain we disturbed the neighbors with our laughter. Highly recommended, grade-A silent comedy.
Where can I see it?
Habeas Corpus was released on DVD in the fifth volume of The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy. It features the original synchronized score. I should also note that a small box is visible in the lower right corner throughout (you can see it in my screen caps), which I am guessing is probably the hide a logo that was burned into the transfer.
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