A lumber yard laborer and a blackmailer cross paths on the way to the same destination and, you guessed it, chaos ensues. One of many films Stan Laurel made as a solo comedian while trying to capture the fancy of the moviegoing public.
Home Media Availability: Released on Bluray
I’ll also be covering the 1933 film Busy Bodies, in which Laurel revisited his lumber yard setting.
Stage veteran Stan Laurel had been trying to make it in the movies for a decade before he was fatefully paired with Oliver Hardy in the 1927 comedy Duck Soup. Like Charlie Chaplin, Laurel was a member for the Fred Karno music hall troupe and the men had been colleagues but Chaplin’s overnight success was the stuff of movie legend while Laurel tried and tried again.
Chaplin, of course, captured the fancy of 1910s moviegoers by tapping into the potent blend of laughter, tears and social issues that exactly fit the taste of the time and remains popular worldwide. Stan Laurel’s comedy was and is more elusive. There’s wordplay and slapstick and then there’s something generally called “white magic,” the surreal bending of time and space and, at times, a little trip into the metaphysical. This combination of classic comedy and baffling obscure gags has kept Laurel’s screen presence fresh for over a century, but such a delicately balanced brew cannot be crafted overnight.
Some of Laurel’s solo comedies are brilliant. Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde is one of my favorite comedies of all time, silent or sound. But others were more misses than hits, all the parts in place but the flivver not quite firing on all cylinders. Where does The Egg fall? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? (I make no apologies.)
The picture opens with Fifth Avenue conman, Gerald Stone (Colin Kenny), scheming to take over a lumber company by planting marked bills in the safe and then calling the Secret Service, as one does. On Filth Avenue, Humpty Dumpty, aka the Egg, (Stan Laurel) is preparing for his day working at the same lumber yard.
(By the way, “egg” just meant “a guy” or possibly even a “swell guy” during this period. We still use it in the sense of “good egg” and “bad egg” but just plain “egg” doesn’t really see much use these days.)
The Egg accidentally ends up in possession of an incriminating letter detailing Stone’s scheme, which he pockets and then goes about his day at work. Or he would except he’s late and the brutal foreman (Tom Kennedy) thrashes anyone coming into work after the whistle blows. After a few workplace antics that would make OSHA pull out its hair, Stone rears his ugly head and it’s up to the Egg to save the day.
The Egg is a busy picture that never quite decides what it wants to be but enough gags land to make for an amusing two-reeler. The Stone conspiracy is never entirely clear and seems to have been basically included in order to end the film with a romantic clutch, something that Laurel never seemed to be particularly comfortable with.
The two highlights of the picture are the opening scene introducing the characters and the moment when the Egg finds himself leading a worker’s revolt.
The film begins by showing Stone and the Egg in the midst of their morning preparation: nothing but the best for Fifth Avenue and whatever can be scraped together for Filth Avenue. A chauffeured car for Stone, a begged ride on the back of a produce truck for the Egg. Cutting back and forth between rich and poor characters to humorously contrast their preparations has always been a winning gag. (A more modern example would be Bruce Wayne dressing in his automated arsenal while Selina Kyle struggles to put on her homemade Catwoman costume in her dinky car in Batman Returns.)
Unfortunately, having humorously established the contrast between Stone and the Egg, the film pretty much forgets about it and the two characters barely interact with one another at all after the sequence in the traffic stop. Sure, the Egg burns Stone’s britches and then reveals his treachery but the scenario doesn’t seem to know whether it is trying to humorously show Stone being brought down by an invisible little guy or if it’s just going to be a plain black hat-white hat affair. Stone simply isn’t featured enough for the picture to make that kind of connection and all the good work in the opening is lost.
The workers revolting at the lumber yard later in the picture can be seen as a preview of Laurel’s later work with the Egg shouting mixed metaphors to the angry crowd via intertitle. Mashing together common sayings was a Stan Laurel specialty in the sound era (“You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be lead”), as was a selection of malaprops (“Like two peas in a pot!”).
There is also a nice bit of business in which Laurel’s hand is smashed with a hammer and swells. After he dunks it in water to shrink it back down, he counts his fingers, sees only four, panics and then realizes he has tucked his thumb in. Innocent confusion was always where he excelled as a comedian.
So, as you can tell, I had a pretty good time with this picture in spite of a few flaws. While it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of some of his other solo work, The Egg still has plenty of Laurel goodness for his fans and devotees of silent comedy.
Where can I see it?
Released on Bluray as part of Flicker Alley’s Laurel or Hardy collection.
Double Feature: Busy Bodies (1933)
Stan Laurel was never afraid to recycle gags and sometimes entire screenplays. Duck Soup was remade as Another Fine Mess in the sound era, for example, and it had been based on a plot written by Laurel’s father. While Busy Bodies isn’t really a direct remake of The Egg, it’s quite possible that Laurel spent the intervening years thinking of ways to make better use of a lumber yard setting. Laurel had a talent for extracting every drop of comedy juice from a concept and there was plenty of it left in woodworking.
The plot, what there is of it, can be summed up easily: Stan and Ollie have good jobs at a lumber yard but practical jokes, workplace accidents, a sawdust chute and some very strong shellac make working all but impossible. It’s a bare skeleton designed to hang gags on, no real villains, no angry wives and relatively little dialogue.
Busy Bodies demonstrates how Laurel’s comedic abilities had gotten even better in the eleven years that had passed since The Egg. While the silent film did make use of the lumber yard’s various perils to create comedy, most of them were fairly obvious. The brutal boss, multiple backsides singed with hot implements, etc. Busy Bodies contains far more creative fine messes for the Boys with the highlight of the picture being Ollie getting both hands stuck in the window frame he is building and Stan trying to rescue him but only managing to twist him like a pretzel.
In The Egg, the seat of the villains trousers is accidentally burned away by our hero and he fails to notice. Later, he makes time with a pretty lady, who is horrified when he turns to leave. Funny enough. In Busy Bodies, Stan accidentally sands a strip off the rear of Ollie’s overalls with a hand plane and then attempts to glue it back on, averting his eyes modestly. Now, that is comedy gold.
The shop foreman in this later picture is still a bruiser (Tiny Sandford this time) but more of a weapon to be deployed against the pugnacious Charlie Hall. That is, until the duo’s antics become too outrageous to ignore during the finale!
The film also demonstrates Hardy’s contributions to the team’s magic. Busy Bodies has physical comedy that is just as violent as anything in The Egg and Laurel is more often the aggressor in this latest film. In fact, it’s a bit of a throwback to the rougher solo Laurel and silent Laurel and Hardy with Stan throwing punches and laying traps. Hardy, meanwhile, is basically having the worst possible day at work, made worse by the “help” of his best friend.
There’s a wonderful piece of business when Stan slaps Ollie in the face with a shellacking brush and it sticks like a beard. An impromptu shave is called for and Stan uses a hose to wet the brush, then hands the running hose to Ollie to hold. There’s a bit more fiddling around and when the preparations to shave are all in order, Stan turns off the water. It’s pure throwaway but the look on Hardy’s face when he realizes that he has been holding that hose for no good reason is priceless. Even funnier is when he thanks Stan for turning it off. Yet another example of that delicate balance of humor that was the secret to the duo’s success.
The decision to jettison the blackmail plot (or any plot, for that matter) from the lumber yard setting means that there’s nothing but Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy and a whole lot of power tools and I, for one, applaud the decision.
Both films amuse. This is definitely a double feature that I can recommend!
Availability: Busy Bodies was released on Bluray as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations.
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