The Music Box (1932) Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy. Directed by James Parrott. Written by H.M. Walker. Produced by Hal Roach. Black and White. U.S.A. Run time: 29 minutes. Comedy
One of the most famous comedy duos in film history was the pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Known as Laurel and Hardy, the two would make 107 shorts, films and cameo appearances over a career that lasted from 1927 until Hardy’s death in 1957. It’s hard to pick one film out of that body of work to say was their best. The short The Music Box would certainly be in the running.
Like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel was a Brit by birth and, still using his real name Stan Jefferson, was also a member of Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, along with a young Chaplin, sometimes serving as his understudy. In fact, Stan accompanied Chaplin when the troupe made the tour of the U.S. that would lead to Chaplin’s signing with Mack Sennett.
Stan, still known as Stan Jefferson, made his first film in 1917, Nuts in May. For a time, Stan was what was called a Chaplin imitator, appearing in films dressed like Chaplin’s tramp. In 1921, he would appear for the first time with Oliver Hardy in a film, The Lucky Dog, but it would be six more years before they would be teamed together by Hal Roach.
Oliver Hardy got into the film business in 1910, but as a projectionist, ticket taker, janitor and manager at the film theater in his home town of Milledgeville, Georgia. Convinced he could be a better actor than some of the ones he saw on screen, Hardy got the acting bug. He first moved to Jacksonville, Florida, at a friends’ suggestion, since there was some early film production there. His first film was Outwitting Dad (1914) and in 1915, he would appear in 50 one-reelers for the Lubin studio.
After working in New York and Jacksonville, Hardy moved to Los Angeles in 1917. Working freelance for various studios in Hollywood, Hardy would make 40 films for the Vitagraph studios. 6’1” and weighing up to 300 pounds, Hardy was often cast as the heavy in many of those films. In 1924, Hardy began working for Hal Roach.
Meanwhile, Laurel was making films for producer Joe Rock, signing a contract to make 12 two-reeler comedies. Rock’s only stipulation was that Laurel’s girlfriend and comedy partner, Mae Dahlberg, could not appear in any of the films, whom Rock thought was hindering Laurel’s work and career. Rock even offered her cash and a one-way ticket back to her native Australia, an offer she accepted, to leave Laurel alone.
After his contract with Rock was fulfilled, Laurel began to work for Hal Roach, where he concentrated more on writing and directing films, including Yes, Yes Nanette (1926) starring Hardy. An injury to Hardy would bring Laurel back into acting. The two would work together in Sipping Wives, Duck Soup and With Love and Hisses, all in 1927. Leo McCarey, the supervising director at Roach Studios, began teaming them together from then on.
As a team they would make 34 silent shorts. While they began making films with synchronized music and sound effects in 1928, their first sound short was Unaccustomed As We Are (1929) with Edgar Kennedy, Mae Busch and Thelma Todd appearing in support. After making another silent short, Double Whoopee (1928) with Jean Harlow making an appearance, they would go on to make 45 sound shorts and 27 feature films.
The Music Box was one of eight shorts the team would make in 1932 and was a partial remake of an earlier short they made in 1927, Hats Off, now considered a lost film. In that film, the two men play unsuccessful washing machine salesmen. Thinking they have a hot lead, the two carry a washing machine up a large flight of steps only to find that the would-be buyer only wants them to post a letter for her. Shooting on the same steps in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, the washing machine became a player piano.
|A still from Hats Off (1927). In this film, Laurel and Hardy haul around a washing machine, not a piano.|
The film opens with a woman (Gladys Gale) in a piano store, ordering a player piano as a surprise gift for her husband, whose birthday it is today. She tells the piano salesman (William Gillespie) that her address is 1127 Walnut Avenue. The shop keeper then hires Laurel and Hardy, who had pooled their $3.80 to start a horse-drawn transfer company, to deliver the piano.
The duo asks a postman (Charlie Hall), out on his rounds, if he knows where the address is located. He points up a long flight of steps and indicates that it’s at the very top. Obviously novices at the job, Laurel and Hardy get to work, first off-loading the piano onto Hardy’s back, which sounds like a dumb idea and is made worse when the horse moves forward. Laurel has to pull the piano off his fallen and trapped partner.
|Postman (Charlie Hall) points to the address Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are looking for ...|
|...at the top of the infamous stairway.|
About halfway up, the boys run into a nursemaid (Lilyan Irene) pushing a baby buggy coming down. In their attempt to let her pass, the piano, which seems to have a mind of its own, slides back down the stairs. When she gets to the bottom of the stairs, the boys don’t appreciate her laughing at their predicament. In frustration, Laurel kicks her in the backside. She punches him back and hits Hardy over the head with a nearby milk bottle.
|Laurel kicks the nursemaid (Lilyan Irene) after she laughs at their predicament.|
She leaves and Laurel and Hardy start hefting the piano back up the stairs. The woman, meanwhile, tells the beat patrolman (Sam Lufkin) about her run-in with the pair and he promises to handle the situation.
The boys are again pretty far up the stairs when the policeman arrives and calls them down. Hardy sends Laurel down to find out what the policeman wants, which turns out to be “the other monkey,” Hardy. The policeman hands out some street justice, kicking Hardy twice in mistaken punishment for having kicked the woman. When Laurel asks if perhaps the policeman was "bounding over his steps," i.e. stepping over his bounds, the policeman hits him with his nightstick as an answer. Meanwhile, the piano has chased Hardy down the stairs so the boys dutifully start to carry it back up the stairs again.
|Hardy gets chased down the stairs by the piano.|
This time up, they run into Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen, M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F-F-F-and-F (Billy Gilbert), who is, naturally, going down. When Hardy suggests that the professor just step around them, he gets quite belligerent and demands that they move the piano to let him pass. Laurel makes things worse by taking his top hat off his head and tossing it down the stairs. It glides all the way down to the street, where it is run over by a passing vehicle. The Professor storms off, promising to get the two boys arrested.
|Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen's (Billy Gilbert) way is blocked by the piano.|
The boys ignore him and go back to their job, this time making it all the way up the stairs and then some. Hardy is walking backwards and steps up and into a decorative fountain. Getting him and the piano out of the water, the two ring the bell at the house. Not only is there no one home, but the piano rolls away and, of course, back down the long staircase. But this time, Hardy manages to grab it, only to be dragged all the way down to the street.
|All the way up the stairs and into the fountain.|
After dragging it back up again, the two run into the Postman, who informs them that they could have simply followed the street up to the house. Instead of putting that information away for another time, Laurel and Hardy dutifully take the piano back down the hill, put it on the horse drawn carriage and drive it up to the house.
|They take the piano down the stairs and back up the hill on the horse drawn carriage.|
There is still no one home, and instead of leaving it by the front door, they notice an open door on the balcony right above the front door. Hardy has the idea that Laurel can climb up to the balcony and they could lift it up to the second floor and carry it down to the first floor. Laurel climbs up the ladder and, using the flimsy frame of an overhang, manages with Hardy’s help, and using a block and tackle, to hoist it up. With the piano on the balcony, he drops the block and tackle on Hardy’s head, knocking him off the ladder but through the apparently unlocked front door.
|Laurel manages to hoist the piano up to the balcony.|
After much confusion and one more trip for all three into the fountain, Laurel and Hardy manage to get the piano into the house. When they uncrate it to set it up, out of the box rushes hundreds of gallons of water, which Laurel tries to clean up with his handkerchief, which is a monumental losing effort. With the piano finally out of the crate, the boys start to pick up the pieces of the crate, with each dutifully picking up a piece and putting it a pile that the other one is also picking up a piece and putting it in the other’s stack.
|Hardy, Laurel and the piano all end up in the fountain.|
In walks the Professor who lives there, still fuming from their previous encounter. He is not happy about the damage they’ve done to his house and to his living room. And he doesn’t like pianos either, so much that he takes an ax to the one they delivered. His destruction is only halted when his wife returns home and tells him that the piano was a gift from her to him as a surprise birthday present. Now he loves it and tries to make amends with the boys by signing for the delivery. But alas, the fountain pen, as they do in these sort of comedies shoots ink, into his face. As the professor fumes, Laurel and Hardy make their escape.
|The Professor takes an axe to the piano.|
The Music Box was well received and would win the first Academy Award for Live Action Short Film (Comedy). This is a film that allows novices access into the world of Laurel and Hardy. To put it mildly, the film is funny. You can sense the chemistry of the two leads who work together like a well-oiled comedy machine. There is a synchronicity in their movements that only looks natural with familiarity and practice.
Now there is definitely a bit of the dumb leading the dumb at work here, with Hardy usually in charge, even if it’s solely by his size. And while there is slapstick humor, it’s more of a thinking man’s version, rather than the endless punching and poking of the type the Three Stooges are famous for.
Laurel and Hardy are sort of like two big kids in adult bodies, so you have to see their actions in that light. When Laurel kicks the nurse in the behind, it’s not an anti-woman statement, but rather an act of a frustrated child, who, after having been out-witted, in a sense, can only lash out physically.
And like children, they don’t like being made fun of, which is why they take the piano all the way back down the hill, in order to deliver it the proper way. So no joke on them. And they only break into the house in order to finish the delivery, not for any maleficence. (There are others of their films where this isn’t necessarily true.)
Billy Gilbert, who played the professor, was a discovery of Laurel’s, who spotted him in the show Sensations of 1929. Gilbert would go on to appear in not only Laurel and Hardy films, including County Hospital (1935), but also in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935). He would also do voice work for Walt Disney, voicing Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). He would also appear in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) as Herring, a parody of Hermann Göring and in the small, but vital role of Joe Pettibone in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940). A great comedy character actor, his talents are not all on display here, but no one can forget Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen, M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F-F-F-and-F.
If you’ve never seen The Music Box, there is no reason not to. The film provides a glimpse into a simpler time in not only Hollywood comedy, but in the world at large. There is an earnestness to Laurel and Hardy’s work that one doesn’t always find now. And while so many comedians wear out their welcome before their careers are over, Laurel and Hardy definitely left everyone wanting more.