The Music Box
Written and filmed December, 1931. Released by MGM, April, 1932. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by James Parrott. Three reels.

Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Billy Gilbert, Lilyan Irene, Sam Lufkin, Charlie Hall, William Gillespie, Gladys Gale.

STORY: Laurel and Hardy are to deliver a piano to a house which sits atop an enormous flight of stairs. Their attempts to carry the piano up the stairs results in it rolling and crashing into the street below several times, often with Ollie in tow. They finally succeed in getting the piano in the house, where they make a shambles of the living room. The owner of the house, Professor Theordore Von Schwarzenhoffen, returns and is outraged at what he finds. He attacks the piano with an axe, but regrets his actions when he discovers it was a present from his wife.
To the right: A historical quartet, the likes of which we will never see again: Stan Laurel, Walt Disney, Hal Roach and Babe Hardy, from the Hal Roach Studios' 20th Anniversary party, December 7th, 1933.  Thanks to Randy Skretvedt, author of Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies, for clearing up which event this photo is from!

    The only Laurel and Hardy film to be honored with an Academy Award, for "Best Comedy Short Subject" 1931-32.  It beat out Mack Sennett's The Loud Mouth starring Ray Cooke and Franklin Pangborne, and RKO's Scratch-as-Catch-Can which featured James Finlayson.  Tit for Tat was the only other Laurel and Hardy film ever nominated for a Best Short Subject Award, in 1935.

     The Music Box was a quasi-remake of their lost silent film Hats Off, in which The Boys deliver a washing machine to the top of the very same steps.  In 1941, The Three Stooges borrowed the premise and used a similar set of stairs to deliver ice in An Ache in Every Stake.


JL: As John B. and I have noted, this is the one Laurel & Hardy classic that perhaps does not lend itself to repeated viewings as much as other masterpieces such as Hog Wild, Helpmates and Towed in a Hole.  This, however, does not diminish the stature of The Music Box, for it is one of their grandest and funniest showcase vehicles, a perfect encapsulation of all that is great about L&H's brand of comedy.  It is as timeless as the legend of Sisyphus, from which this film (intentionally or not) derives.

     Dialogue is at a minimum here.  It is instead a film composed of one classic visual image after another.  The steps, the piano, the falls in the pond, the block and tackle clanging on Ollie's head...even the horse is afforded a few priceless takes.  Lending substance to the imagery are the characters of Stan and Ollie themselves.  They are perhaps more dense here than usual (if such a thing is possible), but their sweet and sincere nature renders their brainless actions endearing, rather than exasperating.

     The Music Box is also a film in which sloppy editing is actually an asset.  The abrupt jump cuts, in which continuity was apparently of no concern, enhance the comic pace and nonsensical mood.  Although the focus of the film is on the same repeated action (moving the piano up and down the steps), it never stagnates or becomes tedious.  The boys may be stuck in place, but the film is always forward-moving.

     Of all the classic Laurel & Hardy films, it is The Music Box that is most often placed on a pedestal as a representative example of Golden Age slapstick.  It deserves such stature, even if the boys made films that were more fun and more conducive to frequent viewing.  Because it is a less personal and more mass-appeal film, few longtime fans will cite it as their favorite -- yet those same fans will acknowledge they never made a better one.  If you are new to L&H, it is one of the first films you should see.

JB: The Music Box is similar to Big Business in that the extremely minimalistic storyline gives it an appeal that reaches outside the audience of Laurel and Hardy fans and captures the imagination of just about anybody within twenty feet of it while it is showing.  There have been other L&H comedies just as minimalistic in their approach: Busy Bodies, for one, or Me and My Pal. But The Music Box and Big Business concern grand themes and human struggles, whereas those other films concern the Boys playing with tools and being distracted by a puzzle.  The Music Box, on the other hand, is a comic essay about an irresistable force (Stan and Ollie's determination to move the piano) meeting an immovable object (the piano, which actually moves, but never quite in the direction the Boys want it to).  Throw in the symbolism of man's endless struggle to ascend to greater heights plus the legend of Sysyphus and his rock, and it's no wonder wonky eggheads who otherwise wouldn't give two hoots about Laurel and Hardy still recall The Music Box fondly.  It's also no wonder some fans (like us) feel the need to point out that there are better Laurel and Hardy films out there.  With the amount of praise heaped upon at The Music Box through the years and it being the only L&H film to win an Academy Award, it can make some fans begin to cynically resent that this one is up on the world's pedestal and not, say, Them Thar Hills or even a run-of-the-mill laugh riot like Going Bye-Bye!

     The Music Box is a rare three-reeler from the Boys.  Normally, their shorts lasted twenty minutes, long enough for them to milk a situation for all it was worth but short enough that, with rare exceptions, they didn't run out of funny things to do.  It doesn't seem possible, however, that any comedians, even Laurel and Hardy, could take this premise - moving a piano up a flight of stairs and into a house - and play with it for a full half hour without exhausting the comic possibilities.  But they do it.  The key is once they get you hooked, they play out the long flight of stairs just enough.  One more trip up or down those stairs and we would start looking at our watches.  But the stairs is only half the film.  Once they get up to the house, remarkably, it gets even funnier.  The stairs is what everybody recalls in awe and wonder and fondness, but my favorite parts happen in and around the house.  There are few more gut-bustingly funny moments in their entire body of work than Ollie falling out the second floor window into a pond, followed by the piano falling on top of him.  There's also more pure L&H by-play in the latter half of the film, with the Boys mixing up their hats, getting confused with doors, windows and each other, and making a wreck of the poor Professor's living room inside of three minutes.  There is a hilarious moment where Ollie plugs in the player piano and gets a shock from the electrical outlet (no doubt because they managed to flood the room moments before.) What makes this one of the best moments in the film for me is Ollie's reaction: a yelp of pain followed by him leaping into the nearest chair and curling up in a protective fetal position, waiting for even more punishment and pain to befall him. 

     Laurel and Hardy were so good at what they did, it was inevitable that at least one of their films (if not more) would eventually be recognized by their peers and given the big prize.  It turned out to be The Music Box.  That award may have inflated its reputation, but only slightly.  With or without the Oscar, The Music Box is still one of the greatest Laurel and Hardy comedies ever.  It just isn't the greatest.

Copyright © 2012 John Larrabee, John V. Brennan

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