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The first film to win an Academy Award in the Best Comedy Short Subject category and perhaps the best known Laurel and Hardy short of all, The Music Box (1932) features a staircase that is nearly as famous in film history as the Odessa Steps of Battleship Potemkin (1925). The duo play a couple of movers consigned to hauling a cumbersome player piano up a gigantic set of stairs running from street level to a house high above. Any further description of the plot, such as it is, would be superfluous. As with any Laurel and Hardy comedy, the beauty lies in watching the team work out one hilarious routine after another. Although one of the longer shorts for its time - 30 minutes or a full three reels instead of the typical two - the bare bones plotline remains endlessly entertaining, thanks to a variety of sight gags and a steady flow of characters punctuating different segments of the story.
The story is essentially a remake of a long-lost Laurel and Hardy silent short, Hats Off (1927), which had the boys lugging a washing machine up and down the same flight of stairs. That famous staircase can be visited to this day, now tucked between houses and yards in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. It was the subject of a years-long hunt by dedicated fans of the comedy team. A magazine called Pratfall, devoted to all things Laurel and Hardy, published a photo in 1970 of Billy Gilbert, co-star of The Music Box, with some fans and magazine staffers at a location they assumed to be the one they were looking for. It turned out to be a very similar set of stairs located on the OPPOSITE side of the hill and had been used by the Three Stooges playing ice deliverymen in An Ache in Every Stake (1941), a picture that owes quite a lot of its inspiration to The Music Box. It was a while longer before the actual stairs were located between the garages of 923 and 937 Vendome St. (near Del Monte). In 1994 a plaque commemorating the film location was unveiled at the base of the stairs as part of a celebration marking the 67th anniversary of the Hats Off release date. Finding the house at the top of the stairs, however, will prove to be a far more elusive task. "1127 Walnut St." does not exist - in fact there's no such street up there. The house shots were done in the studio.
The inspiration to build a comedy around those steps apparently came to producer Hal Roach even before Hats Off. The location was used in a Charley Chase two-reeler produced by Roach and directed by Leo McCarey, Isn't Life Terrible? (1925), which also featured Fay Wray and Oliver Hardy in one of his ventures without Stan Laurel. And they may have also figured in a Laurel solo, as a door-to-door salesman in The Pest (1922), as well as in a chase scene in one of Roach's "Our Gang" comedies, A Quiet Street (1922). It's not certain that the stairs used in those last two are the same as the ones in The Music Box, but it's a testament to the indelible imagery of that location that one can't see such a setting without thinking of Laurel and Hardy. In fact, the image is so much a part of our shared film history that the acclaimed writer Ray Bradbury built two stories around it. In "Another Fine Mess," the author had the boys' ghosts traversing the steps after dark, and in "The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair," a couple of lovers arrange regular picnics at the foot of the staircase. Bradbury was a lifelong devotee of Laurel and Hardy who many times related his thrill at seeing the duo perform live in Dublin in the late 1940s.
Laurel and Hardy made something of a cottage industry out of destroying pianos in such films as Big Business (1929), Wrong Again (1929), Beau Hunks (1931), and Dirty Work (1933). They hauled one across a narrow, swaying suspension bridge in Swiss Miss (1938) and hid inside one in Way Out West (1937). Much of the time we see the piano in this film it is, in fact, an empty crate, far lighter and more maneuverable than the real thing, but the shot of the piano careening madly down the 131 steps contained an actual instrument.
In addition to its landmark Oscar® win, The Music Box was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board in 1997 as one of the motion pictures to be preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Director: James Parrott
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: H.M. Walker
Cinematography: Len Powers
Editing: Richard Currier
Original Music: Harry Graham, Marvin Hatley, Leroy Shield (all uncredited)
Cast: Stan Laurel (Stanley), Oliver Hardy (Oliver), Billy Gilbert (Prof. von Schwarzenhoffen), Gladys Gale (Mrs. von Schwarzenhoffen ), Charlie Hall (Postman).
by Rob Nixon