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Some of the best remembered comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood slapstick were crafted in an epic register: Buster Keaton amidst the backdrop of the Civil War in The General (1926), Charlie Chaplin confronting The Gold Rush (1925), Harold Lloyd putting Safety Last! (1923) as he dangled from a skyscraper with his bare hands. Even their smaller two-reel shorts frequently worked with a grand sense of scale: Keaton racing for his life from armies of furious Cops (1922), Chaplin navigating the comic dimensions of many an Immigrant (1917). . . but then there were Laurel and Hardy, who found hilarity in the most quotidian of circumstances. Take for example, Be Big! (1931), which is almost entirely a single sustained joke about Ollie's difficulties in removing his boots. Comedy rarely gets smaller than this.
There is irony in this fact. Be Big! is a transitional film, a stopping-off point for Laurel and Hardy on the way from short comedies to the world of features. By 1930, Laurel and Hardy had three years of box office dominance under their belt. Three years, mind you, in which the rest of the film industry felt like it had been thrown under the bus. The onset of sound, the economic collapse of the Great Depression, and a gradual dismantling of the infrastructure that had supported comedy shorts had put many of their comedy peers out of business and was driving their distribution partner, Pathe, into bankruptcy. Yet throughout his upheaval, Laurel and Hardy just went from strength to strength. Watching their films, there is no hint at the chaos unfurling backstage.
Having conquered all obstacles put in their path, the next frontier was the leap from shorts to features. Their production house, Hal Roach Studios, had no experience making features and no distribution outlet for them. Although making features would be profoundly more prestigious and profitable, it would require risk-taking, resilience, and fortitude.
To that end, they started to experiment with longer films--incrementally, adding a reel here, a couple of reels there. Be Big! was one of these experiments, a three-reel short sold into a two-reel marketplace. Other comedians trying to prove themselves in a longer format might have been tempted to explore larger, more complicated storylines. Not Stan and Ollie. Stubbornly, they set out into this longer running time with ostentatiously less material.
The premise was ostensibly simple: the Boys want to sneak out on their wives to attend a wild stag party in Hardy's honor. In these terms, this was not far from the premise that would support arguably their best known and most beloved feature, Sons of the Desert (1933), three years later.
The irony is that despite the promise inherent in this setup, the film quickly spins off the rails into a digression from which it never returns. It happens at about the 15 minute mark--Ollie has mistakenly put on Stan's boots, and needs to remove them and swap in his own. When this idea is introduced, there is no reason to expect anything other than a quick bit of physical slapstick--by the point, Ollie has already a) worn his hat in the shower, b) fallen head first into a door, c) swaddled his head in his wife's shawl instead of a bandage. None of these gags lasted more than a few seconds, and the boot-switch happens off-camera. No effort is expended to highlight this as a significant development. We cut from their wives deciding to return home and surprise their husbands to Ollie and Stan discovering the boot problem, and there the movie simply stops. They never get to the party, they never leave the apartment. The entire rest of the movie--a full half of its running time, is spent trying to remove a pair of boots from Hardy's feet.
The audacity of this is impressive. Only twice before in their entire careers have these comedians had more than twenty minutes of screen time available to them, and in both of the previous instances they responded by scaling up their ambitions accordingly. This time, they allow their comic ineptitude to completely highjack the film.
Hal Roach Studios used this film as an even more pronounced experiment in feature-length Laurel and Hardy for the foreign markets. Stan and Oliver were given phonetic translations of their dialogue to learn (or read from cue-cards) to create Spanish and French language versions without resorting to either dubbing or subtitling. For those French and Spanish markets, Be Big! was combined with Laughing Gravy (1931) to create a feature-length product, and along the way the added running time permitted Laurel and Hardy to expand their material past what was included in the English language versions. Notably, all of the added comedy in the Be Big! sections went into the boot-removal portion--left to their own devices they might have filled a full two hours with that scene.
In the foreign language versions, some of the supporting roles--such as that of Hardy's wife--were recast with French or Spanish actors. The role of Mrs. Laurel however was played by Anita Garvin in all variations (even if her voice was replaced by a native speaker's). Garvin was a tall brunette with penetrating eyes and a masterful sense of physical comedy. Hal Roach had tried to develop her as a featured comedy lead in her own starring vehicles, but her possible future as a female Stan Laurel was curtailed by her decision to retire from the screen to focus on being a mother.
It would be years yet before Laurel and Hardy conquered the world of feature length comedies, and some of their greatest short films were yet to come. Although Be Big! does not show the team at the height of their powers, it does display the marked self-confidence and willingness to defy conventional wisdom that accompanies true genius. Be Big! indeed.
Producer: Hal Roach
Director: James Parrott
Screenplay: H.M. Walker
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Music: Marvin Hatley, Leroy Shield (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Richard Currier
Cast: Stan Laurel (Stanley), Oliver Hardy (Oliver), Anita Garvin (Mrs. Laurel), Charlie Hall (bellboy), Isabelle Keith (Mrs. Hardy), Baldwin Cooke (Cookie), Jack Hill (railway station passerby), Ham Kinsey (railway station passerby), Chet Brandenburg (cabdriver)
by David Kalat
Simon Louvish, Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy.
Richard Lewis Ward, A History of the Hal Roach Studios.