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Silent Sunday Nights - November 2011
Remind Me

Big Business (1929)

The two-reel silent short Big Business (1929) has long been acknowledged as not only one of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's best films, but quintessential slapstick, and one of the greatest examples of the silent two-reeler. It unspools like a blueprint for pacing a comedy short and becomes an almost existential study in tit-for-tat destruction. As with many other silent shorts from Hal Roach Studios, Big Business was only loosely worked out in advance, mostly by gagman and "supervising director" Leo McCarey. (The director of credit was J. Wesley Horne). Shot entirely outdoors, the original idea was to have the boys, playing door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen in sunny California, encounter several different potential "customers." At the first house, Stan and Ollie greet an unmarried woman who becomes a non-customer when Stan asks, "If you had a husband, would he buy one?"

The cast and crew discovered that there was more than enough potential for comedy to fill a two-reeler at the second stop on the sales jaunt, when they landed on the doorstep of James Finlayson's house. Finlayson played the quick-to-burn foil for Laurel and Hardy throughout much of their time with Roach, and never more spectacularly than in this film. The offenses start small: Stan's coat, and then a Christmas tree branch, is caught in the closing door, causing the boys to ring the doorbell repeatedly. Finlayson is fed up, but he does not lose his cool until Stan asks, "Could I take your order for next year?" At this, Finlayson grabs some garden shears and cuts their tree in half! In reciprocation, Stan takes his penknife and pries the brass numbers off of Finlayson's house, then devilishly ring the doorbell so that Finlayson can see for himself the damage done. The boys gleefully nod their heads in appreciation for "settling the score" but of course each offense must be met by the opposing party with a greater vengeful act. Gloves literally come off as a watch is destroyed, a doorbell cut out, a tie cut off, a car window smashed, and so on, until a crowd gathers to watch the melee.

In his biography, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, John McCabe describes one of the comedy bits of business that Finlayson specialized in, the "double take and fade away." McCabe writes, "In essence, it was a simple double take embellished by wide circular twistings of the head, concluding with the head thrown back violently as the right eye closed in a scornful squint and the left eyebrow rises impossibly high." For Big Business, "...the opportunity came for a magnificent take. 'Lemme go, boys! Stand back, men!' he told the crew, and then as the cameras started to whirr, he went into what he meant to be his most spectacular fade-away ever. It was. On the snapback his head struck the brick portal of the doorway knocking him cold - a notable example of giving one's all for one's art."

The reputation of Big Business began to grow when it was featured, almost in its entirety, in the 1960 film When Comedy Was King, Robert Youngson's compilation of silent comedy clips. By 1967, William K. Everson (in The Films of Laurel and Hardy) called the short " of the comedy classics from any star, and country and any period. Even non-Laurel & Hardy devotees are automatically caught up in the maelstrom of fury which, in its precise mounting excitement, attention to detail, meticulous editing, and no-pause-for-breath action, is to the comedy film what The Birth of a Nation [1915] is to the historical spectacle."

Similarly, in A-Z of Silent Film Comedy, Glenn Mitchell devotes a generous amount of space to the short, calling it "arguably the greatest Laurel & Hardy comedy - some say the greatest of all silent comedies..." Mitchell writes that the film is "...appreciated for its ingenious concept, skillful execution and, above all, matchless pacing, commencing with the team's leisurely - if doomed - early attempts at salesmanship, gaining momentum at their initial misunderstanding with Finlayson and developing ultimately into a wanton destruction which, one suspects, has little connection with the original conflict. Add to this the post-battle combination of remorse with ill-conceived satisfaction and it is easy to understand why some commentators have compared Big Business to the escalation of hostilities between nations."

Producer: Hal Roach
Director: J. Wesley Horne
Supervising Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Leo McCarey (uncredited)
Cinematography: George Stevens
Film Editing: Richard Currier
Titles: H. M. Walker
Cast: Stan Laurel (Stan), Oliver Hardy (Ollie), James Finlayson (Homeowner, uncredited), Charlie Hall (Neighbor, uncredited), Retta Palmer (Neighbor, uncredited), Tiny Sandford (Policeman, uncredited), Lyle Tayo (Woman, uncredited)

by John M. Miller