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Classic Comedies: The Music Box

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were the original “dumb and dumber” comedy team, or, as Stan Laurel (who thought up most of the team’s gags) once put it, “two minds without a single thought.” In all of their two-reel, or twenty minute short films, they are usually presented as down and out, penniless vagrants, who drift from one job to the next with stunning incompetence. One of their best shorts, The Music Box (1932), finds them working as piano movers.

The entire film, which is actually a three reel, or 30 minute film, and their only film to win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (in 1933), chronicles their nearly futile attempts to deliver a player piano (a surprise birthday gift from his wife) to the irascible Professor Theodore von Schwarzenhoffen (Billy Gilbert), whose house is at the top of an incredibly long, steep flight of stairs.

No matter how Laurel and Hardy struggle to make it to the top, the piano repeatedly slips from their hands, falling down the stairs over and over.  After many unsuccessful attempts, they finally get the battered piano to the top of the stairs, only to be told by a passing postman (Charlie Hall) that they could have simply take a back driveway to get to the house, thus avoiding the steep climb altogether.

The genius of Laurel and Hardy is evident in their response to this useful bit of information: although the piano is now, at long last, right in front of Professor Schwarzenhoffen’s house, they nevertheless laboriously drag the piano back down to the bottom of the stairs, load it into their horse drawn wagon, and deliver it via the driveway.

But even this isn’t the end of their troubles; when they discover no one is home, Laurel and Hardy break into the house, and, using a block and tackle, haul the piano in, with numerous false starts, through a second story front window. Although the piano falls into a wading pool several times, Laurel and Hardy finally manage to drag the waterlogged piano downstairs into the living room. In the process, the duo inflict an enormous amount of damage to both Professor Schwarzenhoffen’s house and the piano itself, when the Professor himself finally appears, justly furious at the destruction to his home.

As Depression era symbols of eternal optimism, even when the odds are stacked hopelessly stacked against them, Laurel and Hardy made audiences laugh at their endless incompetence, and took viewers’ minds off the grim reality of their everyday existence. Although the team made feature films, it is in their short films that their comic genius most truly shines, and The Music Box is a prime example of their art. Laurel and Hardy never succeed at everyday tasks in their movies, but they keep on trying, no matter how tough the going gets. In this, they served as the ideal comic team for one of America’s darkest eras, and brought hope and laughter into the lives of millions of moviegoers.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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