28 November 2004 | wmorrow59
Stan vs. Ollie, or: Money Changes Everything
This early Laurel & Hardy comedy is something of an oddity, and although fans will want to see it at least once Early to Bed is not one of the team's more entertaining efforts. Moreover, for anyone who cares about Laurel & Hardy, that is, anyone who regards the characters they portray with fondness, this film could well be a disturbing, unpleasant experience. I'm a lifelong L&H fan and enjoy most of their output, but seeing the boys' friendship go sour in Early to Bed feels like watching helplessly while two old friends get into a vicious fistfight.
By the time this film was made the guys had developed the screen personae we all remember, complete with derbies and shabby-genteel suits. More to the point, their childlike personalities and relationship with each other were pretty well established, as we observe in the opening scene. Stan and Ollie sit on a park bench with a scruffy little dog called Buster; they may be homeless, but they aren't starving and their world is somehow in harmony. But when Ollie learns he has inherited a fortune, and magnanimously allows Stan to become his butler, things get seriously out of whack, for it quickly becomes obvious that prosperity does not bring out the best in Mr. Hardy.
For the next several scenes (which take place after Ollie has acquired a big house and filled it with possessions), we watch with growing dismay as Ollie, now a drunken playboy, torments his conscientious servant. Ollie locks Stan out of the house, bops him on the head and laughs, chases him, and pours water on him in his bed. Understandably, Stan becomes increasingly upset and exasperated with the new order of things, although he's expected to maintain decorum and address his tormentor as "Sir." These scenes are more pathetic than funny, and the (generally under-appreciated) acting skill of both men makes matters worse, for Ollie's gleeful sadism seems just as real as Stan's deepening sense of humiliation. It's only when Stan finally reaches the limit of his tolerance and retaliates that the film becomes more satisfying, for we all enjoy seeing a worm turn, and God knows Ollie deserves a comeuppance. Nevertheless, in the end this movie leaves a rather disagreeable aftertaste.
The best thing in Early to Bed is a sequence involving an ornate indoor fountain that graces the Hardy mansion, decorated with cherubs designed to resemble Ollie. The fountain becomes the climactic setting for Stan's revenge, and the boys' implied reconciliation. (The gag is a reworking of a sequence in a Mabel Normand comedy entitled Should Men Walk Home?, released a year earlier, with Oliver Hardy in a supporting role.) While this sequence is clever in its own right, the amusing egotism of the fountain's design also offers a neat satirical comment on the Nouveau Riche. The scene works well as a stand-alone excerpt in Robert Youngson's compilation The Further Perils of Laurel & Hardy. In the context of Early to Bed the fountain sequence is certainly the highlight, and the best reason to watch in the first place.