5 December 2002 | wmorrow59
Shave-and-a-haircut, courtesy of the Our Gang kids
Not to be confused with the Laurel & Hardy classic of the same name, this Big Business is an Our Gang comedy which features the first generation of Hal Roach's silent era Rascals. The early entries from this long-running series tend to be quite enjoyable, and this one is no exception. Silent film technique allows for more spontaneous performances from the kids, and just about everything is being tried out for the first time. I believe the earliest Our Gang comedies compare favorably with the more polished -- but also more formulaic -- shorts of the '30s, the ones with Spanky, Darla, and Alfalfa singing off-key (again and again and again). The silent comedies have a fresher feel, and the kids of the early '20s gang are scruffier, tougher, and sassier than their successors.
In this short the kids manage their own barber shop, with harrowing results. No one gets hurt, but most of the customers wind up bald or close to it: one kid even gets a prematurely fashionable Mohawk! Scenes involving close calls with sharp scissors might make some viewers wince, while the manicurist uses a device that looks like a wire-cutter. Ouch! My favorite gag features a simple bit of trick photography, when barber Joe Cobb appears to use the bald head of one of his customers (one of his "victims" is more like it) as a mirror. It's less amusing when a baby in a highchair is given a fearsome-looking straight razor to play with. We know it isn't real, but the gag is in questionable taste. Still, the tone is generally good-natured even when the gags are on the rough side.
The rudimentary plot involves a sissified rich kid in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit who breaks away from his repressive mother, gets his hated ringlets lopped off in the kids' barber shop, and proves he's a regular guy by triumphing in a fistfight. Freckle-faced Mickey Daniels is a strange choice to play the rich kid, as he just doesn't look the part -- his "sissy" outfit looks like a Halloween costume, not his normal apparel -- but it hardly matters, as the story is secondary to the procession of gags in the barber shop.
Aside from the fact that they're both Hal Roach productions, there's no direct connection between this Big Business and the L&H comedy of 1929, but, as Leonard Maltin points out in his book on Our Gang, there are a couple of coincidental links. First, actress Lyle Tayo (also known as Lyle Barton) appears in both films, as Mickey's mom here, and as the woman who slams the door in Stan & Ollie's faces in "their" Big Business. Furthermore, the original idea for this Our Gang comedy was concocted by none other than Stan Laurel, then working solo for producer Hal Roach, who, according to the book, was paid a grand total of $10 for his contribution!