Thursday, December 25, 2014

Holidaze Review: Big Business (1929)

It’s fairly common to see folks trying to make an extra buck or two at the end of year by selling Christmas trees.
But…selling them door to door? In Southern California?

What kind of knuckleheads would think that is a good idea?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.

Holiday cheer is in short supply as the boys drive from home to home, trying to talk the residents into buying one of the evergreens from the back of their beat-up car.

It goes about as well as you’d expect. Stan’s sales pitch is dim beyond belief (he asks a single woman, “If you had a husband, would he buy a tree?”), and Ollie fares no better with his overconfidence and arrogance, which get him clocked in the head with a hammer—twice.

It’s not until they arrive at James Finlayson’s house, though, that the whole effort goes to pieces. Literally.

At first, Finlayson slams the door in Ollie’s face. Unfortunately, Stan is standing so close to the door that the tree’s branches get caught in it. Ollie rings the bell and Finlayson opens the door again, but Stan fails to yank the evergreen clear. This is repeated several times, with either the tree or Stan’s coat getting caught in the door. Finally, the flustered homeowner has had enough—he brings out pruning shears and dismembers the tree.

The fight. Is. ON.

The rest of Big Business is unrelenting mayhem, with the boys tearing apart Finlayson’s house while he attacks their car. By the time a policeman steps in, the house is thoroughly trashed, with windows smashed, vases shattered and large chunks of lawn torn up. And the car? Pounded flat, with Finlayson rolling around on the ground, furiously ripping at the last remaining Christmas tree with the fury of a man possessed.

Film historian William K. Everson once called Big Business the funniest 20 minutes ever committed to film. Individual tastes may vary—I prefer other Laurel & Hardy shorts Liberty or You’re Darned Tootin’ myself—but it’s hard to argue with how hilarious Big Business really is. In many ways, it’s the perfect summation of nearly every silent L&H short: the boys have a bad idea, make it infinitely worse through incompetent execution, and finally wind up defending themselves against one or more aggrieved parties (usually ever-angry Finlayson or slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy).

Where Big Business excels, though, is in how patient it is. We know disaster is coming, but the first ten minutes are all setup for the expected showdown, which quickly escalates from simple vandalism (Finlayson dismembering the tree with the shears, Laurel prying the numbers off the house) to epic destruction. What’s really amazing is how the demolition is handled without aid from sledgehammers or crowbars—Finlayson, in particular, destroys the boys’ jalopy with little more than righteous indignation and his bare hands.

Maybe Laurel and Hardy should have just set up a tree lot like everybody else. At least they’d still have a car—and a shot at a Merry Christmas. Instead, they get to spend the holiday literally running away from their troubles, while their dreams (and their car, and all of their trees) lie in ruins behind them.

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