The Music Box
THE MUSIC BOX
Director: James Parrott
Production: Hal Roach; black and white; running time: 29 minutes; length: 2000 feet. Released 1932.
Screenplay: H. M. Walker; photography: Len Powers.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Billy Gilbert (Professor).
Award: Oscar for Best Comedy Short, 1932.
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* * *
With the combination of a superior director, James Parrott, an experienced comic writer, H. M. Walker, and a skillful photographer, Len Powers, to support the strong performances of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the 1932 Oscar winner, The Music Box, evolved. This three-reeler remains the quintessence of this duo of incompetence. Like many of their short works, this vehicle called for the performance of a task that baffled the meager brainpower of Stan and Ollie. While a number of misalliances concerning a domestic situation provided the basis for a string of gags and a plot for the team's films, comedy also developed from their attempt to fulfil various occupations—such as their roles as detectives, process servers, waiters, itinerant musicians, salesmen, and carpenters. In The Music Box they have a delivery and moving service. The task: get a piano up a hill with as many, if not more hillside steps than those employed by Sergei Eisenstein in the Odessa steps sequence of the 1925 classic, Potemkin.
What could have been one joke repeated over and over to the point of monotony, became, instead, a comic fugue with innovative variations. Stan and Ollie grunt and sweat to move the piano up the long flight of stairs, only to meet a nursemaid, a policeman, and a professor (played by Billy Gilbert) who interfere with their Sisyphean labors. The piano gets out of control three times because of the distractions from these onlookers and meddlers. Each time the crated piano on rollers plunges down the battery of steps, it creates increasing comic frustration for the bungling movers. At first the piano rolls by itself down the steps to the street below. Gag writer-director Parrott builds the joke with variations by having Ollie, more than Stan, become the victim of the runaway piano. Ollie tries to stop the piano the second time as it moves with a will of its own until it rolls over him; in a third plunge he catches the back of the crate and is dragged all the way down the steep steps. Yells of agony, accompanied by the jangling of the piano, punctuate the execution of this wild slapstick gag.
As in many of the team's movies, they labor with a mighty effort but obtain minimal results or a complete reversal of their goal. But with pathetic, whining determination they try again. Told by a mailman there is a back road up the hill, Stan and Ollie finally deliver the piano to the door. But, before the instrument is installed, many more mishaps occur, and they become increasingly angry with each other—to the point of exchanging effete blows. In the living room, which they have ravaged by their clumsiness and fighting, an interesting reversal develops in the humorous spirit of play. Since they have delivered a player piano, they plug it in and clean up the room as they execute a little, impromptu music-hall dance to the music. The comrades forget the recent altercations they have had over how to move the instrument. It is a light, fanciful vaudeville turn that they would later repeat in Bonnie Scotland (1935) when they pick up trash in a military compound.
The Music Box was considered by Stan Laurel to be the best short he and Oliver Hardy created. And, it should be realized, he often was, although he enacted the denser character of the two, the brains behind many elaborate gag variations on a situation in their features. This three-reeler ranks with some of the best short works of silent screen comedians Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. It is also testament to the fact that the silent screen tradition of innovative and cumulative gag sequences continued into the sound comedy films of the 1930s. Furthermore, The Music Box reveals the bond between two struggling, inferior men whose everyday lives are plagued with obstacles. Laurel and Hardy's plight promotes laughter and evokes a degree of sympathy which exceeds that accorded all other comedy teams.
—Donald W. McCaffrey