1930's Hog Wild, the opening salvo of this afternoon's Laurel & Hardy triple bill on Talking Pictures TV, has one of those can't-fail L&H set-ups: our heroes taking to the roof of Ollie's house to install an aerial ("Mrs. Hardy wants to get Japan"). A working definition of the phrase "topsy-turvy", it (unusually for this pair) starts stronger than it finishes - the closing five minutes are freewheeling, throwaway nonsense in, on and around Stan's car - but notice the stress the early routines place on the whereabouts of Ollie's hat (it's on his head all along, naturally): this is one scenario where the leads' signature bowlers assume a paramount importance as safety helmets. Ollie is bashed around the bonce with a frying pan, has a chimney brought down on him, and then repeatedly plunges into a duckpond, the pay-off to a high-wire act initiated by Stan's adoption of a pole as a balancing beam. Mind your heads.
Pick of the day, however, is 1940's Saps at Sea [above], L&H's final feature for Hal Roach, and a much underrated work in the canon: an hour of Hollywood Dadaism that commits to pushing a particular comic aesthetic as far as it can conceivably go. The set-up (perhaps inspired by off-camera reality) is that Ollie, nerves frazzled by years of hard graft, needs a little R&R. Inevitably, this proves in limited supply. There follows a symphony of loud noises: the opening ten minutes, in particular, have the sound of an avant-garde wager, to determine just how obnoxiously noisy a film can get whilst still being funny. The priceless prologue unfolds in the testing room of a horn manufacturing plant; a talking baby doll skews Dr. James Finlayson's diagnoses; and Ollie's flat is a riot of exploding doorbells, pops and bangs and crashes, an aural booby trap. It's as though, after ten years, the Roach team had finally got a handle on using sound for yuks; the "d'oh!" Finlayson emits after going face-first into the apartment door is as magnificent as any up to Blakey's in On the Buses.
Every element tossed inside the frame has been geared towards making the viewer smile or laugh, from the bit-part players (Ben Turpin as the cross-eyed plumber responsible for Ollie's wonky waterworks, Eddie Conrad as Stan's inanely smiling Italianate music teacher) through to gags with telephones (very Dada) and bananas (very Marx) and the walk-on role for a goat named Narcissus. Amazingly, there's some connecting tissue between all this mayhem, and when Stan, of all people, starts questioning the logic of Mother Hubbard (of "empty cupboard" notoriety), it's clear the leads have ascended onto another plane entirely. The second, shipbound half isn't quite so lively, introducting some humdrum narrative ballast in the form of an escaped convict, but the "sympathetic meal" Stan and Ollie rustle up for him - using a belt for bacon, string for spaghetti and sponge meatballs - is absolutely central to the whole, glorious jumble: this is a comedy of the senses, a screwy synesthesia.
1933's Busy Bodies begins well. Perhaps too well. A sunny day; Stan and Ollie out for a nice drive; a pleasant tune in the air. "Why, even you look bright!," Ollie remarks of his passenger. Cut to: what's waiting for them at their latest place of employment, a logmill. Buzzsaws; some early, rudimentary form of the forklift truck; long, impassable planks of wood. This is the short in which those bowlers made the most sense, affording the stars a limited protection from the hostilities of their environment. By now the pair had become masters of the form, and even those bits that threaten to go on a beat or two too long - such as Ollie getting wedged in a windowframe, or having a glue brush stuck to his chin - are given explosive and imaginative resolutions. It builds to ever more spectacular stuntwork - the chump receiving a barrel over his head for his troubles is an especially satisfying gag, and the topper, when it comes, is terrific - and even if the whole lacks the conceptual heft of the stars' very best shorts, it remains appropriately workmanlike: those whose funny bones are only lightly goosed will still find themselves nodding approvingly at the craft.
Hog Wild screens on Talking Pictures TV at 4pm today; Saps at Sea at 4.25pm; Busy Bodies at 5.35pm.