The Music Box - Production Sidelights

"Piano? Piano! I hate and detest pianos!" So said Billy Gilbert as Professor von Schwarzenhoffen.

Stan Laurel didn't hate pianos. Lois Laurel says her father owned a Knabe Parlor Grand Piano during the 1930s. She remembers taking piano lessons, and that "Dad fiddled around with the piano at home, just a bit you know. To amuse himself and his friends. He liked to pick out the little English ditties he enjoyed."


Pianos figured in many Laurel & Hardy films. Critic James Agee wrote of the team's "love-hate relationship with pianos." One can generally predict violent destruction for any piano introduced in a Laurel & Hardy scene. Remember when Stan and Ollie delivered another piano across a narrow swaying suspension bridge in SWISS MISS? Pianos were smashed to splinters in BIG BUSINESS, BEAU HUNKS, and DIRTY WORK. Player pianos were employed for musical mirth in NIGHT OWLS and SCRAM! Hardy played one in ANOTHER FINE MESS. The boys hid inside a grand piano in WAY OUT WEST. Another grand piano collapsed under the weight of a racehorse they put there -- where else? -- in WRONG AGAIN.e posters, and where can we get them now? Is the question all movie poster collectors want an answer for!

Thomas Benton Roberts, whom many Way Out West tent members were fortunate to know, designed the crate used to carry the piano in THE MUSIC BOX. Many were used, because many were destroyed. No one with anything important to do would notice or pay any attention, but comparing the grain in the wood from scene to scene, or as shown in still photos, it's easy to see the patterns and markings do not match. Many music boxes were built according to the measurements specified by Roberts for this wooden crate.

And the box really did encase an upright piano. "There was a real piano in the case," Roy Seawright explained. "It was something you'd never buy -- but they needed it to be there for the weight." Stan and Ollie weren't heave-ho huffing and puffing for nothing.

There is one trivial continuity error where the music box races down the stairs, seemingly chasing Ollie until it flies over his prostrate form. In that insert shot where "Ollie" is face down, covering his head for protection (and to hide the identity of his double), the piano crate, which is not symmetrical, reverses its position. Also, sometimes there are wheels on the crate, other times not. Although who could possibly be looking for anything such as that in a scene? Who?

Academy Voters that year paid no attention to such miscues; probably they were too busy laughing, as intended. 1932 was the first year Oscars were conferred for short subjects. On July 25, 1932, nine executives representing short subjects producers, including Walter Disney, Henry Ginsberg (on behalf of Roach), and Warren Doane (on behalf of Universal), sent a letter to David O. (stands for nothing) Selznick, chairman of that year's Academy Awards Committee. The purpose was to encourage formal recognition of the industry's short subject branch at the annual Oscars' awards presentations. The letter stated, "This branch has played a vital part in the progress and advancement of the motion picture. Today its outstanding leaders are making impressive contributions to better entertainment. The short subject supplies approximately 40% of the theatre program with a commensurate expenditure of time and money in production."

That market share, however, was being threatened by the exhibitor trend in favor of double-feature programming. Short subject producers hoped Academy recognition in the form of coveted Oscars would help them hold their ground.

To inaugurate the category, THE MUSIC BOX was voted best comedy short subject for the 1931-1932 season. One has to believe TWO TARS and BIG BUSINESS and Charley Chase's LIMOUSINE LOVE would have been contenders in previous years had the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instituted the award earlier.

It is interesting that Oscar statues were not handed out for shorts during the early years. Certificates were conferred instead. On November 18, 1932 in the Fiesta Room of the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove, Hal Roach accepted the certificate as producer of THE MUSIC BOX. Privately he gave the award to Stan Laurel, generously insisting Laurel was the one who deserved to keep the document. Oliver Hardy attended the banquet ceremony as well, and stills exist showing the threesome happily clowning and posing for the cameras. No film footage exists. Nor does Lois Laurel know whatever happened to the single page certificate Roach gave her father.

Today Oscar telecasts run over four hours showing wealthy people giving each other a lot of awards. The event forces viewers to watch so many people they've never heard of thank endless lists of other random unknowns. In between we see more obscenely paid movie misfits, presenters introduced as "superstars," who read, or try to read, spontaneous small talk from teleprompters. Then recipients give what is truly their best performances, trying to appear humble.

Roach didn't remember making much of a speech in 1932 before what a newspaper account called a "brilliant throng attending the traditional banquet." Nor did history record what he said (same as happened sixty years later Oscar host Billy Crystal tried conversing with Roach in the audience, only he wasn't miked and could not be heard). Mr. Roach could have quoted Billy Gilbert as the professor in the picture said simply, "Very lovely." Whatever Roach's remarks for winning first prize, they were brief, and unscripted. That is for sure.

Noted filmmaker Blake Edwards is an enormous Laurel & Hardy fan. He has always said so. His credits include DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, A SHOT IN THE DARK, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, THE GREAT RACE, THE PINK PANTHER, and sequels. In 1983 Edwards made a deal with Hal Roach to remake THE MUSIC BOX for Warner Bros. Burt Reynolds and Richard Pryor were to star. The project evolved into an entirely different picture, where the title told all. It was called A FINE MESS, starring Ted Danson and Howie Mandel.

Interviewed for the film -- unfortunately a misfire -- Blake Edwards said, "If I have drawn from anyone more than others, I would say it would be Laurel & Hardy. I guess I have every film they ever did, and quite often they come to my rescue in a strange way. If there's a moment where I need a physically humorous perspective and I'm dealing with one or two people, I seem to revert to doing Stan and Ollie...and that seems to save me. I love them dearly. They bring tears to my eyes along with the laughter. I owe them a lot of thanks."

VARIETY, always incisive, and although acknowledging Edwards was trying to repay his debt "to the immortal Laurel & Hardy," was nonetheless merciless in its review of this well-intentioned effort. Here is just the headline, as it appeared in the Wednesday, July 9, 1986 weekly edition:

(U.S. -- COLOR)
Laurel & Hardy, RIP

Indeed, rest in peace. VARIETY observed that Blake Edwards had ignored or forgotten "a cardinal principle of the Stan and Ollie pics: the fact that the team shared an extraordinary complicity with audiences, via their lovable characters and their innate innocence and helplessness. Neither Ted Danson nor Howie Mandel offers audiences such affection, or are likely to receive affection in turn. Without such empathy, there's only a series of mechanically contrived funny business, most of which falls pretty flat."

In 1989 Constantin Costa-Gavras made a film he called THE MUSIC BOX, starring Jessica Lange, who received a best actress Oscar nomination. There was no connection to the Laurel & Hardy film. The story dealt with a trial over Holocaust atrocities.

In 1996 the acclaimed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (author of FAHRENHEIT 451, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, etc.) published a collection of short stories entitled QUICKER THAN THE EYE. One of these stories Bradbury called ANOTHER FINE MESS. It tells about the ghosts of Laurel & Hardy traversing THE MUSIC BOX steps at night time!

Bradbury is another lifelong Laurel & Hardy devotee. He will tell fans that be bought a ticket, front-row and center, to see Stan and Ollie perform live on stage in Dublin, Ireland, during the late 1940s. Later he was lucky enough to go backstage and watch the boys graciously receive plaudits from friends and fans. "It was," he says with a look of delight, "one of the happiest days of my life."

Bradbury is such a devoted fan of the team he has written another charming story about THE MUSIC BOX steps! The title is THE LAUREL AND HARDY LOVE AFFAIR, and concerns a couple of lovers who arrange regular picnics at the foot of the famous stairway, and what happens to them decades later after they break up!

On November 18, 1997 (coincidentally on the anniversary of the 1932 Oscar ceremony) the Library of Congress announced that THE MUSIC BOX had been added to the National Film Registry, along with twenty-five other select classic films deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important," including Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR, Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW, and Bogart's BIG SLEEP.

And a fine Sons of the Desert fanzine called BOWLER DESSERT, published in Scotland, carried an item quoting Paul McCartney of the Beatles, who was asked to name his favorite Laurel & Hardy film. "I love them and I love all their films," McCartney said. "I don't have an out-and-out favourite, but I particularly like THE MUSIC BOX when Laurel & Hardy have to carry a piano up a long flight of steps. I prefer their short films and I love to see Stan 'cry.'"

-- by Richard W. Bann --