Oliver the Eighth - Contemporary Film Criticism

Charles Barr: "A strange but quite compelling film. The long dinner table scene, in which they are forced to eat imaginary food off imaginary plates, anticipates the final scene of BLOWUP (l966). Stan, true to his mode of dogged literalism, eventually breaks the spell by telling his hostess 'You're nuts!'"

Actually the remark is directed at Jitters, the butler, but it's true they're both nuts.


Randy Skretvedt: "Stan's performance in this film is outstanding as usual, as is Babe's. Perhaps one notices the boys' performances more in a weak film such as this, since there's not much else to hold our attention. Their facial expressions, dainty gestures and reactions to each other are a joy, and they make even a lesser entry such as OLIVER THE EIGHTH a pleasure to watch."

William K. Everson: "This film offered neither satire nor very much else that was genuinely funny. It is one of their slowest and emptiest films, the pantomime with the mad butler offering a few amusing moments, but most of the film falling back on stock 'terror' jokes."

Audiences confused or disappointed by the trick ending might have paid closer attention to Stan's scripted line, which almost foretells and explains everything: "I was dreamin' I was awake and then I woke up and found myself asleep!"

The windfall fortune, forced-night-in-a-bedroom, and dream framework all betrayed a reworking of THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE (l930), even to inheriting the same but slightly remodelled front door, foyer, and stairway set as home to the similarly insane, murdering host. Both films were protracted, relatively dull, and cried out for incidental music scoring to enliven the padded three reels. In fact OLIVER THE EIGHTH was Laurel & Hardy's final three part subject. It was the third Metro release of six shorts contracted for the l933-l934 season. The first was BUSY BODIES, and their feature film SONS OF THE DESERT had just been issued on December 22. Compared to these junior and jumbo gems, OLIVER THE EIGHTH would come in third, sixth or eighth - in any case a disappointment.

The assistant director on SONS OF THE DESERT was Lloyd French, then in his fourteenth year with Hal Roach serving on technical crews. For a less important film such as OLIVER THE EIGHTH, the 33 year-old French was entrusted to run the show as director. No comedy classic was expected, or required. In between the increasingly emphasized feature productions the studio was just delivering units of product, within budget, on time. Or not on time, as happened here.

Nevertheless on its own, or in contrast with the short product of other studios, OLIVER THE EIGHTH holds up quite nicely. On repeated viewings one can appreciate some of the characterization and throwaway gags. Upon returning to their barber shop, Stan is asked where'd been. "I was just down the street," Stan tells Ollie casually. "I went to have a shave."

Audiences often miss the business with the never-mentioned cuspidor, more commonly known at the time as a spittoon.

When at first Ollie dismisses the widow as "some old crab with a face that would stop a clock," Stan declares, "Well, I'd marry her." When Ollie chides, "You would," was this merely part of the plot, or was Stan trying to have fun with being on the verge of his second of eight (the operative number) wedding ceremonies?

In probably the film's best remembered scene, Stan continued, "I'd marry her. After all, beauty's only skin deep. I'd take some of the money and I'd have her face lifted. Then I … could settle down and I - I wouldn't have to scrape chins anymore - wouldn't have to work hard anymore. Er -- ."

"Tell me that again," asks Ollie.

"Eh?" says the now puzzled Stan.

"Let me hear that again," Ollie repeats.

"Well," starts Stan, "if - if beauty was only knee-skin deep, I could take some of the money and I could have her skinned and - then she'd be able to look at the clock without having to work hard anymore; then we could settle down - and I could scrape her chin and congenial - if -if I didn't have to work hard anymore."

"That's a good idea," Ollie concludes, reflecting deep in thought.

Idea-inspiration flagged, however, soon after arrival at Mae Busch's mansion. As much as we like Laurel & Hardy, not every effort can be enshrined as a classic in filmdom's hall of fame. It would be unfair to expect the team to sustain the level of quality just achieved in SONS OF THE DESERT. The letdown in going back to shorts like OLIVER THE EIGHTH was inevitable. Particularly when appreciating the trauma then being endured off-screen by Stan Laurel. His 33 year-old brother, Everett Jefferson, known as Teddy, died of heart failure two days into production on OLIVER THE EIGHTH, after receiving an anesthetic in a dentist's chair. What irony to portray Oliver Hardy's brush with death in a barber's chair at the same time. Film production was suspended for funeral arrangements, then Christmas.

There were other personal problems in the private life of Stan Laurel. His wife Lois divorced him in the fall of l933. Hal Roach, who sided with Lois, disapproved how Stan handled the situation, and told him so in blunt fashion. By February the media was reporting Laurel planned to leave the country to escape "alimony trouble." Although that didn't happen, in March he hand-wrote a two page letter to a friend named Ethel explaining why he was going to quit movies and how his "spirit and ambition have been broken….It is impossible to be funny with a broken heart."

And yet he was. Stan Laurel performed as a professional.

One other notable comedy which started out in a barber shop starred Stan Laurel's one-time associate and roommate, Charlie Chaplin. That film would be THE GREAT DICTATOR (l94l). The definitive barber shop short was the two-reeler W.C. Fields made for Mack Sennett entitled THE BARBER SHOP. It was released by Paramount Pictures on July 28, l933. No doubt several members of the production brain trust at the Lot of Fun saw THE BARBER SHOP. When asked about it in l978, Hal Roach made no connection between the Fields film and his, and there is none apparent, except for the setting.

We can be more certain that the title and story twist were suggested by Alexander Korda's concurrent THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, filmed in England during the late spring and early summer of l933. Several queens were beheaded in this Oscar-winning picture, and once during OLIVER THE EIGHTH the groom addresses his betrothed as "my queen." His neck! Both films feature a card game. And although it's completely off the point, John Loder and Claude Allister appear in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. These two were the companions who preceded Stan and Ollie as dates for Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts in ON THE LOOSE (l93l).

Due to the Korda picture's quite understandable popularity throughout the British Isles, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sales department elected to re-title its short subject satire for maximum exploitation value there. So across the United Kingdom, Laurel & Hardy's derivative comedy was issued and known and proclaimed for all to enjoy as THE PRIVATE LIFE OF OLIVER THE EIGHTH. No prints with this title card seem to be in circulation any longer, but authors Charles Barr and Bill Everson were both raised in England and their Laurel & Hardy books naturally refer to the film by its longer, alternate title, complicating the confusion.

Coincidentally it was the producer of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, Alexander Korda, who in l937 suggested the concept Chaplin developed as THE GREAT DICTATOR. Was Korda curious about the nominal satire directed at his regal film? Did he see THE PRIVATE LIFE OF OLIVER THE EIGHTH, remember it, then spin part of it as the basis for what Chaplin made into THE GREAT DICTATOR?

At Hal Roach Studios it was usually Charley Chase who named, or often tried to name his films for tie-ins to current events or prestigious feature films. A summer l934 release entitled ANOTHER WILD IDEA featured Charley attending a masquerade ball as King Henry the Eighth. He sang a Marvin Hatley tune with these lyrics, "I was a great lover, I know you'll agree. I loved them and left them, it just had to be. And each sweet blooming flower, I sent up to the tower, and many a dame lost her head over me!"

An atypical timely reference in OLIVER THE EIGHTH involved "the gold standard." Ollie abandons Stan and their store to be married. Later, as a matter of casual curiosity, Ollie inquires about the business. Stan explains he traded the barber shop for a handful of nuts, and a solid gold brick. The helpful buyer advised Stan to save it until the United States got back on the gold standard. At this, Hardy looks into the camera hopelessly.

Contemporary audiences are generally confounded by the meaning here. In l925 Chaplin made THE GOLD RUSH. Wasn't gold a highly sought after commodity synonymous with wealth? Why was a brick made of solid gold worth virtually nothing in OLIVER THE EIGHTH? At the turn of the century most of the world's advanced countries were on the gold standard, a monetary system based on a fixed weight of gold as a unit of value. Tying paper money and reference metal to gold was a means of promoting stability in the world economy. Coins made of gold circulated as legal tender, and paper money was freely convertible into gold by the monetary authorities at a fixed price.

As a result of the Great Depression, pressures arose that forced the United Kingdom off the gold standard in l93l. The United States followed in l933. Since the fixed price of gold had been high, and the supply higher, its value dropped precipitously trading freely on the open market.

Before the United States went off the gold standard, Stan could have tendered his gold brick to United States monetary authorities and demanded an equal weight of gold in the national coinage, such as the $5 gold piece. In THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG (l93l) Charley Chase made reference to losing a $5 gold piece, since they looked so much like nickels, worth only five cents. With the United States off the gold standard as of l933, the value of Stan's brick depreciated rapidly and in any event was, and remains today, highly unstable. Dictionaries now recognize the word "goldbrick" as meaning "a worthless thing deceitfully sold or given as something valuable."

Finally, "worthless," and worse words, were used to describe Laurel & Hardy's next-to-eighth film after leaving Hal Roach Studios, THE BIG NOISE (l944), which incorporated the alleged comedy business from OLIVER THE EIGHTH where a widow threatens Ollie with a knife.

-- by Richard W. Bann --