The Laurel & Hardy Moving Co. have a challenging job on their hands (and backs): hauling a player piano up a monumental flight of stairs.
You can instantly tell if someone's a cinema snob by asking them a simple question: single most important flight of steps in screen history?" If the answer contains (in any order) the words "Odessa", "Eisenstein" or "Potemkin", the respondent is either trying to show off or is a genuinely beyond-redemption movie git. For the correct answer is, of course, the 131 steps situated between 923 and 937 Vendome Street in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles the location for the most perfect three reels in Laurel and Hardy's illustrious career.
To read some critics on this film, you'd think they'd been subjected to a trial by monotony that risked driving them to distraction with its endless repetition of a single joke. But to focus solely on the repeated shifting of a cased player-piano up some steep steps is to singularly underestimate the comic genius of Stan Laurel who concocted most of the duo's priceless business.
The progress towards 1 124 Walnut Avenue epitomises Laurel and Hardy's perpetual battle with an unsympathetic world. Everyone they encounter has it in for them. A nursemaid demands they let her pass with her pram (yes, a Potemkin gag) and proceeds to assault them both after Stan boots her up the backside for laughing at their misfortunes. The cop, to whom she snitches, treats Ollie to a tit-f or-tat kick and bops Stan with his nightstick. The postman gives them directions up the stairs, but makes no mention of the short-cut until they finally reach the top (and, typically, go back down to take advantage of it). Finally, the professor (who is to receive the piano as a surprise gift) feuds with them on the steps and then sets about the instrument with an axe after he discovers it in his sitting room. Even their horse takes a surreptitious step forward to ensure the crate lands on Ollie as the pair unload.
But this hostility isn't confined to living things. Inanimates don't like Laurel and Hardy, either. The piano itself variously falls on Ollie, runs him over and drags him down the entire flight before dumping him into an ornamental pond. Then the doorbell comes away from the wall; a ladder pokes Ollie in the eye; the block-and-tackle used to haul the case on to a balcony drops down on to Ollie's head; a chandelier crashes from the ceiling; an electric socket explodes and a fountain pen shoots ink into the professor's face, just when he's forgiven them for decimating his home. And as for the obligatory mix up of hats...
On the receiving end of most of this cartoonish violence is Oliver Hardy. Yet just when you think he couldn't possibly be subjected to any more pain or humiliation, he treads on a protruding nail and, in trying to remove the attached plank, rips the sole off his boot, thus exposing his podgy toes to our ridicule. But this revealing piece of character comedy, complete with a trademark world-weary sigh to the camera, proves that not all the visual comedy here is socko slapstick. We also gain an insight into Stan's often overlooked tendency to slyness and spite, as he cribs a ride on the back of the crate as Ollie heaves and strains his way up the path. Then, shortly afterwards, there's a blink-and-miss-it touch of surrealism as the water splashes in two different directions after Stan plummets into the pond. And what about the little dance the pair enact as they try to clean up the room they have smashed up and flooded with water? It's an astonishing moment of rhythm and grace in an otherwise endless catalogue of debacle and destruction and it clearly influenced such later set-pieces as Morecambe and Wise's celebrated breakfast routine to The Stripper.
With all this emphasis on the physical nature of the comedy, it's easy to forget that Stan had a way with words, too. The sign on the cart, for example, reads "Laurel & Hardy Transfer Co. Foundered 1931", while the letters after Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen's name are "M.D., A.D., D.D.S., E.L.D., F.F.F.and F." The dialogue also contains a couple of gems, like the nanny complaining to the cop that Stan kicked her, "Right in the middle of my daily duties" and Stan accusing the aggressive officer of "bounding over your steps". Moreover, there's the contribution made by the piano itself, with its discordant janglings providing a distinctive soundtrack to the ceaselessly catastrophic proceedings.
The Music Box was Stan Laurel's personal favourite of the 99 films he made with "Babe" Hardy. Perhaps the fact that it won the inaugural Oscar for Best Live-Action Short gave it added lustre. But, primarily, his satisfaction came from the efficient way it showcased so many of the facets that forged the team's unique appeal.
30 minutes of comic perfection.