The real phrase habitually used by Ollie when addressing Stan is of course “another NICE mess”, but the phrase is regularly misquoted perhaps in recognition of this film title. I’m not even sure that it’s Oliver Hardy’s most habitual catchphrase. “Why don’t you do something to help me?!” predates it, and is in long circulation.
Laurel and Hardy sometimes took a shall we say “ecological” approach to their own best material and Another Fine Mess is largely a remake of their very early silent film Duck Soup (1927), made before Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were even “Laurel and Hardy”. It is also a reworking of a 1908 play written by Stan’s Dad – Arthur Jefferson. Another Fine Mess is a rare three reel effort, making it 30 rather than 20 minutes long. I’m not convinced that the extra ten minutes are particularly well invested in this case. This is a pleasant enough comedy with some happy moments – but it’s on nobody’s top ten list of classics.
In this film, Major Buckshot, the owner of a stately mansion, is played by the great James Finlayson. The hideous Buckshot is off to decimate some African wildlife, so his long-suffering butler and maid decide to take the weekend off while Stan and Ollie find themselves driven into the house by a cop who is determined to arrest them for vagrancy. Before they can figure out a way of leaving the house without running into the stereotypical Irish Officer Kelly, two toffs appear who wish to rent the house in Buckshot’s blessed absence.
Ollie therefore impersonates Buckshot while Stan has the more onerous job of impersonating both the butler and the maid. Following some banter and confusion, Buckshot returns, to retrieve his bow and arrow.
Finlayson’s double takes are even more extravagant than usual in this film. His entire body appears to take a dramatic leap backwards with every shock he receives upon his return home. The film concludes with gun-play, though thankfully only “Laurel and Hardy” gun-play, the kind that results only in sore behinds and sartorial embarrassment.
Charles K. Gerrard plays a cartoon of a cartoon of an effete English aristocrat -Lord Plumtree. Given Plumtree’s tiresomely strangulated voice and irritating laugh, he must be very wealthy indeed to have secured as his bride the very wonderful Thelma Todd. Lady Plumtree who takes a strange and instant shine to “Agnes” (Stan in maid’s costume), as well she might, since any company is preferable to the in-bred imbecile she’s married to.
Stan is regularly forced into women’s clothing over the years of course, but the exercise flummoxes and bewilders him each time. He is exhausted by the effort of constantly changing back between “Agnes” and “Hives”. The film also demonstrates Stan’s inability to respect any known hierarchy. The taboos imposed by class and gender are naught to him. When Lady Plumtree gives “Agnes” a playful “all girls together” shove – Stan gives her a larger shove back.
This film offers very useful illustrative example in support of the theory that Ollie is actually dumber than Stan. Stan is frankly and honestly ignorant of how the other half lives and how to behave in High Society. Ollie, on the other hand thinks he knows. Ollie’s foolish lies and boast are what ensure that the impersonations are teetering constantly on the brink of collapse.
Stan knows he’s dumb. Ollie doesn’t even know that.
We get to see Ollie try to play the piano. Given how elegantly Ollie gesticulates, you feel that it’s a shame he didn’t spend more time on film at a keyboard. I like nothing more than to see Ollie’s fingers waggling with mannered self importance.
The concluding gimmick of the film is a bizarre chase scene, which involves Stan and Ollie hiding inside a stuffed okapi?/gnu?/bison?/big African herbivore with horns? and then running out of the house in pantomime animal form. They collide with two men riding a tandem and them then purloin the same tandem. Cycling into a railway tunnel they are pursued by cops only for everyone to confront an express train coming the other way. Somehow or other the encounter with the train reduces the cops to their underwear while Stan and Ollie totter out of the other side the tunnel now on unicycles.
A chase this ludicrous is disinvested of any sense of risk. If you compare it with the ladder in the car conclusion of Hog Wild, you feel that the Hog Wild scenario, though surreal, is just about imaginable – and that this very imaginability injects a degree of sympathetic fear which is in turn the basis of excitement. You’re not actually frightened for the pantomime-okapi cyclists because you don’t think you’re watching anything real any more.
So watch Another Fine Mess if you’re a completist – which of course you are. Do not use it to introduce someone to Laurel and Hardy for the firsts time.