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Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

A Chump at Oxford (1940) has much to recommend it, but Block-Heads is probably the last thoroughly satisfying, thoroughly great Laurel & Hardy movie. I like it so much that I put a discussion of it near the climax of a book I wrote about children’s literature and film (McFarland, 2015). Why don’t I quote myself?

Blockheads [sic], a feature film released in 1938, is one of the last great Laurel and Hardy films. World War I has ended, but no one told Stan about it. He has been patrolling the European trenches, all alone, for twenty years. He is finally discovered and repatriated. Ollie reads about it in the newspaper and undertakes to visit his old friend, now recuperating in a veteran’s hospital.

“Stan, who is untroubled by reversals like this, is actually in the pink of health. At the moment, however, he is rather restless. He is out on the hospital grounds, trying to get comfortable in a wheelchair that he has commandeered. After endlessly fidgeting he has finally found the right position, which is to fold his leg up underneath him. The chair’s leg support remains extended straight in front of him. With the wheelchair, and the setting, it looks just like his leg has been amputated.

“So far, so funny. At this point Laurel—the more-or-less mastermind behind all of the Laurel and Hardy films—decides to take a very unusual tack, which is to let the incipient sentiment of the whole series shine out uninhibitedly, if only for a moment. Ollie comes around a corner, searching for his long-lost friend. Presently he spots him, and beams, and approaches. Just before arriving, though, he looks down and sees that Stan has been dismembered, and is now disabled. He stops for the briefest moment, not to register disgust or horror, but real, actual sorrow. Then he rouses himself, smiles, and goes to greet his best beloved. A series of complications follow, and multiply, and compound, the final result somehow being that Stan releases a dump truck’s full load on his friend, and on his car, in which he is sitting. After which Ollie, with a full heart, takes Stan home with him.”

Very touching, really lovely. And that’s just the prologue, as it were. The middle of the film is taken up by a stupendously extended, distended, agonizing sequence in which Ollie can’t quite get Stan all the way up the stairs and into his apartment. How many times can a person get interrupted? Be frustrated? How many ways can things go wrong? The Music Box (q.v.) is L&H’s most celebrated study in futile Absurdity, partly because of the patent implausibility of its basic scenario. I think I like this one even better. It is just as aggressively leisurely in its pace. It’s sharper though, framed and cut just a little more carefully, effectively. And the range of business, replacing the relentless focus of its predecessor, is so pleasing! There are these two glorious fights. There’s that little kid. There’s what must be the most wonderful screen use of a football in the history of the world. Screen use? Any use at all. This is what the object was invented for.

In the third section Stan & Ollie finally get up there. Mayhem results, including some of the innocent bawdry that the boys would sometimes dabble in. It all ends in a shockingly, even apocalyptically naughty final gag. (Pretty well identical to the one they used at the conclusion of 1928’s We Faw Down.) Block-heads begins with a moving affirmation of the Brotherhood of Man. It ends with a suggestion that time and the whole world is out of joint, with nothing at all to ever put it right. Actually, it’s probably just a shockingly, apocalyptically naughty final gag. But it sure all adds up to a complete-to-comprehensive evening’s worth of entertainment!