Isn't it odd how the obscure output of a major artist often strikes you as the most fascinating material he or she ever did? I guess this tendency in part has to do with us being surprised at something unexpected, but more than anything it is probably because we can view little-known things more objectively, be less analytical, and instead concentrate on its mere beauty. THEIR FIRST MISTAKE is an example on this as fine as any whereas comedy is concerned, and Laurel & Hardy themselves for that matter. In this short, Hardy is abandoned by his wife, who has decided to sue for a divorce as she's got enough of him spending all the evenings out with pal Laurel. The boys do not receive the news quickly enough, however, and find themselves struck with an adopted baby, which Laurel had figured out would prevent Hardy's wife from paying attention to what her husband does in the evenings (it's Stan Laurel, okay?). We follow their misfortunes as functional dysfunctional parents as they try to get the baby to sleep, hoping to get a bit of rest themselves.
Released the same year as three of the most widely praised shorts Laurel & Hardy produced, THE MUSIC BOX, HELPMATES and TOWED IN A HOLE, it is both logical and paradoxical that THEIR FIRST MISTAKE is so rarely granted a mention. On the one hand, the three aforementioned films are better constructed on a technical level, and most of you probably think that they are also funnier. In other words, they stand out as tough to equal. Yet at the same time, this is precisely one major reason why this film should be noted; while the other films surely provide us with the boys at their best, this film demonstrates with remarkable directness, more than any other film I've seen with the boys, the very composition of Laurel & Hardy, the essence of their magic which makes us love them. When Hardy pretends to be talking to his "new boss Mr. Jones" on the telephone to hide for his wife that the man on the other end in fact is Laurel, the forever-lost Stanley examines his own mirror picture in mystification. Not like Shremp would do it; that is, just taking a casual look into the mirror to assure himself that he's not gone insane. Not like Harpo would do it; that is, genuinely believing that he has turned into someone else. No, Laurel is neither that bright nor that stupid. He's quite aware that the possibility that he's turned into another person is minor, but he does begin to wonder, convinced that there must be some explanation to this, but he can't think of what that possibly can be. In other words, he's the closest to a true human being one can imagine, with the difference that he lacks the self-consciousness to hide his ridiculous puzzlement.
As to be expected, eventually Mrs. Hardy realizes the true identity of "Mr. Jones," and a wild fight is off. This is the noisiest part of the film, despite the crying baby who is soon to enter. However, what we are presented with next is yet another, crystal-clear demonstration of the greatness of the boys, of what set them aside as virtually unbeatable when at the peak of their game: they lock themselves into another room, lie down on a bed to breath out, whereupon Laurel asks innocently, "What did she say about you going out tonight?" We expect Oliver to explode at that remark, or at least to emphasize his contempt for Laurel's stupidity with some violence. But he appears totally calm, answers Laurel's question as though it was the most normal thing to ask on the most normal day in the world, and he remains just that calm. The contrast between pure, violent slapstick and subtle, quiet humor is amazing.
Sadly for them, but fortunately to us, the peace doesn't last for long. The final part of the film, with Stan telling Ollie, grinning quietly, that the baby woke up after the latter fell over a lamp, or Oliver feeding Stan with a bottle of milk half asleep, mistaking him for the baby, had me laugh so hard I lost my breath. I know such routines might sound overly typical when I describe them here, but it is the flawless timing of the boys, with their constantly unpredictable reactions to each predicament, that makes their acts timeless. In fact, you must pardon me if there are any spelling grammars right here; I'm chuckling to pieces right now as I think of Laurel's undetermined facial expression as he tries to figure out a logical coherence between the large hole in the door, caused after Hardy's body broke through it, and the fact that this hole remains there regardless of whether the door is open or not! If there exists a definite examination on the personalities of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, this film could very well be it; what's better, you get plenty of big laughs on the way.
Isn't it odd how I told you that the obscure stuff of a major artist often stands out as the most fascinating material he or she ever did, with the argument that we are able to view a little-known thing through a more objective perspective, with less demand of analysis? Well, I didn't lie. I just felt like analyzing because these things strike me as relevant to this film. Had THEIR FIRST MISTAKE been as popular as THE MUSIC BOX, I probably wouldn't have bothered. I would, however, have laughed every bit as hard as I did.