by Samuel Wilson
The Man Nobody Knows, one of the best-selling non-fiction books of the 1920s, described Jesus Christ as the ultimate salesman. That idea may have been floating in the mind of Hal Roach’s title writer H. M. Walker when he introduced Big Business as “the story of a man who turned the other cheek, and got punched in the nose.” But who is the man? Is it Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy or their antagonist James Finlayson? Which of them turns the other cheek? This is Big Business, after all – arguably Laurel and Hardy’s best-remembered silent comedy and a definitive example of the team’s “tit for tat” trope. “Tit for tat” is the opposite of turning the other cheek, it would seem, so what’s Walker trying to say?
Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy are trying to sell Christmas trees in California, a proposition that seemed more ludicrous in 1929 than it may today. Finlayson is their third stop of the day, after an embarrassing but uneventful encounter with a single woman and a confrontation with a hammer-wielding but otherwise unseen homeowner. Finlayson gives them another flat no, and that’d be the end of that, except that the boys’ sample tree gets stuck in his door. This happens twice but things might still have ended peacefully had Stan not gotten a “big business idea,” rung Finlayson’s doorbell yet again and asked whether he’d reserve a tree for next year. The title of the picture has been invoked, so maybe Stan’s the man the title writer means. Maybe turning the other cheek means not taking no for an answer. That’s the way of a salesman, and that might be a kind of martyrdom, depending on your point of view. Attention will be paid to such men.
Finlayson escalates things by taking his hedge clipper to Stan’s tree. No play-by-play for the rest is necessary, except to summarize the absurdity of it. Stan and Ollie avenge their trees by wrecking Finlayson’s doorway; Finn avenges his doorbell by wrecking the boys’ car; they avenge the car by wrecking Finn’s house. At no point does either party try to stop the other from doing its damage. Each side is content to watch the other at work and then make reprisals. It’s not as if they dare each other, but a matter of each letting the other take his turn. While all three grow more frantic as the struggle escalates – the indelible image is of Finlayson wrestling on the sidewalk with a Christmas tree, in a struggle you can imagine him losing – they retain an almost instinctual sense of order.
The combatants rarely strike each other, preferring to hit each other where they live. While Stan and Ollie target Finlayson’s property, Finn targets the boys’ livelihood: their car and their inventory. Maybe their battle isn’t so absurd, after all. Big Business portrays a civil war of the bourgeoisie, the irrepressible conflict of the drive to sell and the desire to be left alone, the sanctity of commerce versus the sanctity of property. The first casualty is privacy, but the loss is hardly noticed. The fight becomes a spectacle, drawing an audience of Finlayson’s neighbors, none of whom make an effort to stop the destruction. Even the inevitable cop is content to remain a scorekeeping spectator until Stan accidentally injures him. The mayhem seems to be something that everyone, even the participants, wants to see happen. Maybe it’s impossible for spectators to take sides when the bourgeoisie turns against itself. Maybe, like an apologetic mafioso, they see it all as “just business.” Or maybe they’ve been desensitized from watching too many slapstick comedies. Why wouldn’t it look as funny to them as it does to us?
So maybe Big Business isn’t an imitation of Christ, but it is a divine comedy. James W. Horne directed it, overshadowed on either side by “supervising director” Leo McCarey and cameraman George Stevens. It’s a Hal Roach picture, exemplifying the producer’s character-driven, reaction-shot oriented approach to slapstick that raised his studio above Mack Sennett’s in the long war of fun factories. Laurel and Hardy took the Roach style to its highest, funniest level. Big Business is not quite their best work, but it’s still one of the best comedy shorts of the silent era.
How Big Business made the Top 100:
Bobby J. No. 9
Allan Fish No. 13
Samuel Wilson No. 31
John Greco No. 35
Sam Juliano No. 52
Jon Warner No. 55
Peter M. No. 57
Bobby McCartney No. 59
Jamie Uhler No. 60