February 19, 2015
The Big Noise – US, 1944
There are generally three kinds of inventors in motion pictures. The first is an intelligent, yet average guy who uses his mental capacity to create new and mostly useful items. The inventors found in television shows such as Gilligan’s Island and in films like Flubber are examples of this type. There are also inventors that are somewhat on the insane side and may be in pursuit of inventions that will bring about great destruction. To find examples of these, look no further than films based on comic books, horror films, and Bond adventures. Finally, there are quirky, good-natured professors. These eccentric characters are typically found in comedies and may have hair styles that are a cross between Billy Idol’s and Albert Einstein’s. Think Doctor Emmet Brown from Back to the Future or Julius Kelp from The Nutty Professor.
I mention this, for of these three types only two of them seem to have the potential to be truly enthralling to an audience. The other one tends to be slightly bland, often resulting in the character’s inventions’ being more interesting that the inventors themselves. And this leads me to the inventor we meet at the beginning of Mal St. Claire’s The Big Noise, one Alva P. Hartley, played by Arthur Space. Hartley is an example of the kind of inventor that is neither menacing enough to be frightening nor peculiar enough to be intriguing, and this hurts the film a great deal. After all, if a character is not very interesting, it is unwise for a film to feature him so prominently.
In the film, Hartley is a hardworking stiff trying to do his part for his country during the Second World War, a conflict that he cannot participate in due to his poor physical condition, and, therefore, the invention of which he is most proud is a bomb that has the potential to destroy entire cities and simultaneously end thousands of people’s lives. While this idea may seem rather jarring today, it was not at the time of the film’s release. The question of whether it was morally correct to bring such destruction down upon one mortal enemy did not reach the public’s collective consciousness for quite some time. However, it is sometimes hard to reconcile the devastation promised by this new weapon with the extreme practicality of many of Hartley’s other inventions, many of which are designed to save space and avoid waste.
Through a plot device that is scarcely credible, Hartley becomes convinced that his invention has been accepted by the military and must be guarded at all cost. Therefore, he decides to enlist help protecting it. This is not an unreasonable decision given these conditions, but the film has Hartley hire not bodyguards, but private detectives who do no actual detective work. Ah, but these are not just any private detectives. They are interns who double as janitors, and they attend “Detective Night School” in the hopes of one day becoming a pair of modern-day Sherlock Holmes’. Of course, I am referring to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The Big Noise spends a great deal of time – too much in fact – demonstrating Hartley’s many inventions, many of which are fun without being outright funny. I enjoyed the empty room that was really a guest bedroom, and I had high hopes that it would be used later to great comic effect. It wasn’t. Other parts of the film are devoted to short plot developments that similarly lead nowhere. The most promising of these has to do with Hartley’s rich aunt, Sophie (Esther Howard), whose husbands have all met untimely deaths. She takes an instant liking to Oliver, and in one scene, the two of them look at a photo album containing portraits of the deceased. For some reason, they all bear a striking resemblance to Oliver. Sophie is also given the interesting habit of sleepwalking with a knife in one hand. This indeed has dark comic potential, yet the gag is dropped as quickly as it is introduced. It is as if screen writer Scott Darling were employing the “one and done” technique – one scene, and it’s on to the next plot point.
Eventually a pair of common thieves learns about the bomb and sets out to steal it, reasoning that they can make a fortune on it on the black market. This leads to a long chase across the country and gives Laurel and Hardy a chance to reenact a scene from their early 1929 short film Berth Marks. This should have been quite enjoyable, yet the stroll down memory lane feels more like a desperate attempt to extend the length of the film rather than a true celebration of their earlier work. In fact, the film’s closing moments will simultaneously remind people of one of the pair’s far superior works, Flying Tigers, while also providing an example of why some films lose their relevance or effectiveness. Time simply reveals them to have been historically inaccurate and culturally problematic.
The Big Noise is never a wholly terrible film; it’s just that the film never has any consistent momentum. It progresses much as an erratic person out for a walk might, talking one step and appearing to know his ultimate destination only to stop and suddenly change course for no reason. It is almost as if no one knew where the film was supposed to go, and so it is relentlessly going in new directions, none of them given the chance to develop or become anything of interest. As always, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy do their best to infuse their scenes with the proper amount of levity, warmth, and energy, yet throughout the film, they are hampered by a script that never seems to know what to do with them. Perhaps that is it why the end sees them sitting on the remains of a bombed out ship in the middle of the ocean. What better metaphor for the film than the image of the comedy geniuses left alone out at sea fending for themselves? After all, they got little help from anyone else involved in this picture. (on DVD)