This is the story of a man who turned the other cheek – and got punched on the nose. Stan (Stan Laurel) and Ollie (Oliver Hardy) have a job selling Christmas trees door to door, but it’s not going too well, as seemingly nobody in California is interested in buying one. One house they try sees a middle-aged woman open the door, and Ollie asks her if she would like to purchase a tree, but she turns them down, so he asks her if her husband would like to buy one, and she replies she has no husband, whereupon Stan asks her if she did have a husband, would he like to buy one then? She slams the door in their faces…
Laurel and Hardy had a habit of demonstrating the comedy potential of escalating chaos, especially in their short films which by keeping things brief and to the point they could achieve bigger laughs and more memorable scenarios. The simplicity of these little movies was what kept them popular across the world, as everyone could understand them, and when they moved on from silents into the sound era, they were careful to preserve that global audience by making their productions in a variety of languages, an ingenious idea that again showed off their mastery of the purity of a single, excellent concept universally understood.
Big Business was one of their final silents, and deployed the tit for tat plotline they would employ a few times, in this case with a rivalry between their aggrieved salesmen and the man who didn’t want to accept their wares. He was regular Laurel and Hardy foil James Finlayson, the Scottish character actor who when he was allowed to speak, created the “D’oh!” exclamation that Dan Castellaneta borrowed for his Homer Simpson voice. One imagines Finlayson would have been delighted at this second element of comedy immortality, but his screen encounters with the most famous double act the world has ever seen would be more than sufficient to make him last in the collective memory.
Part of what made Big Business so funny was that wholesale rejection of Christmas as the season of goodwill: never mind that the boys are selling a representation of the spirit of peace on Earth to all men, it was enough that it should drive them to acts of petty destruction when they were scorned. It starts innocently enough, with Finlayson simply the latest homeowner turning them away, but then the tree they were trying to sell gets caught in his door, over and over, necessitating the ringing of the bell over and over, which puts all three in a bad mood. Finlayson grows so annoyed that he chops the tree into pieces, and suddenly the story kicks into high gear.
There follows a selection of gags of one-upmanship as Stan and Ollie proceed to wreck the would-be customer’s house while he in turn wrecks their car and the trees carried therein. The legend around Big Business as told by producer Hal Roach was that the house they had been given permission to use was the one next door, and they had accidentally wrecked the wrong property, a nice anecdote but one denied by Laurel in later years, though whatever happened in real life, the fiction was a lot funnier as these grown men descend to the level of the playground in their behaviour. It’s especially hilarious to see the usually meek and mild Stan going absolutely nuts as he and Ollie chop down trees, play baseball with Finlayson’s ornaments, and demolish his front door as meanwhile their rival somehow manages to blow up their vehicle (!). Sometimes it’s very cathartic to watch something so stupid it’ll make you laugh, and Big Business was a festive treat in that welcome tradition.