In the minds of countless millions of moviegoers the world over, certain celluloid images are indelible. There's Clark Gable looking dashing in his Rhett Butler garb, telling Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." There's Judy Garland dancing down the yellow brick road with her three companions, Humphrey Bogart in his Casablanca trench coat, Charlie Chaplin waddling down the road with cane in hand, and Harold Lloyd hanging from that big clock on that tall building.
Which brings us to the movie with the world's most beloved comic duo trying to push a piano up a seemingly insurmountable flight of stairs.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy filmed The Music Box during an 11-day span, from December 7th through December 17th, in 1931. Although they may not have realized it during those 11 days, they were filming not only their most enduring cinematic image and their single most beloved short, but their only film in the over 100 they worked on together to be awarded an Academy Award.
Some original titles for the The Music Box were Top Heavy, Words and Music and The Up and Up. One has to wonder if they hadn't ultimately decided on the much catchier The Music Box, would this short have achieved it's "classic" status and immortality.
The plot is simple enough: two dimwits (Stan and Ollie) are assigned to deliver a piano to a home on top of a huge flight of stairs. Various perils, mistakes, confusions mess-ups and angry encounters occur along the way (as if you didn't suspect). As in any Laurel and Hardy film, the boys are inept and incompetent due to three major factors: other's interference, the laws of nature, but most of all their own stupidity.
We watch as, over and over, the boys strain and suffer, pushing the piano up the daunting flight of steps, only to fail, each time watching in frustration as the piano rolls back down to the bottom (once with Ollie painfully hanging on and being dragged down with it).
The piano is to be a surprise present to Billy Gilbert, who plays a borderline psychotic named Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffer, (M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F.F.F. & F) from his wife, played by a much saner and less volatile Hazel Howell. Gilbert delivers a hilarious, over-the-top performance as the volatile professor, speaking in an accent consisting of a mixture of German, Dutch, Greek and Italian (Gilbert said he didn't want to offend any one group).
According to Billy Gilbert, the original idea for The Music Box came about when he and Stan Laurel were driving around the Silver Lake area in Los Angeles and saw the steps. They figured it would be funny if Stan and Ollie had to deliver something up the daunting flight, the original idea being a washing machine. But soon the central object was changed to a piano, because a piano was "huge and cumbersome, but also delicate."
Interestingly, The Music Box was actually a slight "re-make" of an earlier 1927 Laurel and Hardy short called Hats Off. in Hats Off, a silent short, the boys similarly try to move an object up stairs, said object being a washing machine. (Sadly, Hats Off is now regarded as a "lost film" and we can never compare it to The Music Box.)
Was there actually a real piano in the crate Stan and Ollie are moving? According to some sources, no, it is just an empty crate. But according to Roy Seawright, a cartoonist who worked on The Music Box- "There was a real piano in the crate. It was something you'd never buy- but you needed it to be there for the weight."
A man named Thomas Benton Roberts built the crates for the piano. Several pianos were used and destroyed during the making of the film. The pianos seen rolling down the steps in the film were also real (and on rollers); you can hear the actual piano discordant notes playing as the piano descends down the stairway. The only "fake'" piano was the one Billy Gilbert destroys in his frenzy at the film's conclusion. This piano was made of balsa wood and stray piano parts, so it was easy to smash up and destroy.
With all the slapstick, chaos and mayhem in the short, were there any injuries during filming? Surprisingly, no, the only actual injury was the sunburned bald spot on top of Ollie's head.
Although the piano was supposedly a "player" piano, the actual notes were played by T. Marvin Hatley, who played various tunes and notes, just out of camera range. As Stan and Ollie do their delightful little dance while cleaning up the room they have thoroughly destroyed, it was Hatley at the keyboard, playing as they dance. Similarly, as Billy Gilbert destroys the piano, Hatley played alongside him, contributing accompanying notes to each stage of Billy's crazy destruction.
The main song Hatley played on the "player" piano was "The King's Horse," a song composed by Noel Gay and Harry Graham. Originally written as a fox trot song, "The King's Horse" was to be ominously beloved a few years later by the Nazi government and was frequently used as a propaganda song in Hitler's Germany. It was thought to symbolize English weakness and toothles-ness in the face of Nazi strength.
The bit in Gilbert's destruction scene where the piano plays "The Star Spangled Banner" and Billy and the boys stand at attention was timely. "The Star Spangled Banner" had only been officially declared as our national anthem nine moths earlier, by president Herbert Hoover.
How many steps are there in The Music Box steps? That immortal question's answer is often disputed, even among Laurel and Hardy aficionados- according to some, 131, others say 132 or 133. If you want to count them yourself, go right ahead. The world-famous steps are located in the Los Angeles Silver Lake district, between 923 and 935 Vendome street, near Del Monte.
No, these are not the same steps the three stooges used in their similar short An Ache in Every Stake (1941), where Moe, Larry and Curly try to deliver not a piano, but blocks of ice, up a huge stairway. For Hollywood fans and tourists who want to make a complete pilgrimage, the Stooges' steps are located at 2212 Edendale Place, in the Silver Lake district, but two miles northeast. The step count of the Stooges stairs is actually slightly higher. Moe, Larry and Curly had to trod up 147 steps in their short.
Stan Laurel knew The Music Box was a gem and edited the film pretty much around the clock. Stan would inhabit the editing room, having a sandwich for sustenance, stopping only to catch a few hours of sleep before resuming the editing process. Stan was aided in editing by Bert Jordan, who considered The Music Box to be Stan and Ollie's finest short.
The Music Box was released on April 16, 1932. It proved to be hugely popular with both the fans and the critics. On November 18, 1932, The Music Box was awarded the first-ever Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Comedy) of 1931-32. In 1997, the National Film Preservation Board selected it for the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Awards aside, The Music Box remains one of the most hilarious comedies ever made. Like a fine wine, a beautiful song or an immortal painting, it seems to grow even better with age.
Better? Maybe. Just as funny or even funnier? Definitely.