There is a scene in the documentary “Buster Keaton Rides Again” where Keaton describes the utter simplicity of a typical Laurel and Hardy routine. The Great Stone Face smiles as he recalls, “they could make a whole picture that way.”
The brilliance of Laurel and Hardy is their ability to take a single situation and milk it into an entire subject. Their Oscar winner “The Music Box” is a good example. The entire concept is “Laurel and Hardy try to deliver a piano to a home atop a long flight of steps.” And within those parameters, Stan and Ollie engage in three reels of perfectly timed and expertly executed slapstick situations.
“Berth Marks” was made in 1929, just as the talking picture revolution was sweeping the movie industry and studios hastily reformatted for sound movie production. “Berth Marks” is Laurel and Hardy’s second sound movie, and it is probably the one among their earliest sound films closest to the spirit of their silents. There is very little dialog. And while the single situation in this movie is a highlight rather than the entire film’s concept, it is still an excellent example of the duo’s style.
Essentially, Laurel and Hardy are vaudeville musicians who must board a train, undress and sleep, get dressed as they approach their destination, and disembark to head for their next gig. Sounds simple. But one complication after another is the norm for a Laurel and Hardy comedy.
While the pacing is uniformly slow, there really isn’t a wasted moment in “Berth Marks.” The duo rushes about looking for each other at the depot, hurries to board the train as it pulls out. They drop all of their sheet music and it blows in the wind so they can’t gather it. They run, hop the train, and are finally on board. “What are we going to do without our music?” Ollie asks. “We can fake it,” says a confident Stan.
After some fun slapstick with the duo trying to climb into their upper berth, the central portion of this short has them attempting to undress in the cramped quarters so they can go to sleep. The camera is fixed perfectly on the two of them in a close medium shot, keeping them barely within the frame as they twist, turn, and struggle to accomplish their task. The netting gets tangled over Laurel’s head. The overweight Hardy constantly complains for Stan to “stop crowding.” Naturally once they have undressed, the conductor calls out their destination, and they must hastily disembark. Standing on the tracks in their underwear, the train having moved on, they realize they left their instruments on board.
There is a tangential bit of knockabout among the extras in “Berth Marks,” as a group of train passengers engage in one of the duo’s trademark bits where a single action evolves into a wild free-for-all. In this case, the inadvertent ripping of a man’s clothing, his mistaken response to another man, and so on, until all of the passengers are attacking one another in the same manner. It is amusing enough, but does not enhance the central idea.
Some viewers, especially modern ones, have a hard time tapping into the relaxed pace of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy, and their milking of a single situation. However,”Berth Marks” is what the duo’s comedy is all about. The mounting frustration, the absent minded reaction, the attempt to exhibit dignity despite the situation, are all key elements to their characters. All of these levels are exhibhited within the framework of “Berth Marks,” a historically significant two-reel comedy.
Berth Marks can be purchased here