Probably the most famous of L&H’s silent films, ‘Liberty’ is an entry into the ‘thrill comedy’ genre as exemplified by the stuntwork of Harold Lloyd’s famous comedy ‘The Freshman’ as well as any number of death-defying stunts performed by Buster Keaton. Part of the machismo of the knockabout comedian of the day was in this ‘anything for a laugh’ bit–on-set safety was yet a phrase that anyone knew or cared about. The bulk of ‘Liberty’s’ running time is taken up with a hilarious and terrifying set-piece of L&H trapped on top of a skyscraper-in-progress, attempting to get back to the lift that brought them up, with no railings to hang onto. Stan Laurel’s acting–his knee-wobbling, his terror-stricken face–actually render this more terrifying than funny. Indeed it borders on excruciating with the constant near-death gags.
How did they film this? Well, apparently it wasn’t entirely what it seems. There have been several explanations as to the optical trickery that was used to convince the viewer they were as high and as unsecured as they appear to me. None of these involved trick/process photography though. They really were up in the sky while doing this, though not nearly as high as it looks. In Randy Skretvedt’s invaluable book ‘Laurel and Hardy–The Magic Behind the Movies’ we get this explanation from a gentleman who worked on the film named Thomas Benton Roberts: ‘The Roach construction gang built a framework for L&H to scamper upon. Three stories of of supposedly steel structure up on top of the Western Costume building; actually it was all made out of wood. The roof of the building was 150 feet and we were working three stories above that. Each time we changed the set-up of a shot, we’d have to move the camera platform around…’ A wooden platform was also placed below, out of camera range, for safety. (A wooden platform? Was there a mattress?) Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not going up three stories above 150 feet (200 feet perhaps? more?) to goof around for a short comedy. That sounds only marginally safer and frankly it does nothing to explain the long shots clearly showing downtown LA from a very high angle behind L&H. Apparently it took them twelve exhausting days to film the sequence.
Like a number of the silent L&H’s there are risqué gags that are a little hard to believe got by whatever censors then existed (if there were any pre-Hays Office). L&H’s constant attempts in the opening reel to exchange their pants (a mix-up after a jailbreak has resulted in them each wearing the others pants) leads to a number of people catching them, clearly thinking they’re two men looking for a secret place to undress and…you know the rest. All in all, ‘Liberty’ is without a wasted frame, a truly seminal silent masterpiece. It doesn’t matter how many times I see it, how many explanations I hear for the skyscraper comedy, it still makes me nauseous…in a good way.