1 LAUREL AND HARDY
In the USA the expression ‘breaking bad’ is a southern slang alternative to ‘raising hell’. Both phrases communicate a sense of entitlement and compare to the ambition of villainous cowboys who pledge to go ‘straight to hell’, men who will not be denied. Vince Gilligan is the creator of Breaking Bad. He was born and raised in Richmond Virginia but has spent too long in Southern California to be considered a Southern ‘good ol’ boy’. Something of his Virginian background, though, remains. He has a sense of entitlement, and this is confirmed by the audacious and demanding plot absurdities of Breaking Bad. If audiences want to share the wild world of Walter White they are also obliged to accept the barely credible events of Breaking Bad. Without looking the other way most viewers have settled for the deal. Speak to a devotee of Breaking Bad and they will mention how they find it addictive. The hit TV show has been described as both a black comedy and a dark drama. Those elements are present in various episodes but the TV series indulges rather than challenges an audience. There is nothing wrong with a writer having a desire to please but if his interest is in dark drama, he will need to add comedic elements. Vince Gilligan and his writers understand their responsibilities.
Movie slapstick comedians have a greater sense of entitlement than most. The witless idiots created by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton wreck everything around them but somehow survive and claim their right to disappear down the street and into the next comic short. Nothing demonstrates this naive self-belief better than the stunt where the gable end of a house falls on top of Keaton. He survives because he is standing where the open doorway lands. Harold Lloyd was possessed of so much self-belief and entitlement that he thought nothing of hanging on to the fingers of a clock attached to a skyscraper. Stunts were not faked. Keaton was calculating, Chaplin was sly and nimble, and Lloyd was a bespectacled daredevil.
The Laurel and Hardy movie Way Out West was once a seasonal feature on British TV. Now it has disappeared from the schedules although British cinemas have recently shown the film Stan & Ollie. This gentle and sympathetic elegy was inspired by the stage tour the comic duo undertook in the UK. By then the comics were old and suffering from deteriorating health. Fame and the pressure to perform meant they were also battling with themselves. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are the two heroes of Breaking Bad. Walter and Jesse are ill at ease amongst the violence of tough guys, the people who pressure them to make drugs or perform. Like Stan and Ollie, they struggle. For Stan, Ollie, Walt and Jess exceptional success has a sting in the tale. While they age they will be measured against what they used to promise. The film Stan & Ollie appears to be a labour of love. The nostalgic producers of the movie will and should settle for a niche audience. Laurel and Hardy had a famous catchphrase, ‘Well here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’. Invariably it is uttered by the pompous Ollie to the bewildered Stan. Ollie is usually the man with the plan, and the confusion of Stan adds chaos although the misplaced ambition of Ollie is also important. The plans of Ollie are not only never realised they produce results beyond the imagination of two ill matched partners.
‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’ could be used to describe what happens to Walt and Jesse. The two heroes stumble into the unpredictable. Vince Gilligan has been willing to share his ambitions for Breaking Bad. He is proud of the neat use of the number 737. Near the beginning of Season Two the objective of Walt is made clear. At a point when Jesse has doubts about the future of their working relationship Walt tells Jesse that he needs to make $737,000. This will pay for his medical bills and leave his family secure when he dies from his cancer. By the end of Season Two the Ollie equivalent or Walt has become accomplished or at least demonstrated his value to his business partners. His success, though, has repercussions. The crash of a Boeing 737 and the deaths of 167 passengers is more than another nice mess. It is, as Gilligan makes clear in an interview, an unintended consequence. An almost charitable fund of $737,000 is the aim, and a wrecked Boeing 737 is the result. Hardy and Walt always imagine they are doing the right thing. It is other people who get them into the nice mess. In the case of the Boeing air crash it is the air traffic controller who is grieving over the daughter that Walt decided to not rescue from dying. Walt had his reasons. The fear of Gilligan of unintended consequences means that the creator behind Breaking Bad has conservative instincts. The chaos in Breaking Bad exists as a warning. In Breaking Bad the daredevils are chastised, and in Laurel and Hardy films it is the stupid.
Ollie and Laurel are opposites. Ollie is overweight, and Laurel is slim. Ollie acts as if he is the expert and the source of knowledge. Laurel is timid and slow thinking. The physical difference between Walt and Jesse is defined by their difference in age. Walt is 50 years old. Jesse used to be a pupil at the school where Walt teaches chemistry. Walt is not big and round like Ollie but his body has a middle-aged slump. The actor Bryan Cranston put on a stone for the part. Jesse is short and slim. He has the build of an adolescent. Walt remembers Jesse as one of his dimmer pupils. It is Walt who has the knowledge that will enable the production of superior crystal meth. The expertise of Walt and the stupidity of Jesse lead to comic mishaps and misunderstandings. When faced with difficulties Walt becomes curious and applies his academic intellect to not just analysis but the acquisition of authority. Jesse, like Stan Laurel, meanwhile looks baffled and utters the occasional protest.
Most comedy duos consist of a figure of fun, the comic, and a straight man that attempts to explain and contribute sense. Ollie and Hardy were different. Neither Hardy nor Laurel is sensible and more important they were both comics. They were a success in the movies because the camera could cut from one comic facial expression to the other. Both men made a comic contribution. This happens in Breaking Bad. Both Walt and Jesse have their comic moments, often when they are astonished by naivety and ignorance in the other but sometimes when one of them overestimates his capability. Hardy was good at registering disgust at the incompetence of Laurel. Bryan Cranston is a capable actor and has the same ability. He coughs, splutters and raises his eyebrows high enough to wrinkle an already crinkled forehead. Amongst the main characters of Breaking Bad there is a straight man but this time it is a female. Skyler White is the wife of Walt. Like most straight men, Skyler is bewildered by others. She plays the straight man role in scenes with her weird husband, her daft sister and even when she is surrounded by what constitutes her whole confused family, her husband, son, sister and brother-in-law.
Neither Ollie nor Hardy has the figure for performance as an entertainer. Ollie looks like his breath will be inadequate, and Stan is so slight he looks anonymous. Before panchromatic film was developed the blue eyes of Laurel were that pale they looked white on the cinema screen. They do not look like men who will create chaos and wreckage. The appearance of Walt and Jesse also misleads. Even with a hat that he wears as a stage prop Walt does not look like a man capable of murder. His manner is too anxious to suggest someone that will outwit criminal gang leaders and hard headed policeman. Jesse is prone to simper and he looks like someone who could be pushed over by the index finger of one of the chest beating villains.
Laurel and Hardy were masters of what is known as the tit for tat fight. This consists of an accident between two people and subsequent retaliation that escalates to apocalyptic destruction. The surprise and bewilderment at each escalation mustered by Hardy and Laurel cranks up the comedy. There is tit for tat between Walt and Jesse although much of it is verbal. The comedic effect is achieved by the difference in the arguments of Walt and Jesse. They do not communicate as equals and most of the time they will exaggerate the slight or offence.
It takes five seasons or 62 episodes for the partnership between Walt and Jesse to develop to its fullest extent but, unlike the relationship between Stan and Ollie, it changes. In both instances, though, two men bewilder each other until the very end. In the films of Laurel and Hardy and the episodes of Breaking Bad we meet two couples that for the benefit of everyone including themselves should never have met. More people in Breaking Bad would have stayed alive without the partnership of Walt and Jesse, and in the films of Laurel and Hardy there would have been fewer nice messes.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.