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June 30, 2020

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

sons of the desert.jpg
Sons of the Desert (William A. Seiter - 1933)

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Way Out West (James W. Horne - 1937)
plus nineteen shorts
MVD Visual / Kit Parker Films BD Regions ABC four-disc set

First, an admission. I have not seen everything in the four disc set. Part of it is because I like posting my thoughts on new home video releases on the street date, or as close to it as possible. And also, there is just so much stuff here to be seen, with an official running time of 485 minutes. While there may be some who will want to screen their own personal marathon, I prefer smaller increments. Two features, nineteen shorts (plus alternate versions of "Brats" and "Berth Marks"), plus commentary tracks, photo galleries and trailers, there is quite a lot to unpack. There is material to be gleaned by the more serious film scholar, but the main audience for this collection will more likely be the legions of fans.

For myself, this is the first time watching any Laurel and Hardy films since 2006. I was at the San Francisco Silent Festival where three shorts directed by Leo McCarey were shown to an audience of both adults and appreciative children. I am also part of that generation who grew up watching "the boys" on network television over fifty years ago. What struck me in watching this collection, which is mostly in chronological order of production, are those aspects that changed as well as what remained consistent.

The short, "Their First Mistake" (George Marshall - 1932) with an uncredited screenplay by Stan Laurel, could well be a key film. Hardy's onscreen wife complains about his spending more time with Laurel than with her. Hardy is later served divorce papers, as is Laurel for "alienation of affection". What can be found in film after film is the story of two men who prefer each others company to the almost virtual exclusion of anyone else. "Their First Mistake" continues with Hardy having adopted a child, suddenly in the situation of being a single parent, with a very funny look at gender roles. More extreme is "Twice Two" (James Parrott - 1933) with Stan and Ollie each having sisters played by the pair in drag, with Stan's sister married to Ollie and Ollie's sister married to Stan. Even if certain things might be unsaid, I do not think the filmmakers, least of all Stan Laurel, was unaware of the implications of the team's onscreen appearances.

Laurel and Hardy as a comedy team almost eclipses their earlier work. Oliver Hardy started appearing in films in 1915, and even tried his hand at directing several films before concentrating on acting. Stan Laurel was part of Fred Karno's team of British music hall performers who came to Hollywood in 1920. Along with Laurel was fellow comic performer Charlie Chaplin. The success of the "Little Tramp" was such that Laurel appeared as an imitator in several films, while Hardy was in supporting roles in films starring another Chaplin imitator, Billy West. Hardy had some comic leads, while Laurel eventually became a star in his own right, as well as a writer-director. What also makes Laurel and Hardy unique is that they were well into their thirties at the time they officially became the comic team, each with more than a decade of experience both in front and behind the camera. On screen, the two were equals as physically comic performers. Stan Laurel was the more active of the two regarding the production of the films, even listed as the producer of the feature Way Out West.

When one looks at the credits of the actors and production team, there is some criss-crossing of friends and relatives within the Hal Roach studio. Writer-director James Parrott had a brother, Charles, better known as Charley Chase, whose manic appearance is one of the highlights of Sons of the Desert. James W. Horne, director of Way Out West, was also the uncle of George Stevens, Stan Laurel's chosen cinematographer on "Battle of the Century" (1927) and "Brats" (1930). Leo McCarey's younger brother, Raymond, directed "Scram!" (1933). For all of information provided by L & H scholar Randy Skretvedt on the making of Sons of the Desert, there is no explanation as to how what is arguably the best of the feature films, was directed by William Seiter, who along with cinematographer Kenneth Peach was from outside of the Hal Roach studio.

More scholarly is Richard Bann's commentary for "The Battle of the Century". What we have is reconstruction with previously lost footage, some stills with explanatory titles, and a scan of a 16mm print. The film is most noted for the climatic pie fight which reportedly used 3000 real pies. Of interest is the brief sight of an almost svelte Eugene Pallette as an insurance salesman. Bann discusses the history of the making of the film its history as a lost film.

My only conclusion is that I do prefer the pre-code films, the gags are both more savage and more funny. Laurel and Hardy exist in a world of domineering wives, belligerent authority figures and mechanical failure. And if the former Stanley Arthur Jefferson remains the more beloved, there may be little that makes me laugh as consistently as watching Oliver Norvell Hardy getting beaned on the head.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 30, 2020 07:35 AM