Laurel and Hardy Fox Comedies On DVD
Those of us who love Laurel and Hardy are willing to make all sorts of allowances for them. We’ve even come to embrace their 20th Fox comedies, something quite unthinkable during collecting days when 8mm Hal Roach shorts and Blackhawk Bulletins enabled us to focus on their best. Maybe it’s because the later features, weak as they are in so many ways, afford us a glimpse of our own frailties, as we grow older along with the films. It's well known what Stan and Oliver went through in making them --- the compromises, insensitive producers --- all those parallels with what we’ve had to put up with in our working lives. There’s a poignancy about these near-the-final-bow features that no one at that time could have appreciated. Laurel and Hardy’s popularity (with their public if not critics) during WWII was considerable. Their act may have creaked, but no one was better loved, and all eight wartime features were solid moneymakers. Stan by all accounts regretted loss of creative control, but he and Babe remained major names to be reckoned with.
Service comedies are well and good, unless you’re doing them in your fifties, and competing directly with a juggernaut like Abbott and Costello, just out the gate with Buck Privates and widely accepted as the template for screen comedy. Lois Laurel says A&C actually came to her father for gag counsel prior to their starring bow, so it’s doubly ironic that L&H ran such a distant second to these upstarts. Great Guns is clearly a B film, though production trappings surpass a last few they did for Hal Roach and United Artists release. There’s just no way a 1941 Stan and Ollie can run as fast or fall down so hard as Bud and Lou. Age issues are front and center in our consciousness most of the time. I found myself noticing Laurel’s weight in one scene --- he’s 51 here, and it’s up --- but hey, so am I and my weight's up as well. That’s where much of the drama lies for lifelong fans as we watch and rewatch these things. We identify with the boys to the point of projecting our own lives and experiences onto theirs. Is that unhealthy? May-be, but it sure enriches the viewing experience. Everybody derides romantic subplots in Laurel and Hardy features. All surplusage, but when it's Sheila Ryan, the whole enterprise becomes less painful. That’s her with L&H in a typical comedy plus leg art sitting routine on all their Fox releases. You'll note also a leaf tattoo on Hardy’s forearm in this barracks shot --- he’d had that most of his life, and it crops up occasionally in stills going all the way back to a partnership's onset, though I’ve never noticed it onscreen --- have any of you? Old gags are dredged from silent days ... we take notice thanks to decades-long kinship with earlier L&H subjects, an advantage 1941 audiences definitely did not share. Chances are they wouldn’t recall Stan carrying both ends of a board as having originated with 1927’s The Finishing Touch. It’s not as though theatres were running silent shorts in the forties, and Blackhawk Films was years away from releasing L&H on home movie formats. I’ll bet the hoary old gag brought 40's houses slap down (according to exhibitor reportage, all of Great Guns did). Boxoffice money trees were blossoming --- against a negative cost of $280,000, Great Guns took $514,000 in domestic rentals and $575,000 foreign for a worldwide total of $1.0 million. The final profit of $511,000 was assurance that Laurel and Hardy would continue to be a welcome presence at Fox.
Jitterbugs is generally regarded best of their six at Fox --- it’s pleasing most of the time, and only incidental music's absense drags pace. Many scenes go by altogether mute beyond dialogue, and I found myself wishing someone would switch on a radio, or better yet, bring in Hal Roach's instrument ensemble to pep things up. Hardy goes whole-hog on a Dixie colonel impersonation, presumably drawing upon his own Georgia background for a Southern accent more pronounced even than was customary for him (query to L&H experts --- did Babe maintain the accent in off-screen conversation?). I’m not up on my Bob Bailey trivia, but just what is it with these male ingenues in L&H Fox movies? "Dick" Nelson in Great Guns --- "Bob" Bailey in Jitterbugs --- sort of putting both guys in a bantamweight class right from first credit billing. No wonder both careers stalled. Fox accountants still smiled, however, as Laurel and Hardy appeared sure fire for a hungry laugh market. Jitterbugs, with a $310,000 negative cost, scored a happy $468,000 in domestic rentals, with foreign accounting for another $585,000 (L&H were big overseas). The worldwide $1.0 million yielded a $403,000 profit.
Critics had never been kind to Laurel and Hardy. Establishment press offered them little more respect than might be accorded cartoon characters, as these boys had plied trade for going on two decades, and that was longer than most laugh-makers at the time. To say they were taken for granted would be putting it mildly. Laurel and Hardy appeared stately beside a frenetic Danny Kaye scat number, and the near-hysterical pace of Abbott and Costello made Stan and Ollie all the more prehistoric by comparison. Since they’d not attained the critical cache of a Chaplin or Keaton, there were no James Agees waiting in wings to rehabilitate the team. Most among critics were as pleased to see Laurel and Hardy disappear altogether, and indeed, their retreat to British music halls in the late forties must have seemed like precisely that. For all intents and purposes, L&H were through with US movies by a war's end. Ill-advised Euro filming and illness prevented their seizing advantage of early television as would Keaton, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges, and by the time a deal was put together, Oliver Hardy’s health precluded further work. From occasion of his death in 1957, it was largely Robert Youngson compilations that kept Laurel and Hardy alive in a public's mind, that plus constant exposure of Roach shorts on television. The fanbase cultivated by such revivals has sustained the team since then. Whether or not these DVD releases continue to renew Laurel and Hardy’s following among younger generations remains to be seen.