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Monday, April 10, 2006


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.

10 Comments:

Blogger East Side said...

That was probably the most insightful piece on L&H's Fox movies I've ever read. Other than "Jitterbugs," I've never been able to bring myself to watching their post-Roach work. (Long before I was aware of their classic movies, I caught the last 20 minutes of "The Bullfighters," and somehow knew this was the end of the line.) Still, you do a nice job putting them into perspective. And thanks for pointing out Ollie's tattoo -- another piece of trivia I never knew 'til now.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

You are kinder to these films than they deserve, but most L&H fans are, so I forgive you. It should be mentioned for those of you out there in Internet land who may be unaware that next week Warners is releasing a 2-disc L&H set with THE DEVIL'S BROTHER (FRA DIAVOLO), BONNIE SCOTLAND, and a wealth of clips of Stan & Ollie from such films as PICK A STAR and HOLLYWOOD PARTY. In other words, starring Laurel & Hardy as Laurel & Hardy, not as Abbott & Costello or two aged Bowery Boys.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Griff said...

As an old Blackhawk Bulletin reader, I concur absolutely with east side . Excellent reflections on the best loved comedy team of all time.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

John, your piece accomplishes what William K. Everson and John McCabe could not: creating a desire to actually see these films.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Greg G. said...

I have to post a note to tell you how much I loved this article. You should write a L&H book! I still can't bring myself to watch anything past Flying Deuces. Maybe in a few more years, when I have a few more pounds on me, I'll appreciate them more. Ya know, people talk about how Fox ruined them, I think Saps At Sea is almost as bad as the non-Roach films. They had turned into a children's act, which they weren't in the early days of their partnership.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Poptique said...

Those figures are far more enlightening than any other article I've ever read on these films - it looks like they were a victim of their own success, just like Keaton at MGM when the talkies hit and he got trapped in Elmer roles.

As far as the next generation are concerned - I first got to know the Boys as a child in the early 80s, through the Film Classics prints on permanent TV rotation whenever holiday seasons rolled around. My earliest TV memory is watching Babe being sucked through the sawmill at the end of Busy Bodies.

With multi-channel airplay so compartmentalized these days it's so much harder for kids to come across their films by accident, which is terrible thing!

(PS - John, if you write a book on anything I'd buy it! Your blog is bar-none my favourite daily blast of classic Hollywood!!)

5:13 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

I started showing my daughter Laurel & Hardy when she was five. Her first look at them was "The Music Box." Many belly-laughs ensued; each week, she'd ask, "Can we see another Laurel & Hardy?" Luckily, I taped their shorts (and a few features) off AMC during an L & H telethon. Now she's ten, and a huge fan. And she's turned her best friend onto them as well. Moral: start them when they're young! By the way, that formal portrait of them on this post is wonderful; it's now my wallpaper. This is a great site; I wish you could update every hour.

8:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, a book please John....

5:03 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Don't be dissin' Bob Bailey! Okay, so he may be weak in Jitterbugs, but if you dig old time radio at all-- or especially if you don't-- his time as the title character on "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar" in the mid-50s is one of the highlights of the medium, imaginative, tough little noir yarns. A lot of old radio doesn't hold up but that's one series that anyone who likes old movies would enjoy.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous "r.j." said...

John, FYI, Dad was one of the writers lined-up to work-on their aborted television-series. This must have been around the time that dad was having "so much fun" w. Adolphe Menjou (as who wouldn't?) at Ziv. But, Stu was also doing things like the Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre, Science-Fiction Theatre, and of course Highway. As Dad told the story, the boys' at this point in their careers' had an agent named Mitch Gertz. Mitch was a young-man whose speciality was, sad to say, handling clients who still had a "name-draw", but whose doors nobody in the post-Brando Hollywood was banging-down.(Dad said another client was Veronica Lake). Mitch approached Stu about having a meeting with the guys. Dad said he was overwhelmed, and overjoyed at the prospect of just meeting-them! 'My god, Mitch" Stu said,"I've loved them since I was a child!" (And something to bear-in-mind here John is that Dad was of that generation that was seeing all those two-reelers when they were new (MGM titles, and all!). Mitch says, "Stan will handle the gags, all they need are stories." "When can I meet them?" Stu asks. "Babe's been ill, but I'll line sometrhing-up for you", Mitch says. Sadly, never happened. Babe had a massive-stroke and of course passed-away not long after. I did ask Dad though, post-facto, what concept he would have had in mind for them at that-stage in their careers. He told me he wanted to go-back to the shorts he always had liked-best, where they're married, and sneaking-out on the wives. In other words, a kind-of updated "Sons of the Desert" for that period, modified to suit their advancing-age. I've never read this in any book on them, John, so you're getting an exclusive-here! P.S. Speaking of their Fox period, one of my grandfathers' closest friends was a lyricist named Charles Newman. We used to go the Newmans' every Passover (this, by the way, is a Jewish holiday, which was invented to commemorate a C.B.DeMille film). I was always in awe of Charlie, the sweetest-man in the world, because he had "worked" with the boys, as lyricist for Vivian Blaine (who I thought was pretty-darn good) on 'Jitterbugs". Best regards, as always, R.J.

4:20 PM  

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