Book Choice --- Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward
Here’s the conundrum. Back when I discovered Laurel and Hardy, there was plenty to watch but little to read. Now there is abundance to read and virtually nothing to watch. Fans middle-aged and past have kept this fire burning as television bailed long ago on the team (and Our Gang, and W.C. Fields, and The Three Stooges, and …). Cable/satellite finds them only at TCM, not often, but isn’t that the fate of increasingly more last century stuff? Pretty soon we’ll all have widescreen sets whose owners won’t tolerate square pictures any more than they did letterboxes. It’s natural enough to want every square inch filled on expensive screens you buy. As for the best of Laurel and Hardy on DVD, I’ll be posting from Saturn before those are available. Just out, however, is a terrific revised and expanded second edition of Scott MacGillivray’s (I bet your name’s misspelled as often as mine, Scott) Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward. The first printing was in 1998. I read that flying home from Los Angeles. It was so good that, had the plane begun plunging earthward, I would have finished the paragraph I was on before uttering final prayers. Author MacGillivray covers distribution, reissues, television release, and exhibition of L&H shorts and features, expanding on his theory that the team’s Fox/MGM wartime features have been unfairly neglected and maligned since the forties. In other words, I think he wrote it for me, even if we’d not corresponded at the time. Those who’ve tolerated Greenbriar for these nearly four years will adore this book. It is what any of us would want to have written given MacGillivray’s level of talent and initiative. Whatever you think you know about Laurel and Hardy, you’ll find many times that in revelations poured forth here. The author has done fine work in the past on Castle Films and Gloria Jean. This one represents his summit.
I’ve posted before on the comedies Laurel and Hardy did for 20th Fox. My problem with these is geographical. I’m just uncomfortable with the Boys off their home lot. Hal Roach was where they began and prospered as a team. Elsewhere the act seems out of place. Streets they walked/ran/chased in Culver City are as essential for me as L&H being there. You get to know that town’s landmarks for repeated use. Laurel and Hardy were as much about a place as times they represented. Books have tracked Roach locations, but few went exploring where Fox pitched cameras for the team. Music too was an essential. Take away Roach generated cues and L&H seem no longer themselves. My first picks collecting 8mm sound were their subjects with wall-to-wall incidental themes --- The Perfect Day, Brats, Hog Wild. Fans watch beyond perpetuity at least in part for music that is, for me at least, forever. Pondering why they declined is partly explained by loss of that accompaniment. This plus undeniable fact of Laurel and Hardy getting older. Hal Roach probably turned the duo loose as much for that as for fact he was moving toward other late 30’s direction. Stan got heavier as he aged. You see it as early as Swiss Miss and Blockheads. Babe’s was no longer the solid (if portly) athletic weight maintained on golf courses. Their increased schedule live touring and (minimum) nine-to-fiving at Fox gave him less time to counter evening cocktails with healthful traverse over the links. What age did to their appearance made Stan and Oliver’s act seem exhausted, but no team possessed such reserves of a public’s good will. Pressure was less during road tours, for merely seeing Laurel and Hardy was thrill a-plenty for customers who’d loved them since the 20’s. Stan wrote a sketch or two they’d perform with little more than a desk and a couple of chairs, knowing perhaps that just being there got the job well enough done. Theatre ads I’ve found for Laurel and Hardy in the forties generally find their Fox/Metro comedies playing second on double bills. Ones shown here represent Chicago first-runs for Air Raid Wardens, The Dancing Masters, and The Bullfighters. In terms of revenue, MGM’s features during this period, Air Raid Wardens and Nothing But Trouble, performed well below half of what Abbott and Costello delivered with three they did for that company (for instance, Lost In A Harem earned a worldwide $3.6 million to Nothing But Trouble’s $1.5).
Movies were tougher for L&H because competition was faster and, here’s a key word, bawdier. Abbott and Costello were aggressively co-ed. So was Bob Hope and patter types like him. They brandished (comparative) youth and sex overdrive to constantly remind wartime patrons of what everyone was really fighting for. A&C had transitioned from burlesque stages to filmmaking ones. I’m a Baaad-Boy Lou spoke the language of audiences reading between comic lines for smarmy jokes underlying. Funnymen at war were expected to be girl crazy and ever alert for the score. Bumbling Costello was never so much so as to abandon his wolf whistle. It was wrongest timing for an essentially asexual team like Laurel and Hardy. Not reliant on cheesecake or leg art before, now they were garlanded with it. Fox campaigning sat the team beside ingenues less associated with the films than necessity of skirts upraised and body profiles shifted sideways. Laurel and Hardy were slaves to fashion by other means incomprehensible to present-day fans and DVD purchasers. For us, there’s no accounting for Dante the Magician as billed-above-the-title co-star in A-Haunting We Will Go, his name and image sharing unearned prominence with Laurel and Hardy. Had the studio got round to elevating L&H to an A picture, I’ll bet it would have been in support of players then perceived as more important (Jitterbugs coming a year later might have found them listed below Vivian Blaine). Maybe it’s as well that Laurel and Hardy finished with Hollywood by the mid-forties. Were it possible to change the course of careers sixty-five years hence, I’d have at least put more songs into L&H Fox/MGM comedies, for there’s much dead air in ones we have. And I don’t mean tunes by guest artists. Laurel and Hardy were well up to singing and dancing. That was demonstrated in features for Roach and The Flying Deuces. Music plus the old routines would have easier carried the day, even if it wasn’t beloved Hal Roach themes we were hearing. So where do I come off trying to rewrite increasingly ancient history? Chalk it up to endless fascination of Laurel and Hardy, I suppose. We either love these two or are utterly indifferent to them. Ones among you who’ve stuck out this post should be well rewarded with purchase of Scott MacGillivray’s book. He has exhaustively covered what I’ve merely touched on here. Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward represents the best scholarship I’ve come across about this team.