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Monday, September 21, 2015

New and Old Audiences Turn Out For A Beloved Duo

The Bullfighters (1945) Is Laurel-Hardy's US Feature Windup

Chicago Open Serves Atom Bomb w/L&H
I'd say the Laurel and Hardy features for 20th Fox are pretty well rehabilitated by now, decades (near five) having passed since William K. Everson put Indian sign on the group in his Films Of L&H book. Everson's was further push of voodoo pins Laurel himself applied whenever topic arose with biographer John McCabe, or in correspondence w/fans to the end of SL's life (2/65). You wonder if he caught portions on TV, or if memory alone kept flames lit. What Stan may have forgot was store of good will had for the team by 40's audiences, all of whom had seen L&H from either silent beginnings or in full-lengths since the mid-30's. Earlier comedies for Roach were back as well during the war to represent the boys at prime. In fact, a then-public was grateful to have Laurel and Hardy at whatever strength, that confirmed by non-stop profit from all eight of features done between 1941 and US finish that was The Bullfighters.

L&H Sit For Fox Portrait Camera
Success was helped by booking efficiencies of Fox and MGM, the team's wartime employers that put product on screens whatever its merit. Virtually nothing majors released during WWII lost money, so ingrained was moviegoing habit at the time. However little critic support they got for it, Laurel and Hardy kept slapstick's flag flying. Outside of cartoons, or two-reelers still done by Columbia and RKO, the field seemed theirs. Sight-gagging L&H amounted to a nostalgia act, thus wider-aged patronage within their net. Abbott and Costello were fresher, at least seemed funnier at the time, but customers hadn't grown up with them. Laurel and Hardy's bank of comfort and sentiment was accrued since childhood of their public, evidence of which was not just response to the films, but clear lead the team enjoyed over peers on the Hollywood Victory Caravan, a cross-country and star-laden tour to sell defense bonds. Many would recall Stan/Babe as a public's first choice at all stops.

What the Fox six (and Metro two) demonstrated was L&H ability to pull weight where vehicle costs were kept low. That meant B's, natch, but since when was it necessary to spend high on this duo's output? A big problem for the Marx Bros. had been cost for film work from virtual beginning. Many of theirs took loss not because the team was disliked, but for failure to get back cash poured into negatives. The Marxes came with a high tag, more so than Laurel and Hardy (the Brothers had demanded, and got, a % of Paramount returns). Had they been willing to stay in movies, but on B terms, the Marxes might have kept on, if modestly, just as did L&H. A ready audience was certainly there when the Bros. offered A Night In Casablanca in 1946.

Question is, how would things have gone for Laurel and Hardy had they accepted Fox's offer to continue the series? The team might well have had more creative authority. Scott MacGillivray's Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward says Stan directed scenes in the last couple for 20th, and both made gag suggestions that were implemented. The Big Noise and The Bullfighters are glossaries of L&H humor going back to start of their teaming. Most of borrows are from silent shorts, all out of circulation by the mid-40's. I like The Bullfighters, viewed again this week, because it doesn't try to update Laurel and Hardy (like favorite songs, few wanted them to change). The pair wouldn't peak again, but no shame came of these last in the US, which were well-received then, and gave satisfaction later on TV and rental. I trust Fox got profit from sales of their six on DVD. I'm told a few turned up on Blu-Ray from Europe, but have not seen samples. The Big Noise is probably the best-looking of transfers. Others could use work, especially The Dancing Masters, which was taken off 16mm for the DVD. Jitterbugs ran at Cinecon this year in a new 35mm print, which I'm told was stunning, so maybe it will stream in HD, or see domestic Blu-Ray release, provided there's enough L&H interest left to enable that.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The biggest obstacle in appreciating movies is getting past what many writers write. Over and over again I have seen films dismissed as duds knock audiences dead with laughter. Films that I had read were not funny shook the place. We forget that these are subjective one person opinions. I believe Stan Laurel looked forward to a more creative role in the making of his Fox films. Certainly, he ought to have had one as the films he directed are superb, but then, for me, so is everything they did.

A friend of mine told a story about an elevator ride in Scotland he and his smaller brother took. A fat man stepped in. The small brother was fascinated by movement of the man's stomach as the elevator stopped. Seeing this, the fat man rode up and down with them for a few rides. It was Oliver Hardy. I just have to love these men whatever they are in.

9:31 AM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

I think the last scene in THE BIG NOISE, when Stan is serenading some fish with his concertina, one of the most charming things ever done in an L& H feature, and this in a movie so roundly dismissed for years.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Our Sons of the Desert tent, the Duluth-Superior BUSY BODIES, runs the forties features a bit less regularly than their thirties/twenties stuff, but they always go over big. Granted, this crowd loves the Boys no matter what, but what these films lack in Hal Roach sparkle, they gain a bit in unfamiliarity (our folks don't have the eight quite memorized like the Roach stuff!) Watching any one of the last four Fox films with an audience of a hundred or so and you'd think you were screening vintage Keaton, Marx or Chaplin! THE BIG NOISE is actually my vote for the best of this later bunch, although BULL FIGHTERS comes close.

3:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've had others tell me that Fox L&H was a click with latter-day crowds, but I never had the nerve to try them out myself. I now realize that I should have.

Was anyone at the recent "Jitterbugs" Cinecon screening? If so, can you tell us how it was received there?

3:58 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

I always felt increasingly slick production -- glossy studio camerawork, smooth musical underscoring -- undercut Stan & Babe as well as the Marxes, who prospered with a slightly rougher 30s look and -- outside of production numbers -- either no music or high-spirited studio stock. There's something almost documentary-looking about "Duck Soup" and "Horse Feathers" compared to something like "The Big Store" with its elaborate sets and stunts.

The conscious sentimentality was also a factor. At Fox (and late MGM), the team was firmly defined as a couple of old failures; as if somebody noticed Chaplin was often a tramp and figured that was comedy law. At Roach they could be bums, middle-class husbands, fertilizer magnates, period gypsies, blue collar workers, etc. The late features make them emphatically servants or itinerant musicians or actual bums; if they're anything higher on the scale it's usually an imposture (qualified exception for "The Dancing Masters"). In "The Bullfighters" they're detectives but clear failures at it; the "villain" is an innocent man they sent up the river. We're often told to pity them. That's cashing in on goodwill, but in a damaging way.

In my fantasy Hollywood they would have done "Father of the Bride." Ollie would be a natural as the proud patriarch rendered all but irrelevant by his womenfolk; Stanley as the father of the groom would help him make a glorious mess of whatever small duties they entrusted to him (and give Ollie reason to worry about his future in-laws). I could also see them in a less-sexy version of "Ball of Fire", as cloistered academics who overconfidently venture into the real world for research. Or even "The Lady Vanishes", reworked to make the oblivious Calldicott and Charters the focal point as schemes swirl around them. The point being, there were ways to use their characters that actually exploited their maturity.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

The end of this one always creeped me out -- Stan and Ollie are literally skinned alive (off-screen) and at the fade out they stand there in front of the camera as skeletons with Stan and Ollie heads, with the standard weeping from Stan as Ollie says, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into." Yeeecchhhh! Too gruesome and not funny. I love L&H, but genuinely dislike this ending.

1:43 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald, you've made me long for an alternate L&H universe where they do indeed star in "Father Of The Bride," and lend character comedy support to "The Lady Vanishes." I wonder how that proposed Billy Wilder project might have turned out ... do you suppose Wilder wrote a rough draft or outline? And what a shame they couldn't do "Two Tickets To Broadway," or television guest appearances, or ... the list goes on.

Tom, I was similarly put off by the freak ending of "The Bullfighters," having never been fond of the device in Roach shorts either. Is it safe to assume that this wrap-up gag was Stan's idea?

9:14 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts considers the post-Roach features of Stan and Babe:

Unlike so many folk whose opinions were created
more from reading about before actually seeing them, I’ve never had that low an
opinion about Laurel and Hardy’s post-Roach movie output, especially considering
that the first Laurel and Hardy film I ever saw was GREAT GUNS (strangely
enough, I was introduced to a number of comedians through their worst or lesser
films, first Marx Brothers I saw was ROOM SERVICE, first Buster Keatons I saw
was AN OLD SPANISH CUSTOM and the Beach Pictures, saw all the Joe DeRita Three
Stooges features and TV cartoons before I was ever introduced to Curly, in some
way, it really was an effective way to be introduced to the great comedians, it
only got better from there).

The Fox and MGM features are indeed flawed, but
I always got the feeling that Fox got a bad rap because they seemed to actually
make an effort to improve their Laurel and Hardy product as time went on, the
worst ones are the first two, GREAT GUNS and A HAUNTING WE WILL GO, and the main
problem with those two films is the corruption of Stan and Babe’s characters and
scripts that treat the Boys like total idiots and have all the other characters
in the films do likewise, but after that, Fox hires a real comedy director in
Mal St. Clair to helm the films, and old Laurel and Hardy gag-writers like Jack
Jevne and Charley Rogers and the films really do begin to get better with
JITTERBUGS, which is also interesting because you get to see Stan and Babe play
other characters apart from their standard roles. By the time of THE BIG NOISE
and THE BULLFIGHTERS they are recycling old routines, but they are at least
somewhat back in their own universe, and at least are not just shunted aside
like worthless idiots (in THE BIG NOISE, they may be the sanest characters in
the household they are guarding).

Laurel and Hardy’s worst film of the
forties is MGM’s AIR RAID WARDENS (1943), a typical MGM failed comedy torturing
top comedians which treats them as absolute liabilities to humanity, does the
usual “bottom of the bell-curve” tragedy mid-picture plot device they foisted
on all their comics and gives us the most humiliating scene Laurel and Hardy
ever had to perform (though Stan Laurel shows that, when forced to, he can do a
pathos/bathos-ridden patriotic speech with the best of them), and blows
potential highlights like reuniting the Boys with Edgar Kennedy, but even this
film is worth watching for the same reason any film Laurel and Hardy, Harry
Langdon, Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers or any other great comic ever made is
worth watching, because they are in it, and no studio meddling could completely
destroy that level of talent that could rise above any material they were
handed, there are moments of delight in everything they do.


9:15 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Donald -- I agree with your assessment, re: the slickness in the L&H and Marx movies. I think that's why I've always enjoyed "Pardon Us." It's not their best Roach feature, but it's the only one that has the feel of their early talkie shorts. Their last few shorts might look good, but the charm is missing. "Thicker Than Water" in particular is like a proto-sitcom from the '50s, and not in a good way.

I hope TCM runs their Fox features, just so I can see what they're all about. I saw "Jitterbugs" decades ago and remember enjoying it.

12:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Scott MacGillivray checks in re "Jitterbugs" and other 40's L&H:

I hadn't heard about JITTERBUGS being shown at Cinecon. I'm surprised, because the 35 print Fox used for its DVD had bromide deterioration (white shadows). Here's hoping the 35mm Cinecon print was better. L & H's '40s stuff still works with an audience. AIR RAID WARDENS does especially well, believe it or not. When you see it cold on TV it has a lot of dead spots, but with a house, the dead spots are erased by audience laughter.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Irv Hyatt said...

To add to the conversation, here is something I wrote a while ago to defend my opinion against those who think "older" viewers are over influenced by what was written in the past: I post it in two parts.

"Adding to the problems with these films were their last five directors who were at the very ends of their careers when given their L&H assignments by Fox and MGM.

"Mal St. Clair was at the very end of his career. He was dropped into "B" films which he mainly was assigned due to his experience in silent film. When St. Clair finished a film in 1930, it was three years before he had another assignment. From 1933 to 1939 he did only three films. He was assigned to "Hollywood Calvacade" with Buster Keaton in 1939. He did one more film that year, one in 1940, and one in 1941, all without major stars. His career was virtually over when he was assigned to Laurel and Hardy in 1943.

"He did "Jitterbugs", then "Dancing Masters", both in 1943, the "Big Noise" in 1944 and "Bullfighters" in 1945. His directing career ended with "Bullfighters". In Scott's "Forties" book, the best one on these films, it was suggested that Laurel's influence became more visible as these films went on. I'm not contradicting that, just offering a reason as to why. It appears that it was not a planned thing, but a gradual draw-back by Mal St. Clair, who by this time was just clocking in and out for his workday, and just putting in his time.

"After the "L&H" films were over, Fox had no place for his talents. He had done 2 Lum and Abner films for John Votion Studios in 1942-43. Even though Lum and Abner made films up unto 1956, he never directed another one with this team. He appeared as an actor in 1945's "A Bell for Adano" as Giuseppe. After years of inactivity, St. Clair was ready to get back as a director. He never found another assignment and, after a battle with ill health, he passed away in 1955.

"Monty Banks, director of "Great Guns" did most of his latter work directing British Film for smaller studios. His last one was with Gracie Fields and Syd Howard in 1939. While good with comedy, Laurel and Hardy were not his style. (Oddly enough, if you watch Bank's films, "Great Guns" would have made a good Syd Howard comedy if it was just speeded up a bit. Set the comedian in a situation, give him another person to work against, and watch the "wisecracks" fly.) "Great Guns" was the last film he ever directed, and was his only work in Hollywood in years. At the age of 47, he worked no more. Five years later he died of a heart attack at 52.

"Nothing But Trouble" was directed by Sam Taylor. His career had finished in 1934 with the Harold Lloyd's film "The Cat's Paw". He had not directed in the ten years before this film, and it was Taylor's last film as well. (cont).

4:21 PM  
Blogger Irv Hyatt said...

"Edward Segwick's career goes back to the Lubin Film Company. He (with Keaton) directed "The Cameraman", and "Spite Marraige". Then came the start of Keaton's total loss of control which led to his bad run. Segwick directed "Free and Easy", "Doughboys", "Parlor Bedroom and Bath", "The Passionate Plumber", "Speak Easily", and "What, No Beer?" Obviously his strength was in silent film as he slowly became a "stock" director, bringing the script to the screen, the MGM way, which did not favor comedies.

"Segwick did some work at Roach, like "Pick a Star" and "Mr. Cinderella", under different circumstances and with different writers in 1937. He did five of the lesser Joe E. Brown films, and after 1940 did not work again for three years, until "Nothing But Trouble".

"From "Nothing But Trouble" in 1943, to the end of his career in 1953 Segwick only directed two more credited films (and worked on two without credit). In addition to this he made an "I Love Lucy" movie, which consisted of short new conversations between Desi and Lucy, stringing three tv shows (that he did not direct) together for theatrical release to capitalize on the popularity of the team's television sucess. After this last "film", he was never contracted to direct a Lucy TV show. His career was over. He died the same year.

"Alfred Werker, the director of "A-Haunting We Will Go" was the only director of these late Fox films who continued to have a career. He worked for many studios prior to coming to Fox and ended up in the late 40's at Eagle Lion, a poverty row studio. He was the most competent of the final five and known for low budget film noir, which was more his forte.
Cont from prior post:

"No matter how many "passes" we give or excuses we make for these later films, it was, as Laurel said, "the circumstances in which they were made."

"With these directors at the helm, the films never stood a chance. Box office they did, based on Laurel and Hardy's name and good distribution and publicity. The Boys were in demand, as their live shows proved. You can see why the Boys never re-signed another contract with Fox or MGM. They knew that they were lucky to leave with their comedy reputations intact."

By the way, I also like Scott MacGilvary's book "From the Forties Forward."

4:21 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Clarifying Irv's point about Mal St. Clair: "Fox had no place for his talents" after THE BULLFIGHTERS not because St. Clair was washed up, but because the studio shut down the B unit. I'm sure he would have continued as the team's director had Stan and Babe re-upped with Fox. Also, when Sol Wurtzel came out of retirement to make a few Bs for Fox release, he hired St. Clair. So there was work for St. Clair after L & H.

Irv makes a good point about Laurel & Hardy being surrounded by old-time directors. I think this was because the Laurel & Hardy pictures were a low priority production-wise, and Stan and Babe were the only "old-time slapstick" specialists still starring in features. The L & H unit was a convenient place to put the old-time actors and directors so they could make their little slapstick comedies. (Sam Taylor's association with L & H was a fluke: he had come to M-G-M to pitch a "home front" story for Frank Morgan, which later morphed into a Laurel & Hardy comedy.)

5:57 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

What if L&H had re-signed with Fox? We can't know, we can only guess.It looks like L&H had more leeway on the last 4 Fox's because Fox knew they were closing the B unit and left them alone.If L&H had come back on a new contract, wouldn't have Fox micromanaged them again, as they had in 1941-42 when Fox still had a full program of series Bs?And Fox seemed committed to their A only policy-would they really have opened a new B unit for L&H? I suspect that Fox was thinking of using Stan and Babe as support in other people's films.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

I think "The Big Noise" goes down as one of the most unfairly maligned movies of all time. Out of the last nine L&H features, it might actually feature the purest essence of the characters and their routines, in both the recycled bits as well as the then-modern context gags (the pills for meals, the push-button room) which I feel meshed perfectly with the duo's established characters and their personalities.

I first saw The Big Noise as a child and loved it.
Scenes stuck with me in my head for years. Then I read all the books - Everson, McCabe (whose coffee table book I adore, and he once nvited me to his home on Mackinac Island a few years before his death and we had an incredible chat), Maltin - and to a man they slagged the film and I couldn't understand why. Years passed without me seeing the film and I'd wondered if it was just me being too young to realize the film "wasn't good," and if in fact my memories of the scenes, which seemed so clear in my mind, were really just projections of my imagination. Then something wonderful happened...

In the early 2000s, I joined a Sons of the Desert tent and they ran The Big Noise for one of the meetings. I was pleasantly surprised to find my vivid memories of scenes in the film were spot-on! And moreso, I felt vindicated in that I enjoyed the film and and found it just as funny as I did as a child! I remember posting about it on the newsgroup (remember those?) and authors like Scott McGillivray and Randy Skretvedt weighing in on the topic. I think it is telling that Randy, who also slagged the film in his seminal work, "Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies" did an about face in his commentary track for the DVD release, where he exclaimed, "I owe this film an apology!"

For me, the film is almost on the surreal side, and has a breezy and quite loopy charm that will sweep you away if you let it. It also features, as others have mentioned, one of the most charmingly delightful closings of the team's career, one which must have really satisfied wartime audiences and left them leaving the theater grinning from ear-to-ear; a film I'm guessing was quite the respite from the day's cares.

7:59 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts follows up with additional details on Laurel and Hardy's 40's directors (Part One):


I’m afraid Irv Hyatt is overplaying the “broken-down old has-been”
aspect of the careers of Laurel and Hardy’s Fox Directors quite a bit, we’ll
take `em one at a time:

To begin with Mal St. Clair, apparently Irv needs to
consult a better filmography when he states that from 1933-39, St. Clair only
made three films. In fact, before he was assigned to HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE in
1939, he had directed 11 films for Twentieth Century-Fox, including some pretty
good pictures like CRACK-UP (1936) with Peter Lorre and DANGEROUSLY YOURS (1937)
with Cesar Romero, and rather than doing two in 1939, directed four. St. Clair
did indeed have some gaps in his filmography in the early 30’s where he was away
from directing for several years at a time, but apparently these were due to
health problems that continued to plague him for the rest of his life. St. Clair
apparently had a bad heart condition that flared up from time to time, but once
he signed on with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1936, he basically remained there for
the next decade, directing a number of programmer pictures, occasionally doing
films else where like Republic or the two Lum and Abner films, doing mostly
uncredited gag-writing when his health was not up to directing.

He in fact
directed two films in 1940, none in 1941 (another layoff die to health reasons),
and three in 1942 including two for Fox and another Lum and Abner in 1943 before
he began directing the Laurel and Hardy films, though by this time his health
was again rocky, but Fox felt he was a good fit with the Boys and indeed he
seemed to be, being an old silent comedy hand he would be able to work far more
respectfully with Stan Laurel, and the directing jobs with the Boys would not be
too taxing on his fragile health. Once Laurel and Hardy left Fox, St. Clair was
indeed ready to retire, and it seems like those last two features for Sol
Wurtzel in 1948 were a case of Wurtzel needing a Director he could count on to
make those films quickly and efficiently. St. Clair’s health quickly declined
after that, and he passed away in 1952 at the age of 55.

If Monty Banks only
directed British films for the smaller studios, I guess Mr. Hyatt considers
Warner Brothers,Twentieth Century-Fox and British International Pictures to be
“smaller” studios (BIP was, in fact, one of the largest and most successful
British Film Studios of the 1930’s). In 1935, he directed the very successful NO
LIMIT, which was one of George Formby’s big hits, and in 1936 directed what is
probably Gracie Fields best comedy QUEEN OF HEARTS, also a big hit, after which
he and Gracie became an item (and later on, husband and wife), and, apart from
another major Formby hit, KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE in 1937, Banks devoted himself
to managing Fields career and directing her very popular films.

9:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Richard M. Roberts:

Banks and
Fields fled to America during WW2 when the British Government threatened to
inter Banks as an “undesirable alien” for the duration due to his Italian
heritage and citizenship, as they had been making films for Fox in the UK, they
basically transferred their services to the American Branch, but Field’s British
superstardom didn’t really translate to the states, and Fox had little idea of
how to use her in films, using her only twice in a couple of teamings with Monty
Wooley (HOLY MATRIMONY (1943) and MOLLY AND ME (1945)), so she and Banks spent a
lot of time touring the states raising money for British War Relief, they
didn’t really need the money, Gracie Fields was one of the richest and highest
paid stars in England in the 1930’s., and had kept it and invested well, with
Monty’s help.

Banks was almost more busy at Fox than his wife was at the
beginning, though he was not really interested in that time in working without
her, he directed GREAT GUNS, and appeared in BLOOD AND SAND in 1941, and later
had a wonderful role in Henry King’s underrated A BELL FOR ADANO in 1945,
probably more likely to have something to do while Gracie was making MOLLY AND
ME at Fox at the same time. Once the war was over, he and Gracie returned to
Europe, though Fields would work in England she would never live there again due
to what they had threatened to do to Monty, but she continued to be a superstar
and he managed her money and career, also becoming more devout in his lifelong
Catholicism. At the time of his death from a heart attack in 1950 at the age of
52, he was preparing to produce a film about the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
He left a sizeable fortune of his own at the time of his death, leaving large
endowments to several charities, including at least one Catholic Hospital and a
Foundation to teach film production to Italian Students.

9:11 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three from Richard M. Roberts:

I think part of the
problem Mr. Hyatt and anyone else (and there are certainly others) who want to
subscribe to this “broken-down old has-been” Director of forties Laurel and
Hardy films concept is that they are under a mistaken impression that these
gentlemen had fallen from such great career-heights by the time they helmed Stan
and Babe to begin with, Edward Sedgwick indeed had a career going back to the
teens as an actor at Universal, and had been directing films since 1920, but he
had always been a director of programmers, serials, westerns, standard movie
fare. In the mid-20’s he managed a move from Universal to MGM, and his
Vaudeville background gave him a knack for comedy, but even at MGM, his films
continued to be mostly standard product, not expensive epics, but bread and
butter star vehicles, including the Buster Keaton features which, though
successful, were averaged-budgeted product for the studio. (Mal St. Clair is no
different, he was a Paramount contract director in the 20’s who helmed some hits
mostly handled bread and butter product like the Adolph Menjou starring
vehicles, certainly nothing on the level of a C.B Demille or even James

After Keaton was fired, Sedgwick continued directing comedy
programmers for Universal, Paramount, Hal Roach, Columbia, and after a steady
twenty year Directing career, he finds himself in the early 1940’s on the
payroll at MGM as a gag-writer and comedy consultant, not a bad gig when you’re
getting older, steady work, though perhaps being a “comedy consultant” at MGM
was not quite as busy as say, being a comedy consultant at Columbia, but it
probably beats being say, a Director at PRC, and Segdwick, along with his fellow
MGM comedy consultant Buster Keaton find themselves writing gags for Maisie
pictures and punching up Red Skelton films and spending time in their offices
picking up a regular paycheck, amusing themselves the rest of the time unless MGM
goes that odd extra step and ends up getting actual comedians like Abbott and
Costello or Laurel and Hardy in for an odd feature or two, then Sedgwick is
called back into Director harness because, like Mal St. Clair at Fox, he’s one
of the old comedy hands on the payroll who would understand working with
comedians like Laurel and Hardy (whom else would MGM have on hand for them? Sam
Wood? S. Sylvan Simon?), then it was back to gag-writing or uncredited
second-unit directing, but even then Sedgwick gets to direct what is easily Red
Skelton’s best picture, A SOUTHERN YANKEE, with Buster Keaton working on it in
the background, in 1948, and one of the popular Ma and Pa Kettle films in the
early 50’s and Sedgwick stayed on the MGM payroll pretty much until he died in
1953 at the age of 60. Believe me, there were way worse careers, lots of them,
bigger talents that ended up at lots smaller studios.


9:11 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks Jr said...

When I was growing up in eastern Colorado in the late 60's and early 70's, the Fox and MGM films were exclusively shown in our market as Babes in Toyland was the only Roach I recall being broadcast. I could only view the Roach's via Blackhawk.I can remember wondering, why aren't these guys as funny on TV as they were in my Blackhawks. I had the same reaction to Our Gang. As opposite the situation with L&H in our TV market, the Roach Our Gangs were exclusively shown. When we went to visit relatives in Texas where the MGM our Gangs where shown on TV I could remember then thinking "these Our Gangs are different and unfunny". Yet I always watched these latter L&H comedies because I was so fascinated by L&H that I would have watched them do an autopsy.

There has been a lot of revision about these films lately, some justified. However you can't get over the fact that Laurel & Hardy, in these latter features, are reduced to portraying asexual functionally retarded losers. When you take women out of L&H's lives, you've lost a lot of comedy potential for the team. Also a married L&H makes their characters real and more endearing.

What made L&H work for me in their earlier films was their characters were folks you could actually know in real life. That is why I like their silents the best. Does anyone actually know two stupid middle aged failures who live together in a platonic relationship? The character decline started in the later Roach features, so I wont blame it on MGM or Fox exclusively, as L&H resorted to impossible gags, and "white magic". Hardy starts his "baby talk", which irritates me as I feel it is used to remind us Hardy is "dumb", as early as Our Relations.

An aspect of these films which helps defend them, is the wartime era in which they were made. I've heard L&H "aficionados" whine "Why didn't L&H demand better terms?" Most of these films were made during WW2 which would have made artistic assertion ludicrous and distasteful. At the end of the war Fox offered them an extension on their contract (which would have given them an "a" unit) yet Laurel turned it down, perhaps seeing these films as wartime service.

Perhaps part of my distaste for these films is rooted in the fact that back in the early 70's my Americom talking 8mm "sound" cut-down of Big Noise was a major disappointment, Despite my distaste for these films I bought all the DVDs and I watch them once a year or so.

Does anyone know why Dancing Masters was mastered from 16mm?

10:38 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Apparently, Fox couldn't wait to dig up a 35mm print. This reminds me of the abuse heaped on William Beaudine Sr. by the Medved brothers, who were obviously unaware of his fine Silent and British films, and judged him only by his later Poverty Row films(Hardly the worst of such studios, either).And this went on to become common "Knowledge" among bad movie buffs. Hadn't the Medveds even seen THE OLD FASHIONED WAY?What could ANY director have done with a script like BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA?(A know-it-all TV movie night host described BILLY as being directed "Like a silent movie".It wasn't).Gracie Fields received thunderous applause when she was the mystery guest on "What's my Line", so she must have found SOME fame here.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Here's why THE DANCING MASTERS was taken from 16mm, Tommie -- I recorded the audio commentary to a 16mm British reference print. The plan was that Fox would be using its 35mm nitrate for the actual DVD. (Fox has nitrates on all six of its Laurel & Hardy features.) As things developed, Fox Video found itself racing with Warner Home Video to be the "first to market" with a Laurel & Hardy boxed set, so there was a mad rush to get the project finished. There wasn't time to dig up the 35mm material on THE DANCING MASTERS, so Fox went with the reference print. (The old cement splices I saw in the studio were digitally removed for the DVD.) The rush also explains why THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE had no restoration and a quickie transfer; the original Kodachrome print is more impressive. Fox did win the race and beat Warner by one week.

Pursuant to John's comment in his column: I would venture that Fox has been making a nice profit on the Laurel & Hardy sets. Both are still in print nine years later.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Irv Hyatt said...

Richard M. Roberts - Great food for thought. While a film fan, I appreciate the corrections and education. I also stand corrected in my filmography and career summaries.

My post was to to defend my opinion against those who think "older" viewers are over influenced by what was written in the past. Those of us who are uncomfortable with what happened to the "characters" of L&H in these penultimate 8 films search for reasons to explain why we think the films are inferior to earlier efforts. Knowing that the director is in the forefront of the final product, it seemed logical (if not totally factual) that the directors were not at their peaks.

While not “broken-down old has-been” directors, it is obvious that something hindered the quality of the final product. Even with the studio system as it existed, I still think if the films had more competent helmsmen, they would have been much better.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

I want to qualify my above statement by providing some context: by the time I saw "The Big Noise" as a child, I had already seen the majority of Hal Roach-produced talkie Laurel & Hardy shorts on TV; likely some more than once. I didn't make a distinction that "The Big Noise" was "lesser Laurel & Hardy" compared to those classic shorts. Perhaps the key is looking at "the boys" with the same child-like outlook with which the Stan and Ollie characters go through life.

7:27 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts, following up on previous comments, supplies more information/insight regarding the L&H post-Roach features (Part One):

To Irv Hyatt, Thanks for the
gracious words regarding what I wrote, there is definitely no intent to offend
even in disagreement, but allow me to be a bit more contrarian, film history
absolutely suffers in regard to people believing what they read over what they
have or haven’t seen, as one who has spent a good portion of his life and career
as a film historian busting myths and beliefs in those myths, I can verify it.
You can see this sort of nonsense all over the internet on any given day, I’ve
spent too much time setting straight too many bright-eyed film buffs who should
know better when they look at you with total conviction and say that Buster
Keaton didn’t do much after sound films came in and died a poor down and out
drunk, or Stan Laurel lived in a tiny little apartment broke and destitute at
the end of his life or Thelma Todd was doing nothing but cheap shorts before she
died, or nothing Harry Langdon did after Frank Capra is worth watching, and they
pick this up from something someone wrote in a book, or sadly these days, the
internet, the great worldwide spreader of misinformation and bad gossip (this is
why lots of film buffs think Ted Healy was killed by Wallace Beery in a drunken
brawl, or everyone in Hollywood was Gay, especially those serial womanizers who
were just trying to cover up.), or even worse, someone read it on the internet
then put it in a book, this unfortunately passes for research these days in a
number of very poor film books.

With the Laurel and Hardy Fox features, too
many people read William K. Everson’s THE FILMS OF LAUREL AND HARDY and read
Bill’s trashing of those films (the irony being that at the time he was writing
about many of them from memory, not recent viewings) or read Stan Laurel’s own
comments in John McCabe’s MR. LAUREL AND MR. HARDY and they were ready to hate
these films even before they saw them. Even my old friend Randy Skretvedt, who
treated these films with the same sort of dismissal in his wonderful book LAUREL
AND HARDY, THE MAGIC BEHIND THE MOVIES, has admitted to me that he was loathe to
actually watch the films again when he was working on the book, but years later,
when he got the gig to do commentary tracks for the Fox DVD’s, he had to watch
them again and realized they were far better than he remembered, and as said
before, has apologized for slighting them so, and has altered his opinions thus.

12:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Richard M. Roberts:

e can indeed thank Scott MacGillivray for leading the fight for the
revision and rehabilitation of these films reputations, in his book, LAUREL AND
HARDY FROM THE FORTIES FORWARD, he was willing to buck the trend and shed new
light on these badly treated pictures (even if he does like AIR RAID WARDENS a
lot more than a lot of us do), but it is an uphill battle that was also helped
by Fox putting out those two box sets.

BTW Scott, I hate to say it, but
whomever at Fox told you the story about THE DANCING MASTERS may have been
pulling your leg, they claim to have a nitrate on it, but every time it has been
run on cable, from AMC to the Fox Channel to that DVD set, it has always been
from a 16mm transfer, and just what Warner Home Video Laurel and Hardy boxset do
they refer, the two-fer of AIR RAID WARDENS and NOTHING BUT TROUBLE? What other
Laurel and Hardy box set has Warner ever put out? The one with THE DEVILS
BROTHER and BONNIE SCOTLAND was a TCM release and it came out way before the Fox
sets. Also, as THE DANCING MASTERS came out in Fox’s second box set of three of
the films, which came out some time after the first set of three, I think they
would have had plenty of time to dig up and dust off any 35mm material they had
on the film. In other words, I’ll believe they have 35mm material when I see it.

And Irv, you can certainly think what you wish about the competency of the
helmsman of those films, but if you think they had any sort of autonomy or
leeway in making those films, you are mistaken. These were produced by Fox’s B
Unit, 25 day shooting schedules basically, and this was Fox where the script was
sacrosanct (Darryl F. Zanuck had been a screenwriter don’t forget). St. Clair et
all were basically given the finished script and told to shoot it, and if Laurel
and Hardy had little input, none certainly before the scripts were written, how
much do think the Directors had? Some of Stan Laurel’s copy of these scripts do
survive and what you can see is little notes for gags and improvements he has
written in the margins that tend to peter out around the first twenty-five pages
or so, whatever he could sneak in to try to improve the films, in the end there
was just not enough time to do much before the thing was finished. This is why I
gave Fox some credit for making an effort to appease Stan as they went along,
the films get better, not worse, and the corruption of their characters is
reversed to some degree, it was obvious that they were listening to some of
Laurel’s complaints and trying to improve things, but the main problem with
Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and many other comedians was that they did their
best work in situations outside the regular studio systems, where they had
control and more time and were able to work from basically unfinished or
unsacred scripts they could tinker and improve upon with their staffs as they
shot. There were just fewer and fewer opportunities for that sort of
craftsmanship as the Studio System entrenched itself, so they did the best they
could under the circumstances. This is why the Golden Age of Comedy begins to
fade seriously by the 1940’s. Just try to imagine how Charlie Chaplin would have
fared at MGM?

12:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three and Conclusion from Richard M. Roberts:

With AIR RAID WARDENS, Stan and Babe had the even more screwy
MGM working conditions, with too many cooks putting a script together they had
no input too, but also as it was basically a Wartime Propaganda film, they also
had a Government Advisor worried about the Home Front preparedness message who
did his best to suck out any comedy not neutralized by the over-supervised
writing and production team. It’s just pretty grim going (and yes Scott, I’ve
run it with audiences too). That’s why even NOTHING BUT TROUBLE is still an
improvement, even though it still has the standard MGM humiliation set-up, it at
least has more Buster Keaton-written gags and the Boys work well with Mary
Boland, and they’re not saddled with getting the word out for the war effort.

In any event, none of these films will ever be considered the great Laurel
and Hardy classics, but what revisionist thinking and some more research can
actually do is counter the nonsense such nitwits like the Medveds managed to
scatter to the minds of too many film buffs before the film buffs saw the films
themselves, at least we can laugh at these films again when they are funny
without being made to feel like we are betraying Stan and Babe in some fashion.


12:30 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

If Chaplin had been at MGM, he'd have had to say:"I'm not smart like other people".Yes, people refer to Keaton as having "ended up" in Beach Party movies, as if these were desperation, and not celebrity "Cameos" that traded on his renewed fame from Television.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thank you, Richard, for your comments. My information about the 35mm materials came directly from Fox: "we have all six on nitrate." Sounds to me like the vault guys hadn't checked their inventory when they gave me that information. This sometimes happens: Columbia insisted that it only had a one-reel version of the Stooges' WE WANT OUR MUMMY until closer inspection proved otherwise. In any case, thank you for mentioning the various cable runs of THE DANCING MASTERS and confirming their 16mm origin.

The Warner set competing with Fox's Volume 2 was indeed AIR RAID WARDENS and NOTHING BUT TROUBLE, as part of the three-volume "Classic Comedy Teams" box.

There really was a juggling act when it came to Fox's DVD releases. At the outset Fox was going to issue and package the films chronologically, but Volume 1 was assembled so quickly that Fox couldn't wait for A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (which wasn't handily available) and so substituted THE BIG NOISE. At least Fox saw the whole project through and released them all (unlike Fox's Michael Shayne pictures, for example, which never got past the first volume of DVDs).

The rush extended to the audio commentaries: Randy and I each recorded them in one long take. We might as well have been on live radio! (Now we know how Monogram worked!)

4:16 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

In the early Laurel and Hardy films, they are solid citizens (usually) They did grown up things like trying to put one over on their wives or put up an aerial. You get the feeling the films were targeted at adults. Sometime in the mid 30's they became a kids act. They were still great performers but, for me, the decline starts in 1936. They were ruined before the left Roach.

4:03 AM  

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