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Monday, November 30, 2009

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.


Anonymous East Side said...

Over the summer I bought the UK boxed set "Laurel & Hardy: The Collection," featuring all their Roach shorts (silent and sound) plus the existing foreign-language versions and all but a couple of the Roach features for about 50 bucks (marked down from $350!). Throw in a Panasonic all-region player, and the whole thing set me back only $130 -- well worth the investment. Now if they'd only do the same with Charley Chase sound shorts at Roach.

The quality (or lack of) in the L&H Fox movies is legendary. Yet over at Google's L&H discussion group, I'd say 98% of the fans raved about the Fox boxed set -- and they weren't expecting to. To their shock, they said the Fox movies were better than the later Roach features -- with "The Big Noise," of all things, rating the highest.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Jay Watson said...

John, thanks for a great post/review of both Scott's revised work, and our beloved L&H's later career. A splendid job sir. I now know what I want for Christmas. best wishes, r/e

1:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Some nice observations from Donald Benson via e-mail:

If we're rewriting history, one of my fantasies is that Stan & Babe might have done Ransom of Red Chief in "O. Henry's Full House." Much of that movie was a big, overly-reverent misfire, but Fred Allen and Oscar Levant went beyond bad casting. Their stage personas were intelligent and misanthropic -- you never believed a kid could outflank them; you actually felt the kid was in danger. But it's very easy to imagine Stanley being treed by his captive, calling down hollow threats like a smaller child mocked by a bully. And Ollie, a master of unpersuasive toughness ("Have a care, sir!"), could make a meal out of crafting an intimidating but tastefully correct ransom note. Even as older guys, they could have made it work.

The other fantasy is that somebody would have remembered L&H weren't just tramps. At some late point the boys' identities were largely fixed as ne'er-do-wells who were incapable of lasting long in any one place. As they aged it would have been profitable to take them back to respectability and revive their battles against domineering wives and middle-class mores.

L&H may have been asexual, but they certainly found comedy in marriage. The usual template was Hardy, the bastion of social propriety and self-proclaimed monarch of his home, leading the domesticated and somewhat intimidated Stanley astray. W.C. Fields moved freely between footloose scalawags and oppressed family men; there's no reason why L&H shouldn't have done the same. They could even have introduced the occasional son or daughter as romantic leads (a favorite device for post-romantic comedians).

Besides, it's distressing to see the non-whimsical flophouses and poverty in their late films. The comics who got laughs from poverty were the ones you knew could shrug it off (When the Stooges set up housekeeping in a dump, you get the sense it's a step up). Proper Ollie and innocent Stan -- especially as older men -- probably couldn't. The characters as we know them would cease to exist if seriously wised up or beaten down. As it is, there are moments in the later films where the script forces Hardy to turn from the confident fool into a old guy who knows he's a loser. They're way sadder than they're supposed to be.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

Thanks so much for this review. I'm sure I was one of many who encouraged Scott to revise this essential work - I'm glad he did and I'm looking forward to ordering a copy (not the least because my original is quite dog-eared)!

The '40s L&H films are a mixed bag to be sure, but definitely worth a re-eval as not all our stinkers. I stand by my assertion that "The Big Noise" is as entertaining as some of the better Hal Roach efforts (he says as he does the Ollie head nod)! :)

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Dan Varner said...

I would like to voice a bit of concern about the recent L&H releases as seen on TCM recently. Something is going on I've never heard of before. Footage deleted before the original release of the films has been inserted BACK INTO them! "Laughing Gravy" is ruined by a long scene where the boys hash-over their relationship, bringing the film to a screeching halt. Even worse is "Pardon Us" where two endings are shown simultaneously, making no sense whatsoever. I hate to see this, especially when it is so difficult to get a glimpse of their work these days.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

if I just gotta...I'm partial to A Haunting We Will Go and The Bullfighters..more for the local color on those than anything else...Does anyone remember those old super 8MM condensed films you could get of the Big Noise and one or 2 others,that had a soundtrack record along with it?..Always saw them advertised.
THe 40's,I don't think,killed off Laurel and Hardy,as proofed in Saps at Sea and A Chump at Oxford,a couple of their best..just being away from home on the Culver City lot..
My DVD player is hacked to play all regions and I too have been enjoying the L&H discs from the UK(especially getting to see the foriegn language versions on some)Icredibely cheap on Ebay..usually pay around $5.00-US-$ and thats with shipping included!!,for a disc with 2 or 3 extras on it..

12:57 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

While we're talking about fantasy casting, how about this: Laurel and Hardy as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Throw in Billy Gilbert as Pozzo and Charlie Hall as Lucky -- now that's a production I'd have loved to see.

1:43 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

I have always thought L & H's decline started in the late 30's and don't believe the Fox films are only a small step down from the quality of the late Roach films.

3:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding L&H in A pictures, I've long suspected that when Fox wanted to re-sign them in 1945, it was to use them in supporting roles as character actors.Maybe.The other wartime films aren't as disturbing in the realistic poverty/self deprication department as "Nothing But Trouble" is.(Except "Air Raid Wardens", but I don't remember a flop house in that one).

11:28 AM  
Anonymous JA Morris said...

If you don't want to shell out money for the UK Region 2 DVDs,I recommend buying the L&H shorts from this site:

The video quality is pretty good and the dvds are only $19.99. If you're a big fan of Laurel & Hardy,but not a completist,it's a good deal.

5:09 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I'd like to see a another film version of The Man Who would Be King with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy..

10:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great comments, folks. I've stayed back for all the neat observations you've made. Glad to see Laurel and Hardy still arouse such participation. Wonder how much Hallmark would want to quitclaim whatever rights they allegedly own in the Roach library.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank so much for recommending Mr. MacGillivray's book; I'm especially delighted it's now in a Second Edition! I'm not overstating things when I say every L&H fan MUST have this book in his or her collection!

5:45 PM  

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