For decades all of Laurel and Hardy's post-1940 movies - that is, everything they appeared in after ending their long association with Hal Roach Studios - have for decades been regarded as worse than bad. At Roach Stan, who was really the creative force behind the team, had been their director in all but name, had acted more or less as chief gag writer and, perhaps most importantly, had cut all their movies.
When the team signed with Fox they thought they were moving up in the world. Roach was a rinky-dink studio that made few films by 1940, all lower-budget programmers. But Fox was one of the top three studios in town and they naively assumed they'd be allowed the same creative freedom they had always enjoyed. But not only did this freedom evaporate overnight with Stan and Babe (as Hardy was affectionately known off-camera) told where to stand and deliver their lines like every other actor-for-hire and otherwise shut out of the creative process, but the studio went even further. Their very appearance, regarded as "old-fashioned" even back then, was esthetically updated to conform with the brassy, slick look of other 1940s comedies. The careful clown-like white make-up and flat lighting that had enhanced Laurel and Hardy's personae as childlike adults, babes in the woods living in a hostile world, was abandoned. Yanked into reality Laurel and Hardy aged ten years overnight and instead of loveable innocents merely looked like foolish old men.
In later years, Stan especially was quite ashamed of these Fox films and perhaps felt guilty that he so easily had acceded to the company's demands; by all accounts he didn't put up much of a fight. Subsequent books on the team have been merciless about the Fox films. Universally they've regarded them not just as unfunny, but downright depressing experiences, traumatic even.
Yet when Fox released the first volume of its Laurel & Hardy Collection back in April, the movies took many fans by surprise. While Great Guns (1941), the team's first film for Fox, lives down to its reputation and then some - it's a shameless, almost scene-for-scene rip-off of Abbott & Costello's Buck Privates - Jitterbugs (1943), often regarded as the least offensive of their Fox movies, was actually fairly good. But the real surprise was The Big Noise (1944), a picture considered so awful even among Laurel and Hardy buffs that it found a prominent place in Harry and Michael Medved's infamous 50 Worst Films of All-Time book.
But, as it turns out, The Big Noise really wasn't all that bad after all. Though hardly prime Laurel and Hardy, the spirit and tone of the film mostly is in keeping with their established characters, some of gags (many reworked from earlier films) are pretty funny, and in the end Laurel and Hardy themselves, as charming as ever, win out. All-in-all, The Big Noise ultimately is no worse than the team's weaker Roach-era films, pictures like Bonnie Scotland (1935) or Swiss Miss (1938) which is to say not-bad. Perhaps the DVD's biggest surprise was its commentary track by Randy Skretvedt, whose Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies remains the best book about the team and especially their creative process. He nails precisely what's wrong with the Fox pictures in his book, but on that film's commentary track admits that for various reasons he was totally mistaken in his assessment of The Big Noise. It's actually pretty funny.
Volume 2 is more of the same, offering the team's remaining three Fox titles: A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), The Dancing Masters (1943), and The Bullfighters (1945). Once again, the films are far better than their reputations would suggest, and the DVDs include some very nice extra features. The breakdown laugh quotient-wise is much like that in Volume 1. A-Haunting We Will Go again tries to have the slickness of an Abbott & Costello with a script unsuitable for Laurel and Hardy; The Dancing Masters has a terrible, schizophrenic story full of sound and fury signifying nothing, though Laurel and Hardy are good. The Bullfighters, like The Big Noise is the set's pleasant surprise. Essentially a reworking of their 1934 two-reeler Going Bye-Bye! (1934) transplanted to Mexico City, it's not far removed from the team's later, unpretentious Roach features such as Block-Heads (1938) and Saps at Sea (1940).
Like Great Guns, A-Haunting We Will Go is seriously marred by bad writing (including its meaningless title - there are no ghosts or hauntings of any sort) that gives the team inappropriate behavior and highly uncharacteristic dialogue. In one scene for instance the pair must choose between accepting a job accompanying a coffin across state lines or be arrested for vagrancy: "It's better to spend one night with a corpse," quips Hardy, "than 60 days with the cops!" This kind of thing might be appropriate for Lou Costello or Bob Hope, but is all wrong for Stan and Babe.
As that line suggests, many of these Fox films are overwhelmed with a noirish sense of dread and preoccupation with murder (and even mutilation!) between and sometimes during Laurel and Hardy's scenes. That's because many of these later films were made by people heretofore associated mainly with Fox mystery series like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Michael Shayne. Skretvedt's book goes into considerable detail on the even darker, appallingly inappropriate stories that thankfully were never filmed: they're even worse.
And yet even the likes of A-Haunting We Will Go has its share of nice little set pieces almost exactly right for the team, like the sequence aboard a train where they naively buy a money-making machine from a pair of con men (Richard Lane and Robert Emmett Keane) then enjoy a hearty meal on the assumption that they'll be able to print up millions whenever the mood strikes them.
The Dancing Masters similarly exhibits an ignorance of what Laurel and Hardy are all about, such as Stan's highly out-of-character line, "How 'bout a drink? My nerves are shot!" while other bits of dialogue, possibly adjusted on set by Stan, such as his admiration for "succotash and 'balamy,'" recall the Laurel and Hardy of old. Easily the most aimless of Laurel and Hardy features, The Dancing Masters begins with the team running a dance studio and preyed upon by gangsters (including a young Robert Mitchum, just shy of stardom), but about ten minutes later the dance school is all but forgotten and the gangsters are arrested, never to be heard from again. Next, the boys get involved with a handsome young inventor (Robert Bailey) working on an "invisible ray" for the war effort (it's not invisible, however, another goof), his girlfriend (Trudy Marshall) and her short-tempered father (Matt Briggs), dowager mother (Margaret Dumont, late of the Marx Bros.), and his shady business partner (Allan "Rocky" Lane).
The Bullfighters send the team "down Mexi-Ho-Ho way!" so says the trailer, to extradite a female thief, but end up working for Hotshot Coleman (an energetic Richard Lane again, giving this film a nice little boost), who hires Stan to impersonate look-alike bullfighter Don Sebastian (also Laurel), an internationally acclaimed matador with visa problems. As with The Big Noise the film allows the team the chance to revive (but also effectively rework) many of their older gags, particularly no less than three variations on their tit-for-tit routines, most notably a remake of a celebrated sequence in Hollywood Party (1933) with Lupe Velez. (It's severely marred by some very obnoxious underscoring, however.)
Video & Audio
Though single-layered, the brevity of these films (a bit more than an hour apiece) allows for great looking transfers, though the available film and sound elements on The Dancing Masters is notably lacking. That film has a lot of scratches and wear, reel change cues and even a couple of splice-driven jump-cuts, suggesting a studio print (?) was sourced. The sound is also pretty poor, with the dialogue coming off like it was recorded in a high school gymnasium. The transfer itself is fine, however, and if you don't mind watching something that approximates seeing a Laurel and Hardy movie in a fifth-run theater, you won't be too disappointed. A-Haunting We Will Go is just fine, however, and The Bullfighters looks great, nearly pristine, though its soundtrack is a bit on the hissy side. All three titles are offered in Fox's faux stereo process as well as their original mono, with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Scott MacGillivray, author of Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward, provides an Audio Commentary for all three films. He does a good job and like Skretvedt before him is agreeably full of enthusiasm, but seems reluctant to step on Laurel and Hardy's dialogue and pantomime, so there are long stretches without commentary, unlike the non-stop Randy Skretvedt tracks in the earlier Fox releases.
Skretvedt does put in an appearance in the form of three-page essays included with each film, curiously glued tightly shut; many consumers probably won't even notice that there are little essays hidden inside.
A-Haunting We Will Go includes a complete version of The Tree in a Test Tube (1943) a government film about the wonders of wood featuring the team in silent but full color footage clowning to Pete Smith's usual obnoxious narration. The footage is in poor condition but watchable. Also included is raw Fox Movietone News Footage of the team at the grand opening of a theater in San Luis Obispo.
The Dancing Masters' supplements include A Ship's Reporter, a 1950 filmed television interview with Hardy that's pretty good as such things go, with Babe coming off as genial offscreen as he does on. Grand Hotel: The 1932 Laurel & Hardy Tour appears to consist of three different one-reel shorts of the team mobbed by British fans on what was supposed to be a vacation but which quickly turned into a personal appearance tour. There's footage of Stan with his parents, but even better is actual footage (albeit silent) of the team onstage at an Edinburgh movie palace performing and addressing the audience.
Finally, The Bullfighters includes an 18-minute featurette, Laurel & Hardy: The Fox Years that largely whitewashes the team's unhappy tenure there while calling the films "cinematic treasures." Besides MacGillivray actress Terry Moore (who has a bit part in A-Haunting We Will Go) and child actor / film buff and later prolific television director Richard Correll (Leave it to Beaver) are interviewed, the latter telling a charming anecdote about nervously calling Stan (presumably around 1960 or so) on the phone and trying to set up a meeting.
Original Theatrical Trailers are offered for all three films, but the text is missing on The Bullfighters and both the text and narration are nowhere to be found on The Dancing Masters, something Fox really should be pointing out to viewers. A-Haunting We Will Go's trailer is peculiar, all stills and no clips, while the image quality on The Dancing Masters trailer is very good, far better than the film itself.
Given Hallmark's criminal neglect of its prime Laurel and Hardy material (and the Roach library in general), these Fox films come as a welcome relief considering the team's DVD drought of recent years. While definitely not the films those new to Laurel and Hardy should start with - this reviewer suggests the shorts Helpmates, Towed in a Hole, and The Music Box, along with the features Sons of the Desert and Way Out West - for longtime fans these films are a genuinely big and pleasant surprise.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.