The last dozen or so years have been mighty rough on Laurel & Hardy fans. The beloved comedy team's best films, those made for producer Hal Roach from the mid-1920s through 1940, were maddeningly stuck in a kind of apathetic corporate limbo. The DVD era had started off well, with Image's The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy series. Featuring the team's silent films, they were among the very first DVD releases of any kind, with Volume One released in December 1998. But those very quickly went out-of-print and even now several volumes command premium collector's prices.
Meanwhile, rights to the Roach library passed to Hallmark, the greeting card company, and Laurel & Hardy's Roach titles pretty much languished there, unloved, year after year. The original film elements were in poor shape, and the company, now called Hallmark Entertainment, had little interest in releasing them to DVD. There were two half-hearted releases, one in 2003 that included their feature Sons of the Desert (1933) plus four classic shorts, and another in 2005 containing Way Out West (1937), Block-Heads (1938) and another two-reeler, but both sets utilized extremely mediocre transfers and were obviously slapped together with little enthusiasm.
Ironically, the movies widely regarded as Laurel & Hardy's worst, the half-dozen they made for 20th Century-Fox in the forties, were issued in luxuriously appointed boxed sets, featuring excellent audio commentaries and other supplements. Even more ironically, four of the six films turned out to be far better than their uniformly negative reputations suggested, and their true worth was rightly reappraised.
But the team's best movies, during their years with producer Hal Roach, remained stubbornly MIA, and eventually a great many fans took the extreme step of ordering PAL format DVD boxed sets released in Europe, especially Laurel & Hardy - The Collection, a May 2004 shoebox from Universal's British subsidiary. It was and remains one heck of a deal. The set includes pretty much the same silent films as those long out-of-print Image DVDs, plus all of Laurel & Hardy's talkie short subjects and features through 1940, excepting only a handful of titles (The Devil's Brother, Babes in Toyland, Bonnie Scotland, The Flying Deuces) whose rights reside elsewhere. Nevertheless, this 21-disc set included almost everything else.* (Missing, for some reason, from both sets is the Roach-produced Pick a Star, in which they make an extended guest appearance.) The boxed set was also extraordinarily cheap, usually hovering around $50, which meant even factoring in the cost of buying a region-free DVD player on which to watch them, this set was just about the DVD bargain of the decade.
And now, finally, comes Laurel & Hardy - The Essential Collection. A 10-disc set about as thick as two standard DVD cases glued together, it's about one-tenth the size of the bulky and awkwardly packaged UK boxed set, and a good five pounds lighter. The Essential Collection has material not included in the UK set and vice versa, and the transfers and other details differ. If you skipped the PAL format release you'll definitely want to get this. Let me say that again: If you skipped the PAL format release you'll definitely want to get this. (And, if you don't already have the UK set, I can't imagine anyone not wanting The Essential Collection.) However, because so many Laurel & Hardy fans already have the UK set, the essential question about The Essential Collection is: Is it worth the cost of a double-dip?
Let me count the ways. The only real downside to this release over the UK set is that this one does not include any of Laurel & Hardy's silent films (they're being saved for a 2012 collection, one hopes), so you'll still want to hold onto those Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy DVDs and/or the UK DVD set. The UK set also includes - yech! - colorized versions of the films, but I've yet to meet a single Laurel & Hardy fan even marginally interested in those, so their absence is no loss. There are a couple of minor items in the UK set not included here: some bits and pieces of a German version of Pardon Us (1931), for instance.
However, Laurel & Hardy - The Essential Collection does include the same shorts and feature films from the team's talkie years at Roach, some 32 hours, 21 minutes worth. Moreover, it includes things not on the UK discs, and is generally superior in every other way.
The biggest difference is that this set includes English-subtitled versions of the team's surviving foreign language versions. In those early days of talking pictures, the art and technologies of subtitling and dubbing movies into other languages hadn't yet been perfected. And so, for several years, Laurel & Hardy filmed multiple versions of some of their early films, with the team re-shooting their scenes and phonetically saying their lines in Spanish, French and, occasionally, other languages as well. Watching them perform in languages they otherwise did not speak is mesmerizing. Stan's Spanish and French are pretty appalling, but Babe (Oliver) takes to it like a duck to water and, more importantly, even when they completely mangle their dialogue, always do they manage to stay in character. The UK set included some of these films but, bizarrely, without any English subtitling at all. The subtitling here is excellent and, at times, funny in and of itself!
Moreover, these foreign versions were usually substantially longer than their English-language counterparts. Some include Laurel & Hardy gags not in the shorter U.S. versions, while others have oddball Vaudeville acts shoehorned in to pad the running time. And you haven't lived until you've seen the great Hadji Ali, whose performance in the Spanish version of Chickens Come Home (1931) must be seen to be believed.
For the record, The Essential Collection includes Ladrones (the Spanish version of Night Owls), La vida nocturna (Spanish Blotto), Tiembla y titubea (Spanish Below Zero), Noche de duendes (Spanish combination of Berth Marks and The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case, all 1930), Politiquerías (Spanish Chickens Come Home, 1931), Les carottiers and Los calaveras (the French and Spanish combinations of Be Big! and Laughing Gravy, 1931).
Video & Audio
Another advantage of Laurel & Hardy - The Essential Collection over the UK boxed set is the issue of PAL speed-up. Laurel & Hardy fans tend to know these movies intimately, line-for-line, and so even a moderate PAL-to-NTSC conversion speed up becomes highly noticeable. This, obviously, is not an issue here.
What I didn't expect was how much better most of these movies look compared to the UK DVDs. The UK versions of the shorts and features were okay but, to my eyes anyway, only a handful looked significantly better than what had been released to VHS and shown on local television stations during the 1980s and early '90s. These high-definition transfers reportedly are derived from much newer 35mm film transfers using fine grain elements or duplicate material borrowed from Munich, where Eastern Hemisphere rights are controlled by a CCA. They're still not perfect: a multi-year, maybe multi-decade project to fully restore the Laurel & Hardy films is underway at the UCLA Film & Television Archive so, years down the road, the movies promise to look better still. Even so, this new set by far improves upon anything seen 'til now.
Significantly, in many cases the "Film Classics" and other opening title cards created for theatrical reissue and television versions have been dropped and each film's original title cards, including the MGM Leo the Lion logo, have been reinstated.
Some other notes:
Perfect Day includes options for both the original 1929 and more familiar 1937 reissue soundtracks.
Laughing Gravy, for years available (in America) only as a two-reel comedy, here is shown in its 31-minute three-reel foreign version. (I first saw the long version while in London in 1982. Boy, was I surprised!)
Pardon Us (1931): For years only the 56-minute version was shown on TV, but without fanfare a 70-minute cut turned up and premiered on laserdisc. That's the cut included here.
A Chump at Oxford (1940): Included is both the 63-minute feature version and the 42-minute "streamliner featurette" version. A trailer, also included, contains material not included in either cut.
Of course, the quality of the image and sound (now in Dolby Digital mono) vary depending upon the condition of the surviving film elements. (Some of the earliest talkie shorts were Vitaphone sound-on-disc jobs, and are technically quite primitive. But, again and again, I was impressed at just how much better these films look compared with what I had seen on television during the 1980s, on VHS (in substandard EP mode!), and in various Super-8, 16mm, and 35mm home and revival screenings. Each single-sided, dual layer disc contains roughly three to four hours worth of material, but the bit rate never feels compromised. (The UK sets certainly were, by the decision to include the colorized versions of everything.)
It's probably fair to say that Laurel & Hardy are the most beloved comedy team in the world. I was already a die-hard fan of Abbott & Costello, the Marx Bros. and Bob Hope long before I had ever seen a single Laurel & Hardy comedy. I stumbled upon them quite by accident. Channel 50, Detroit's biggest non-network affiliate, had brought back the Three Stooges two-reelers after a long absence from local television, at least a decade. My friends and I were thrilled, but after just a few weeks we tuned in and - gasp! - Laurel & Hardy were suddenly occupying the Stooges' time-slot. As it turned out, Channel 50 had decided to alternate between the Stooges and Laurel & Hardy for some reason, and my initial reaction was not good. Compared to the classic film comedy I was used to, Laurel & Hardy moved like molasses.
I skipped the next several weeks whenever Laurel & Hardy were on, but then my pal and indefatigable Stooge fan Bill Kahkola, who'd stuck with 'em, told me how much he'd enjoyed a Laurel & Hardy short called Come Clean (1931). His enthusiasm intrigued me, and I went back, tried 'em again, and in no time fell in love with what's since been my favorite comedy team.
Laurel & Hardy operate quite differently from other teams, especially the brasher breed of comics and comedians who became popular from the late 1930s onward. Laurel & Hardy, Stan and Ollie, are essentially adult children. They are babes in the woods (as opposed to the Stooges, Boobs in the Woods), complete and utter innocents in an often cruel and uncompromising world. They fight like unruly children yet are completely devoted to one another. Their bond and the pleasure they take in each other's company is, maybe, the biggest part of their appeal. Watch the little dance they perform together in Way Out West with a theater full of Laurel & Hardy fans, and I guarantee you'll feel the love.
One of the frustrating things about the UK set is that everything comes in a big box and finding a specific short or feature is extremely bothersome. The buyer basically has to remove each DVD, one by one, until the movie one is looking for is found. It's an attractive-looking, sturdy box, to be sure, but utterly impractical for regular use. Conversely, this new set is beautifully organized. It's like a book, with everything presented chronologically - Hosanna! - with their first talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are (1929), at the beginning of Disc 1, and their final film for Roach, Saps at Sea (1940), at the end of Disc 10. Excellent liner notes by Laurel & Hardy historian Richard W. Bann detail each short and features with release year, running time and include a paragraph-long description noting each film's director and supporting cast, along with comments about filming locations, alternate versions, film elements sourced - all kinds of useful and fascinating information.
Some have complained about the fact that these discs slide into sleeves rather than rest on plastic hubs, but if one is careful when handling and storing the set it's not a major concern.
Beyond the DVD, and even home video-debuts of so many shorts and versions of shorts, the set includes other intriguing extras. A Tribute to Laurel & Hardy (not to be confused with Laurel & Hardy - A Tribute to the Boys, which is included in the UK set but not here) is just that, and chiefly discusses the team from a unique perspective. That's because interviewees Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, and Chuck McCann all knew Stan Laurel quite well in his last years. (Tim Conway, Bob Einstein, and Penn & Teller are also interviewed to good effect, but apparently they didn't get to meet Laurel.) Van Dyke and McCann especially offer a lot of insight into the team's appeal and their observations are quite fascinating. (McCann shares a particularly moving anecdote.) Van Dyke and Jerry Lewis make an interesting contrast. The former is incredibly affable and self-effacing while Lewis comes off as, well, Jerry at his worst. He spins wildly inaccurate, easily disproved yarns about the team, among other things implying Hardy was a down-and-out nobody with no film comedy experience when Laurel "discovered" him. (In fact Hardy was already a well-established character comedian arguably more in demand than Laurel when they first teamed-up.) Jerry's highly questionable claims undoubtedly should have been edited out to save him the embarrassment he's been suffering since the release of this set.
On Location with the Boys is an interactive featurette/map showing nine then-and-now filming locations, as well as the site of the Hal Roach Studios lot in Culver City. It's a marvelous little extra; I only wish it were five times longer.
Laurel & Hardy make cameo appearances in three Roach-produced shorts, all included on Disc 10: On the Loose (1931), an especially funny short even without Stan and Babe, this starring Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts; Wild Poses (1933), an Our Gang short; and On the Wrong Trek (1936) starring the funny, irreplaceable Charley Chase. Also included is the complete version of The Tree in a Test Tube (1942), not very good, that was the team's only surviving appearance in color. Seen elsewhere, this release was struck from the original 16mm camera negative. Finally, trailers for Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), A Chump at Oxford, and Saps at Sea are included.
Need I say more? This is one of the best DVD releases of 2011, and absolutely a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
* For the record, the set includes: Unaccustomed As We Are, Berth Marks, Men O' War, Perfect Day, They Go Boom, The Hoose-Gow (all 1929), Night Owls, Blotto, Brats, Below Zero, Hog Wild, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case, Another Fine Mess, La Vida Nocturna, Ladrones, Tiembla y Titubea, Noche de duendes (all 1930), Be Big! , Chickens Come Home, Politiquerias, Laughing Gravy, Our Wife, Come Clean, One Good Turn, Beau Hunks, Les carottiers, Los calaveras (all 1931), Helpmates, Any Old Port!, The Music Box, The Chimp, County Hospital, Scram!, Their First Mistake, Towed in a Hole, (all 1932), Twice Two, Me and My Pal, The Midnight Patrol, Busy Bodies, Dirty Work (all 1933), Oliver the Eighth, Going Bye-Bye!, Them Thar Hills, The Live Ghost (all 1934), Tit for Tat, The Fixer Uppers, Thicker than Water (all 1935), plus On the Loose (1931), Wild Poses (1933), and On the Wrong Trek (1936), and the following feature films: Pardon Us (1931), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), Sons of the Desert (1933), The Bohemian Girl (1936), Our Relations (1936), Way Out West (1937), Swiss Miss (1938), Block-Heads (1938), A Chump at Oxford (1940), and Saps at Sea (1940). Whew!
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary is Godzilla vs. Megalon (with Steve Ryfle).