Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Artisan's disc of Hallmark Laurel & Hardy films has been getting a pretty bad rap from reviewers,
with Leonard Maltin expressing his disappointment verbally on his daily radio blurb. The disc
isn't as bad as all that, and the shows are very watchable, but L&H fans hoping for loving
restorations of their favorites are bound to feel cheated. The print quality here is no better
than old, uncorrected masters for VHS or syndicated television. The main feature, in fact, is marred
with imposed fades for commercial breaks.
The choice of films is excellent; if the prints were of top quality, this would be a hotly-desired
Sons of the Desert is a 65-minute feature, and one of the pair's best. The well-structured
story has L&H sneaking off to a lodge shindig in Chicago, while their domineering wives (Mae Busch,
Dorothy Christy) think
they're making a medicinal
trip to Honolulu. Every scene is a comedy highlight, and the put-one-over-on-the-spouse routine
would seem to be a heavy influence on the I Love Lucy TV show. The slow build is at its best here, as
the wives, thinking their hubbies shipwrecked in the Pacific, see them in a newsreel, making merry on
the streets of Chicago. All of the comedy is character-driven. We love these guys and their simple-minded
idiosyncracies so much, we look forward to every slow-burn reaction, and every self-satisfied grin.
Unfortunately, this is the worst-looking film in the selection. The picture is soft, and slightly
contrasty. Undiscriminating viewers won't have a problem, but we've seen these films before -
and they look better on ordinary cable television. At 65 minutes, Sons may also be slightly cut,
as it is posted at 68 minutes in some references.
The other offerings are a pleasant variety of two-reel shorts. 1932's The Music Box is the
Oscar winner about pushing the piano up the long flight of stairs. I hope that box was made of
balsa wood. The film has a mythic element (Sisyphus, I suppose) and a fine appreciation of its
absurd concept of Work.
Another Fine Mess, the earliest short (1930) is the least of the bunch. Stan and Ollie hide
out from the cops by
pretending to be the owners of a mansion, with Stan going in drag as the maid, etc. James Finlayson,
the real millionaire, comes back unexpectedly and havoc ensues.
Busy Bodies (1933) is an inspired classic. The two are carpenters who cruise to work (through a
palm-lined Beverly Hills) with a Victrola playing in their Ford's engine compartment. The wood shop they
work in is a source for a couple of dozen well-played gags, with Laurel giving Hardy a shave with
a hand planer (everybody grimaces at this) and jamming Hardy's hands in a window casing. The short
has a spectacular end, a great gag with their Model T flivver.
County Hospital (1932) is also fairly inspired. Laurel visits Hardy in the hospital, eats all the
food he brought for him, and then gets tangled up in Hardy's traction cables, pitching the doctor (Billy
Gilbert) out the window and pulling Hardy to the ceiling. Hardy manages a great 'funny walk' with one
leg in an enormous cast. The finish is a wild car chase, with Laurel
sedated from sitting on a nurse's hypodermic.
The shorts are naturally hilarious. Just intending to review them, I ended up laughing out loud
here and there. The four two-reelers are sharper than the feature, but have more marks and
scratches, and some of the audio is scratchy.
Artisan is no budget label, and we expected more from it than this mediocre disc. The words
'digitally remastered' on the box will mislead the average buyer to
think the films have been restored. There are some okay extras, including a photo montage of
L&H locations and some text and photo tributes to Hal Roach. The menus and animated segues between
shows are fancy, but under the circumstances appear intended to distract viewers
from the quality of the shows.
The audio info says we can listen to the films in original 1.0 audio, or original restored 2.0 Dolby
mono. The tracks sound essentially the same - scratchy and hissy.
The bottom line is that we'd watch Laurel and Hardy on bad 8mm, and we have, happily! But DVD viewers
expect more, and even though Stan and Laurel are still entertaining, many customers will be disappointed.