Fans of classic film comedy were understandably miffed at Artisan's recent DVD Laurel & Hardy, a collection of classic sound shorts (plus the feature Sons of the Desert) supposedly "digitally remastered" but reportedly drawn from nearly 20-year-old TV versions mastered off long-outdated one-inch tape. After viewing (or, more accurately, attempting to view) these wretchedly murky transfers with (in some cases) rescored music, I retreated to their silent comedies, collected in ten volumes and released under the banner The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy. While the quality of source material is inconsistent, sometimes even within the same short, most look (and, strangely enough, sound, thanks to the addition of their original Vitaphone soundtracks) better than they have in years. More importantly, this series is done with the urgently-needed, loving care utterly denied the Artisan release.
Volume 4 is a typical example of the series. It includes one early-talkie, three starring silent shorts, a two-reel comedy starring Clyde Cook that features Hardy alone in a supporting role, and a Charley Chase short with Laurel & Hardy in a brief but funny cameo. Beyond their value as entertainment, this collection provides students of screen comedy a great opportunity to not only trace the evolution of Laurel & Hardy – the refinement of their characters throughout their silent work, and their transition to sound - but also an increasingly rare glimpse at the comedy of both Cook and especially Chase. If Laurel and Hardy's movies, popular as they continue to be, are in as dire a need for restoration and preservation as they appear, one can only imagine the tragic fate that might still await the surviving films of comics like Cook and Chase.
They Go Boom! (1929) is a very early sound film (the team's fourth), and the first of their "boarding house" comedies, which usually pit the duo against hothead landlord Charlie Hall. In this short, Babe (as Hardy was affectionately called) is up all night with a cold, and Stan tries to "cure" him, with the expected results. This short was reportedly in terrible condition for years; I don't remember it ever being shown as part of the Laurel and Hardy show on the local Detroit station that I first experienced the team. For this DVD, a poor optical soundtrack has been replaced by a fine, original 16-inch Vitaphone disc. The picture also looks much better than any other version of this short I've ever seen.
Like many of their silent shorts, Their Purple Moment (1928) has story elements that would be reused in their subsequent sound films. This short has Stan and Babe sneaking off to a nightclub only to learn - after racking up a huge tab - that Stan's wife has substituted his bankroll for cigar coupons. It's basically Blotto meets Below Zero (both 1930), and features the fine support of sexy, talented Anita Garvin.
Bacon Grabbers (1929) is a rarely-seen short reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy's classic Big Business (also 1929), in which the team try unsuccessfully to sell a Christmas tree to an exasperated James Finlayson. In Bacon Grabbers, they're trying to serve papers to an equally uncooperative Edgar Kennedy. This short was shot silent but released well into the sound era. As a result, the elaborately orchestrated Viatphone discs have been replaced by a lone pipe organ, but that can't take away from the fun of this late-silent gem. Jean Harlow turns up, very briefly, at the end of this fun two-reeler.
Should Sailors Marry? (1925) stars Australian comic Clyde Cook, a compact acrobat-type comedian with brushy mustache, here playing a new husband forced to share his bed not with wife Fay Holderness (Hog Wild), but with Roach stock villain Noah Young. The short is only okay, with too much time spent with Cook trying to escape this disastrous marriage, while the final reel concludes rather abruptly with Harold Lloyd-type thrill antics at a construction site. Hardy plays an over-enthusiastic insurance doctor, and like much of his early solo work, his performance is funny and played with a clear understanding of how to make best and subtle use the camera.
Unaccustomed As We Are (1929) is the silent version of their very first sound short. Personally, I prefer the team's sound films to their silents, if only because their voices only further add to their delightful characterizations. This silent is in some ways superior to the laborious sound version, and those familiar with the talkie will want to compare it with this. Once again, story elements for this short were later reworked (almost scene-for-scene in this case) for their 1938 feature Block-Heads. Kennedy, Thelma Todd, and Mae Busch are featured.
On the Wrong Trek (1936) is a pleasant though not especially funny two-reeler starring the great Charley Chase, a wonderful comic actor long overdue for a major retrospective. This was one of the very last shorts produced at Roach Studios, and the last Chase made before finding work at Columbia, where he starred in his own series (including the 1940 classic The Heckler) while occasionally directing shorts starring The Three Stooges. On the Wrong Trek has Charley recounting an ill-fated road trip with wife Rosina Lawrence (who co-starred with Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West) and mother-in-law (Bonita Weber). Laurel & Hardy make a delightful cameo appearance in this short, which also features Bud Jamison and Clarence Wilson. This short is in excellent condition, printed off the camera negative.
The DVD itself has no extras; indeed, once inserted into a player the disc starts right up with the first short. But the fold out jacket offers not only nice essays (by an uncredited writer or writers), but fascinating details about the source elements used for both picture and sound. If only all DVDs offered this kind of information!
Some consumers may complain that too many of the shorts are solo films, and that even many of those that feature both were made before they really became a team. I myself found the choice of shorts generally excellent, offering a fascinating (if not chronological) glimpse at the evolution of these two talents into the greatest comedy team ever. As it is, far too many of the Roach shorts remain forgotten, and many, sadly, may never become available in any format. Though rather pricey, these shorts are must-haves for any serious fan of silent comedy.