Laurel and Hardy were one of the best, many would argue the best, comedy team to ever ham it up in front of a camera. The shorts and movies they made are still making people roll with laughter today, nearly 80 years after they first teamed up. One of the surprising things about this duo is that they were an artificial creation. They didn't meet, come up with an act, and tour vaudeville like Abbot and Costello or Burns and Allen. They were thrown together as costars on a short, it did well, so they made another. Within a year they were billed as a comedy team, and "Laurel and Hardy" were born. But they were not equal partners. Stan Laurel always made twice as much money as Oliver Hardy because he did twice the work. While Oliver played golf after filming had wrapped up. Stan was still working; writing new gags, planning shots and supervising the editing of their films. But before these two comedic giants were brought together, they both had separate careers in comedy films. Now Kino, is association with the French company Lobster Films, (which was responsible for the wonderful Charley Bowers DVD set reviewed here,) have released a two DVD set of early Stan Laurel solo work, before he partnered up with Oliver Hardy. This is a welcome set that any fan of silent comedies will want to have in their collection.
Stan Laurel had been around show business his whole life. The son of an English theater actor, as a young lad he would watch his father from backstage and soon was bitten by the acting bug himself. He joined the famous Fred Karno acting troupe in the mid teens, and was soon one of the group's leading actors. Fred Karno trained a generation of English comedy actors. He had a school for training the actors in pratt falls and other comedy techniques and had several touring companies that would travel across England and the continent putting on shows. It was a great training ground for comedians, and since many of their shows were pantomime (due to an old English law that only allowed plays with dialog only in certain venues) this style of comedy was perfectly suited to silent movies. When the Karno company toured the United States, Stan decided to stay in Hollywood, like another Karno star had a bit earlier, Charlie Chaplin.
After making some movies with various studios for a few years, Stan signed a contract with Hal Roach in 1923 to star in a series of one and two reel comedies. These films are fun to watch not only for their comedic value (some of them are very funny) but also because you can see the Stan learning his trade as he goes along. Though many of them feel rushed and slapped together, you can see the seeds of great comedy in them.
Stan's acting style is also much different than the way he would portray his character opposite Oliver Hardy that would make him famous. In many of these films he uses exaggerated expressions and motions as a source of comedy. This is just the opposite of the much more subtle approach he would take in later films, where a simple quivering lip or double take could bring peels of laughter. He has a broad smile in many of these shorts where he shows all of his teeth, it wasn't until later that he developed the shy nervous grin that was so amusing.
Stan also derives comedy from situations that he would avoid in later years, chasing women for example. He's a very different character from the nice but dim persona he cultivated in the Laurel and Hardy shorts. In some of these early films he's outgoing and vivacious, and others inept and in others creative. Yet you can see gags here that would be refined and repeated in his Laurel and Hardy movies.
These films also represent a wide varieties of styles with many different types of comedy and gags. There are straight slapstick with Stan inadvertently causing mayhem in a public place, like the first film presented, Oranges and Lemons, and parodies of popular films such as in The Soilers and Dr. Pyckle & Mr. Pride. Some of these early films were a little rough though, without much of a plot. Just a series of gags strung together one after another, but that doesn't make them unfunny. Some of the shorts with the thinnest plots are the funniest.
Ironically the way short comedies were made back in the mid 20's was both the reason for these films successes and failures. All of these films were made under a very tight schedule with a very small budget. The small comedy factories had to churn out at least a two-reeler each and every week, often more than that. This meant that the productions were rushed and this often caused poor production values and less well thought out gags. At the same time, this frantic schedule gave a lot of room for trial and error. If a gag fell flat, Stan would just note it and move on to the next film. It was during this period that Stan started writing and directing some of his shorts, which gave him the ability to experiment with different types of comedy, and work out the best ways to put a short together. He could adjust the pacing and work with the structure of his films. But not only did Stan spend a lot of time on the set working of gags, he would often be in the lab after the other actors had gone home helping the editor cut the film. (He personally supervised the editing of all the Laurel and Hardy films up until 1940.) The lessons he learned here would be applied with great skill in the work he did with Oliver Hardy.
If you are only familiar with his Laurel and Hardy work, these films might seem a little different at first. The pacing and style is quite different, but they are still funny in their own right, and well worth watching.
The shorts included in this set are:
Oranges and Lemons: (Also available
on The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy Volume Two.): An amusing short
that has Laurel as working in one of the orange orchards that used to populate
Hollywood. This setting allows Laurel to play around with ladders
and trees, and quickly get into an orange fight with his coworkers.
When all of the possible gags have been exhausted, Stan runs into the packing
plant where he gets to play with the machinery in there. This is
a standard slapstick comedy of the type that Ha Roach excelled at.
Not much of a plot, but a lot of gags compressed into a short film.
This is a pretty funny short if you like slapstick. Grade B+
Comparison with the Image version: This version of the short offers something that the Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy (LFLH) copy doesn't: intertitle cards. The LFLH version is completely without intertitle cards while the version presented here has the original Pathe cards. The print used for this DVD also is a little cleaner with fewer scratches and spots on the print. In addition, it is cropped more generously: There is a little more image at the top of the picture. Now for the bad news; this version of Oranges and Lemons is a bit darker than the LFLH version, with a little less contrast. There is also a short scene missing from this Kino print. (The part where the boss helps Stan nail the top onto a crate and gets some smashed fingers for his troubles.) It only lasts about 10-15 seconds, but it is included in the LFLH version. I'm glad I have both versions in my collection, and would be hard pressed to choose which one is superior. They both have their strengths and faults. If pressed to the wall, I'd say the print included with the Stan Laurel Collection looks a little better, and there are some good jokes on the intertitle cards that the LFLH version misses.
Roughest Africa: (Also available
on The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy Volume Two.) This is a delightful
parody of adventure/travel films. "Over blistering desert sands,
through poisonous jungles, across unexplored land inhabited by fierce Woofles,
Geegawa and Cake Eaters moved the caravan of brave scientists, photographers
and whatnots." Stan plays Proffesor Stanilaus Laurello, a scientist
who launches a scientific expedition to explore the area between Hollywood
and Los Angeles, two areas in Africa according to the map displayed.
He hires native bearers to carry the barest essentials; food, clothing,
a refrigerator, Victrola, bathtub, and a grand piano, then climbs in a
cab and follows along. Out in the bush Laurello and his photographer
(James Finlayson) get chased by an ostrich and a bear, but the most humorous
moments occur when an elephant wanders into their camp. Stanilaus
tries to push it out of camp, pull it, and even shoot it with predictable
results. The ending gags with the pair being chased by a lion are
hilarious. Grade A-
Comparison with the Image version: The version of this film included on the Stan Laurel collection is cleaner than the print on the LFLH DVD, there are fewer scratches and spots. It also has a little more contrast, and a fuller range of gray tones. There are more details in this version too, though I suspect that the image has been digitally enhanced. When you freeze a frame and examine it carefully, it looks like some details have a false highlight to them. This is not easily apparent when watching the movie at ragular speed. (Happily the copy of this film included in the LFLH does have the intertitlecards.)
Frozen Hearts: This short is set in Russia and has Stan trying to win a girl who has gone off to the big city to be a dancer. It has the feel of a movie parody, but I have no idea what the source may be. Grade B-
The Soilers: (Also available on
Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy Volume Six.) A parody of the 1923 film
Spoilers. Stan plays a mine owner in Alaska who was cheated out
of his stake and tries to get revenge. The short would have
played better if you are familiar with the original film. Grade C
Comparison with the Image version: The version included with this set is the clear and easy winner. The image version is heavily edited, with most of the first two minutes missing from the short. Other scenes have been rearanged, and the the intertitles cards have been rewriten (and poorly at that.) The Image version looks terrible, with very little contrast and a washed out picture. The Kino film has excellent detail and contrast. This version is superior in every way.
Mother's Joy: Stan is the grandson to a wealthy gentleman who decides his heir should marry. They have a coming out party and an engagement party with predictable results. Not one of his best. Many of the gags didn't work and are telegraphed too far in advance. Grade C.
Near Dublin: Stan is a postman who is in love with the same girl (Ena Gregory) as the local brick manufacturer (James Finlayson.) This being Ireland, the two competitors for the girls affections start fighting and soon everyone starts flinging bricks. An okay comedy, but didn't have a lot of laughs. Grade C+
Zeb Vs. Paprika: The owner of the fastest horse in America challenges Europe's fastest horse, Paprika, to a race. Paprika's owner (James Finlayson) starts getting his jockey (Stan Laurel) into shape with a vigorous workout routine before the big race. Some amusing bits in this one, especially the race at the end. Grade B
Make sure you read James Finlayson's lips when he sees that his jockey has gorged himself on a chicken dinner. Such language!
Postage Due: This is a funny short. Stan has his picture takes (in a tutu no less) to send to his girlfriend. After he mails it, he realizes that he didn't put a stamp on it, and jumps through the post office window to retrieve it. The postal detective (James Finlayson again) sees this and, thinking he's a crook, goes after Stan. This starts a hilarious chase over conveyor belts and through postal bins as Stan chases his post card, and Fin chases Stan. There was a very amusing bit when Stan can't get a pen to write. Grade A.
Chasing the Chaser: Stan doesn't appear in this film, but it was directed him. It features James Finlayson in a rare staring role as the husband of a woman who suspects he hasn't been faithful. She hires a detective to get the goods on him. A solid effort, with James taking a lot of pratt falls and looking goofy, something he does extraordinarily well. Grade B-
Short Kilts: (Also available on
Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy Volume Five.) Stan moves to Scotland
with this short. Several families gather at Stans house for a party.
The bob for apples and play musical chairs. This film is substandard
even for the time. Nothing seemed to work right. The gags were
dumb and the plot rather boring. The best jokes were on the title
cards. Grade D
Comparison with the Image version: I found the short on the Image DVD to be a little softer with some details being washed out in the bright areas. There were also more print defects, scratches and the like, on the Image version. There was also a grey box in the lower right hand corner of the frame that was present throughout this short when it appears on The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy Volume Five. (See screencap above.) It looks like they are trying to obscure a watermark.
West of Hot Dog: Stan is a city slicker who travels out west when he learns that he has inherited a saloon. Unfortunately, if Stan dies, the bar goes to his two rough cousins, who think it should have been theirs in the first place. This is a funny film with a lot to good gags. Stan plays the fish-out-of-water to a tee. You can see some of his Laurel and Hardy persona start to emerge in this movie: he doesn't really understand what's going on around him, thinks the best of everyone, and has a cheerful outlook. A great movie all around. I loved the stage coach robbery at the beginning. Grade A
The Snow Hawk: Stan works in general store in the heart of Canada. He is trying to woo the girl who works with him, but she has fallen for a Royal Canadian Mountie. But is he really a Mountie, of Midnight Mike, the notorious outlaw? This was a little above average. Stan is still overacting a bit, something that he avoided in the previous short. Grade B-
Navy Blue Days: Stan's in the Navy this time. He's the person in charge of doing the laundry, all of it, and he has a mountain to go through. While in port, an officer aboard his ship has received an invitation from his girl to come to dinner and "bring a friend." Unable to convince the chief to bring him along, Stan just follows. The girlfriend assumes that Stan is an invited guest, much to his superior's dismay. You can see Stan slowing the action down more in this film. The movie isn't as fast and frantic as the films he was doing only the previous year were. This is a good film with a great gag where Stan walks in and out of a building, barely being missed by a huge swinging crate that he doesn't see. Grade A
The Sleuth: Stan is Detective Webster Dingle, who takes a case from a lady to trap her husband whom she suspects of fooling around on her. Stan dresses as a maid and tries to get the husband to make a pass at him. This is basically the same film as Chasing the Chaser which Stan directed that same year, but with the star taking the role of the detective rather than the husband. This was another good film. You can tell that Stan's sense of comedy has been evolving. The movie starts off at a slower pace which gradually increases as the film goes on. Much like the Laurel and Hardy films. One note: This film was taken from two prints, one of which was very scratched and faded. Fortunately this print is only used to fill in a couple of areas the film, the majority of the movie looks fine. Grade A
Dr. Pyckle & Mr. Pride: In attempting to separate the good and evil in a person's personality, Dr, Pyckle creates a potion that turn him into the hideous Mr. Pride, and irreverant practical joker. Not as sophisticaed as his later films, this is still very funny. Stan is outrageous leaping about as Mr. Pride. Grade A
Half a Man: Winchell McSweeney (Stan Laurel) is a simple soul who has to leave home after his father's fishing business goes under. As his father tells him: "Son, ya gotta fend for yourself–the odds are against you." He promises his mother that he'll beware of women, and sets off. Winchell heads off to sea, but when everyone has to abandon ship, the shy boy finds himself stranded on a deserted island with a bunch of women all fighting for his attentions. A solid effort. Grade B.
Yes, Yes, Nanette: Another film that Laurel directed but didn't appear in. Nanette (Lyle Tayo) writes that she's coming home and bringing her new husband Hillory(James Finlayson.) The parents don't approve of the new addition to the family. When Nanette's old beau (Oliver Hardy without a mustache) comes over, he tries to steal Nanette back. A great comic romp with some great actors. Oliver Hardy does a particularly good job. Grade A.
The audio track is comprised of a piano music played by Neil Brand. The music he chooses fits nicely with the films. There is no hiss or distortion, and the music is nice and clear. A good sounding DVD.
The video quality was outstanding in general. Of course, it does vary from film to film, but even the worst examples looked very good, and the best prints were amazing. The Soliers and Navy Blue Days both had amazing looking prints, they looked like it was made recently. While on the other end of the spectrum Zeb Vs. Paprika was a little washed out, but that was it. Lobster Films and Kino have done an outstanding job with these films.
The first DVD includes a selection of publicity and production stills along with movie posters and other images of Stan Laurel. There are no extras on the second disc.
Stan Laurel was the brains behind Laurel and Hardy, no one denies that. But just as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd had to make many, many shorts before they stumbled onto the characters that would make them famous, Stan also had to learn his craft. In the fast paced world of Hal Roach's studio he did just that, perfecting the timing and set-up of gags that would make him a big star in just a few years. There shorts aren't a humorous as his Laurel and Hardy work, but then again few comedies are. This set is still highly amusing from an entertainment standpoint, and very interesting historically. This set of films allow you to see a comic genius come into his own. Highly Recommended.