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Laurel & Hardy (Way Out West, Block-Heads, Chickens Come Home)

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // Unrated // March 15, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted March 14, 2005 | E-mail the Author
More than a half-century since their last film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are still among the most beloved laugh-makers the world over. Great as they are, their comedy is something of an acquired taste; you can't sit someone down who's never seen their movies and expect them to automatically recognize Sons of the Desert (1933) as the masterpiece it is. The enjoyment of watching Laurel and Hardy struggle to get a piano up a long flight of steps, to clean a messy house or install a radio antenna depends greatly upon one's familiarity with the characters, rather than the quality of the sight gags or occasional verbal humor. It's Stan's steadfast affection for Oliver, and Oliver's confidant-like gazes, straight into the camera, of parental-like superiority (and frequent exasperation) that help make the relationship of Laurel and Hardy with their audience uniquely personal.

This reviewer remembers going to a screening of Way Out West (1937) in Detroit some years back and in that film, as Laurel and Hardy danced in tandem in front of a saloon to the tune of "At the Ball, That's All," a sizeable chunk of the audience, grown men and women, spontaneously burst into happy tears. "They have a special appeal that goes beyond mere laughter," explains Randy Skretvedt in his indispensable Laurel and Hardy - The Magic Behind the Movies. "They want to fit in our world, but they are too innocent and the world too cynical....They are as we were, before we were corrupted....Maybe we seek communion with them because they, in their innocence, stayed on a higher level of humanity which we're trying to recapture."

Despite this affection and enduring popularity, and a universal recognition of Laurel and Hardy as masters of screen comedy, Hallmark Entertainment, the current owners of Laurel and Hardy's sound movies (made during their years at Hal Roach Studios), appear utterly disinterested in the team. Although Image in 1999 distributed an excellent series of silent shorts featuring the team (The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy), up to now the only other (Roach Studios) sound comedies on DVD in Region 1 has been Artisan's Laurel & Hardy, a disastrous 2003 release featuring Sons of the Desert and four short subjects. This appallingly bad DVD used inexcusably poor, 20-year-old masters, and in the case of Sons of the Desert, uncaringly sourced a TV syndication master, complete with altered music and artificial fades.

Now, a long 19 months later, comes Laurel & Hardy, a new collection of two features, Way Out West and Block-Heads (1938), plus a three-reel comedy, Chickens Come Home (1931).

Way Out West is a delightful film, probably their best alongside Sons of the Desert, with Stan and Ollie charged with delivering a deed to a gold mine. Naturally, the foul everything up, and the deed ends up in the hands of "snake in the grass, toad in a hole" saloon owner Mickey Finn (James Finlayson, delightfully broad) and wife Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynn). Almost every scene is a gem: the journey to Brushwood Gulch, the fight over the deed, Stan and Ollie's late-night break-in, and the film gives the team no less than three charming musical numbers.

Block-Heads is a remake of an earlier short, Unaccustomed as We Are (1929), whose silent version is available on The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy, Volume 4. The team never gets enough credit for its late-period features at Roach Studios, but this, A Chump at Oxford and especially Saps at Sea (both 1940) are wonderful comedies that, unlike many of their earlier features, aren't encumbered by romantic subplots, dreary musical numbers, and a general effort to complete with big studio musicals. At 58 brisk minutes, Block-Heads is funny from beginning to end, with reunited doughboys Stan and Ollie on a disastrous visit to the latter's home. Particularly funny is Ollie's insistence on carrying Stan all the way to the former's car, Ollie mistakenly believing his old army buddy has lost a leg in the Great War.

Chickens Come Home is a nice contrast to the later features. Where the two features are solidly built around their "babes in the woods" personae, this earlier work operates from the premise that mayoral candidate Hardy had a "youthful indiscretion" with gold-digger Mae Busch. Busch was the great hell raiser in Laurel and Hardy's universe, while James Finlayson's conniving butler is one of his funniest roles in the Laurel and Hardy canon.

Indeed, all three movies feature supporting players who were regulars on the Hal Roach Lot of Fun, some of whom had careers dating back to the earliest silent comedies and concurrently appeared in myriad features and shorts shot all over Hollywood. Among the irreplaceable talent on this DVD: Billy Gilbert, James C. Morton, Vivien Oakland, and Thelma Todd.

Video & Audio

After understandable trepidation, fans can breathe a qualified sigh of relief. These titles are a substantial improvement over the earlier release, an improvement likely prompted by the outrage over the first set. (Notably, nowhere on the disc or packaging is this referred to as "Volume II"; Lions Gate seems to want to distance themselves from the controversy as much as possible.) All three titles have age-related flaws, but Block-Heads looks splendid throughout, and Way Out West looks as good as this reviewer has ever seen it. (Some prints of Way Out West trim the final song, "I Want to Be in Dixie." This version is complete.) Chickens Come Home is the weakest-looking of the three, and uses the familiar "Film Classics" TV version titles and late-1930s reissue score, but it's okay. Though both Way Out West and Chickens Come Home have their share of scratches, missing frames and the like, overall (and given their age) they are perfectly acceptable presentations. Quite unlike the earlier Artisan release, this new DVD compares favorably alongside the pricier Region 2/PAL versions.

Extra Features

Sadly, none. One longs for the informative liner notes of the Image discs, and Laurel and Hardy are certainly long overdue for Criterion-level treatment. One especially wishes that the delightful, Spanish-language version of Chickens Come Home, Politiquerias, filmed simultaneously with the team phonetically speaking en Espanol (Hardy quite well; Laurel atrociously!) and featuring the incomparable Hadji Ali, had been included.

Parting Thoughts

Let's hope it's not another 19 months before Lions Gate releases the next batch of Laurel and Hardy comedies. Lions Gate and/or Hallmark earn points for responding to the public relations disaster that followed their first batch of Laurel and Hardys. There's still a long way to go, but this second volume of Laurel & Hardy is a step in the right direction.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005. 

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