There’s always that one guy…

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I had the above photo taken of me this morning, when the temperature in Jacksonville was 39 degrees. Anyone in most parts of the U.S. who is reading this in a timely manner is probably groaning, as 39 degrees would seem like a summer heat wave to persons who are currently enduring temps in the negative double digits.

I send you the above photo, not to gloat over the current, comparatively warm climate of the southeastern U.S., but to show you my grand attire for same. All year long, come rain, shine, or whatever, I can be found this way at work or at home, dressed spartanly in a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.

People who dress as I do in cold weather seem to be an endless source of fascination with those of you who prefer a more, er, layered look.

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…such as this nattily attired gentleman.

Earlier this month, no less a publication than The Wall Street Journal found it necessary to interview some shorts-laden males to determine how they could dress so minimally in the dead of winter. (Click here to read the article for yourself.) WSJ, like most horrified onlookers, have labeled such persons as “a confounding species” known as “the Male Nojacketus.”

I cannot speak for my (seemingly) millions of brethren. But in order to be allowed back into civilized society, I would like to offer my personal explanation for dressing this way.

First off, I regard it as a matter of convenience. Much like everyone else, I don’t spend any more time in morbidly brisk weather than I have to. This means that, with my walks to/from my car to/from my current destination (work, the grocery store, etc.), I probably spend less than a half-hour outside on any given cold day. I found out long ago that if I dress to the nines during every cold spell, I have to spend eight hours or more perspiring through layers of clothing in order to endure the half-hour of cold. For me, it just doesn’t add up. I’d rather freeze a little bit to be comfortable for the majority of the day.

My other reason for dressing this way is that, at 57 years old, I’ve come to the conclusion that I no longer care how weirdly I come off to the rest of the world.

As I’ve mentioned frequently on this blog, my wife is a local newspaper publisher, editor, and on occasion, reporter. Years ago, she asked to join her in attending a weekly city council meeting that was being covered by the local media. During the meeting, I sat quietly with my arms crossed — very nonchalantly, I thought. The next day, one of my wife’s friends called her to ask what I had been so angry about. The TV news report about the meeting had included a brief shot of me, and my wife’s friend said I looked as though I was inexplicably angry about something at the meeting, and I looked like I was about to jump up and throttle one of the local councilmen.

Later I talked to my wife and daughter about it, and they both agreed that, even in a stationary state, my bulk and my facial expression — which I am told is a prime example of what is commonly referred to as “stony bitch face” — make me look quite intimidating to your average citizen. I had never noticed that I had this look until my family members pointed it out; now, I cultivate it.

For far too long in my life, I have had to quietly contend with the bullies, blowhards, and out-and-out idiots of the world. When my wife and daughter pointed out my “new” persona to me, I came to the conclusion that, if it keeps the spiders away, I’m all for it.

So the next time you see some minimally-clad male in below-freezing weather, remember that we’re not freaks of nature, just ordinary guys trying to endure the low temperatures in our own way.

Just don’t get too close to us.

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Review of Norbert Aping’s book THE FINAL FILM OF LAUREL AND HARDY: A STUDY OF THE CHAOTIC MAKING AND MARKETING OF ATOLL K

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The following is the final entry in this blog’s self-anointed Laurel & Hardy Month. Wondering why we did this? Click on the above image for our explanation!

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(PREFACE: Atoll KLaurel & Hardy’s final theatrical film, seems to have undergone some revisionist viewing over the last few years. As a result, there are L&H fans who find enough in the movie to enjoy it, while others share the initial general consensus [including Stan’s] that the film is a painful disaster to watch; count me among the latter. [Full disclosure: I showed the movie at one of my Tent meetings a few years ago, and most of the attendees said they really enjoyed it.]

I state all of this to show that my review of this book is obviously colored by my take on the movie. Your mileage may vary.)

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I am of two minds after reading The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy (McFarland, 2009). On the one hand, the book is a meticulously researched and detailed history of L&H’s final movie. On the other hand, considering how mostly unbearable the book’s subject is to watch, the book is rather like using a state-of-the-art telescope to examine an anthill.

Author Norbert Aping obviously wrote this book with the best of intentions, and he probably did so at the right time. For decades, L&H legend maintained that (a) everything that needed to be said about L&H’s movies had been said by the late 1970’s; and (b), the quality of Laurel & Hardy’s movies went straight downhill after they left the Hal Roach Studios and were forced into the “studio system” manner of making movies. But Randy Skretvedt’s glorious L&H bio proved the first theory to be wrong, and Scott MacGillivray’s revisionist bio put the lie to the second theory. So Aping must have figured that the time was right to revisit Atoll K and show that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be.

The trouble is that Atoll K — or Utopia, as it is more commonly known from public-domain tapes and DVDs — speaks for itself, often quite bitterly. If you start watching an L&H/Fox film with the knowledge that The Boys were often hampered by the studio system, there are still moments — indeed, entire scenes — of the Fox films that you can enjoy. But you can make all the excuses in the world for Atoll K, and yet once you are assaulted with Stan’s sickly appearance, Ollie’s larger-than-usual obesity, horribly dubbed foreign actors, and subplots that come and go with the wind, the movie practically talks you out of laughing at it for long stretches of time.

Aping is so eager to plead a positive case for the movie, he ends up doing his own schizophrenic dance trying to cover his tracks. At one point, he’ll tell you that distributors who were several generations removed from the original film have tampered with it and ruined it with editorial omissions. Then later, he’ll say that excisions which were never called for by the movie’s original makers have considerably improved the story and tempo of the movie.

Aping also points out that different countries’ versions of Atoll K (in America, England, and Europe) are very different from each other, ostensibly concluding that if we could get only one, clearly realized version of the movie, we’d all realize what a masterpiece it could have been. But unlike film buffs who still search the world for a complete print of The Rogue Song or Hats Off, there’s never been a documented case of anyone (other than, perhaps, Aping) who has viewed Atoll K and determined that there’s a pile of gold buried somewhere beneath this drek.

Also, as detailed as Aping’s book is, it still leaves several questions unanswered. One is why Stan Laurel — who, at the Roach Studios, was famous for throwing aside a script in favor of improvising his comedy — was so unquestionably attached to the notion that a good script would have made this movie better, when all evidence along the way demonstrated otherwise.

Another anomaly is that Aping is inexplicably pleased about any script development that shows the supporting characters carrying the majority of the plotline and/or the comedy. For a movie that its European producers were eager to plug as Stan and Ollie’s return to the big screen, it’s very bizarre that nobody connected with the movie was bothered by L&H being removed from the storyline (by mostly inferior and irritating supporting characters) for long scenes at a time.

Aping’s obvious research and good intentions are to be commended, and any L&H buff would like very much to believe that the movie Aping describes is the movie as it stands. But considering that the movie inspires more nausea and sorrow than laughs from its viewers, one is very surprised that Aping maintains, in his final line of the book, that “These two comic gentlemen had no need to be ashamed of their final film together.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laurel & Hardy biographies – Two more

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The following is the latest entry in this blog’s self-promulgated Laurel & Hardy Month. Why are we promulgating this? Click on the above image to learn more! (And by the way, go see Stan & Ollie — it’s wonderful!)

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Still cleaning out the ol’ bookshelf! Sorry if I have missed any of your favorite Laurel & Hardy biographies, but to paraphrase a line from Citizen Kane, they’ve been writing Laurel & Hardy books for nearly 60 years,  and I’ve only been reading them for 45!

I have three L&H books left to cover. One of them is a huge volume on Atoll K, which I will critique in my next blog entry. Today, I will cover two of the more acclaimed L&H tomes.

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The Films of Laurel & Hardy, by William K. Everson (1967)

[NOTE: Portions of this book are available for free online reading. Click here to go to the online link to this book.]

Let me begin by saying that I lapped up this book when I was first getting into Laurel & Hardy movies. (When I was in the sixth grade in school, I went so far as to write about it for a book report.) I must also say that I don’t think the book has aged very well.

For many years, The Films of Laurel and Hardy — later inexplicably and incorrectly re-titled The Complete Films of Laurel and Hardy — was one of the few print sources for an evaluation of L&H’s movie teamwork. For this reason, it occupies a warm place in the hearts of many L&H buffs.

It is still worth a look, but certain elements of William K. Everson’s book have dated badly. The entry on Laurel and Hardy’s short Duck Soup (1927) was written (as a “lost” film) a few years before it was rediscovered. (Everson eventually wrote a critique of the film in another book, Laurel and Hardy [1975], sadly out of print but reviewed elsewhere on this blog.) And another “lost” L&H film, Now I’ll Tell One (1927), is for obvious reasons not listed in the book. It’s a pity that Everson didn’t do an update on his book before his death.

Even without the film rediscoveries, the book is lacking in many ways. Everson’s claim that Block-Heads (1938) is a “Stan Laurel Production” is in no way backed up by either film historians or even the movie’s credits. (Laurel’s production credit appears only in Our Relations and Way Out West.) In the entry on Beau Hunks (1931), Everson writes, “Four reels was a clumsy length for Laurel and Hardy, and they never repeated it.” But they actually did, when they made A Chump at Oxford (1940) as one of Hal Roach’s “featurettes” of the time; it was only when the movie proved to be a hit that L&H added an extended prologue to the movie.

The most annoying aspect of the book, though, is how condescending it is, particularly in reference to L&H’s “studio movie” years when 20th Century-Fox and M-G-M took Laurel’s control away from their movies. Everson suggests that Stan and Babe might have been “tired and played out” by this point, even though they went on to tour Europe for many years after their Hollywood stint. In light of the oft-repeated fact that the studios insisted on using typical make-up on L&H, thus “aging” their characters, particularly cruel is a 1944 photo of a made-up Stan, with Everson’s caption, “Laurel’s age was really beginning to show by now.” Even a cursory reading of John McCabe’s bio Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy could have told Everson about the studio-inflicted problems which he attributes to old age.

In terms of individual critiques, the book is still likable enough, and the generous helping of photos and publicity shots doesn’t hurt. But in the half-century since The Films of Laurel and Hardy was first published, many other L&H biographies have far surpassed it in terms of factual accuracy and empathy towards The Boys.

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The Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell (orig. published, 1995)

When it comes to L&H biographies, The Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia ranks up with the best recent bios and John McCabe’s many tomes. Just as he did with the careers of Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers, Glenn Mitchell has exhaustively researched every aspect of Laurel & Hardy’s screen and stage work and compiled it into one handy, dandy volume.

Just looking up the Encyclopedia’s entries is half the fun. Mitchell has, naturally, synopsized and critiqued all of L&H’s team movies (as well as other vaguely related entries, such as L&H co-star Anita Garvin’s two-reeler A Pair of Tights, co-starring Marion Byron in an attempt to create a female Laurel & Hardy). Mitchell also has individual entries related to theatrical matters (“Reissues,” “Titling”), as well as the team’s varied subject matter and gag inspirations (“Hats,” “Eggs,” “Rebellions – by Stanley”).

All of it is written in a breezy, charming style evocative of Laurel & Hardy’s finest film work. If you are watching L&H and want accessible, enjoyable access to what you’re watching, keep this book next to the TV.

(POSTSCRIPT: Although we cannot print them here for copyright reasons, we’d also like to recommend two excellent L&H-inspired short stories: Ray Bradbury’s “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” (1988; click on the story’s title to read it for free online), and Cynthia Rylant’s “A Crush,” printed in Rylant’s collection A Couple of Kooks and Other Stories About Love (1990; sadly, out of print).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Bringing two movie comedy legends to (real) life

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We proudly share the following movie review as part of this blog’s self-designated Laurel & Hardy Month. What in the world is that, you ask? Click on the above image to learn more!

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When a movie had good intentions but eventually went off the rails, the late film critic Roger Ebert used to say that the movie “knew the words but not the music.” In Stan & Ollie, the music is so lush and sweet, you can forgive the words being a little garbled sometimes.

What I mean by that is, if you go in expecting a 100% factual story about the later career of film comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you will leave the theater grumbling to yourself and ticking off a checklist of everything the movie got wrong. But if you go to see a heartfelt story about two talented comics in the twilight of their careers, you will be richly rewarded, even if you’re not a Laurel & Hardy fan.

The film addresses the period where Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) took to touring European music halls in the early 1950’s after any chances of making new movies had mostly dried up. For dramatic purposes, the film condenses a lot of the true story. L&H actually made three separate tours of Europe that were mostly successful. Here, it’s a single tour that doesn’t really take off until L&H do publicity in local towns to promote the show. A subplot of the movie is Stan trying to get financing for a L&H movie comedy based on the Robin Hood legend. In real life, there was an attempted Robin Hood project, but that had mostly fallen through the cracks by the time L&H began their initial tour.

One could keep on nitpicking like this all day long, but in the end, what one is left with is the movie’s characterizations and situations, and happily, these shine like the midday sun. Let me add to the chorus of voices that have already declared Coogan’s and Reilly’s acting work remarkable, and this is another area that transcends nitpicking. Coogan gets Laurel’s voice, body language, and (seemingly) thought processes down pat. And yes, Reilly does have layers of prosthetics to help him show us the real “Babe” (Hardy’s lifelong nickname). But that only further demonstrates how Reilly managed to convey a vulnerable person breaking through those pounds of fake flesh.

The supporting actors deserve kudos as well. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson convey strength and humanity as The Boys’ wives, fiercely protecting their men from the world (and each other). Rufus Jones is a smirky delight as tour producer Bernard Delfont, trying to act as though he cares about Stan and Babe’s welfare while keeping one eye on the box-office take. And Danny Huston displays appropriate gruffness as L&H’s indulgent movie producer Hal Roach. (Well-meaning L&H historians have stated that Roach comes off as too harsh in this movie. The lawsuits that sailed back and forth between Laurel and Roach in 1939 [not depicted in this film] indicate that Roach was indulgent of Laurel’s creativity but never shy about asserting his authority when necessary.)

If you aren’t familiar with Laurel & Hardy’s movies, you’ll still appreciate Stan & Ollie’s subtle and layered portrayal of their real-life friendship. If you are a fan of L&H, you’ll be amazed at how their real-life story (at least in this instance) parallels their movie comedies. The overwhelming theme of all of their movies was of two naive friends trying to hold their own against a hostile world. In telling their late-life story, Stan & Ollie only deepens that theme.

(If, by chance, you want to hear more of what I have to say about this wonderful movie, click here to visit my Laurel & Hardy podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts.)

Laurel & Hardy biographies – Way out worst

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The following is this blog’s latest entry in its self-anointed Laurel & Hardy Month. Not sure what that means? Click on the above image to find out!

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Thus far this month, we have tried to showcase some of the best biographical books about Laurel & Hardy. But some authors, sadly, didn’t aim very high. We wanted to highlight these books as well in order to let the reader beware — and to, let’s face it, give you a derisive laugh or two!

Let’s start with a book that was at least initially well-intended…

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A Fine Mess!, by Richard J. Anobile (1975)

A Fine Mess! might be of limited value to those Laurel & Hardy buffs who literally want to study their heroes’ movies frame by frame. The book’s excerpts are taken from The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy (1967), a “clip” movie compiled by “Bullwinkle” creator Jay Ward. I’ve never seen this compilation but have often read that it is one of the weaker L&H compilation movies, and this book gives me no reason to think differently.

The weakest element of the book is the style of its “author,” Richard J. Anobile. In the early 1970’s, Anobile made his reputation by reproducing frame-by-frame printed books that compiled scenes from great ’30s comedians such as The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. It was inevitable that Anobile would eventually get around to dissecting L&H’s work.

This frame blow-up method was welcome in the pre-video age, but these days it’s hardly the best way to analyze movie comedy, and L&H’s work suffers most by this method. Fields and the Marxes, while they certainly have their visual element, relied heavily on verbiage, so this framing method communicates their comedy fairly well. In the case of L&H’s minimal dialogue, one is left to look mostly at individual sight gags. And unless Anobile could have printed the 24 frames that each second of sound film contains, his method couldn’t possibly illustrate the joy of an Ollie double-take or a Stan eye-blink of cognition.

One is left to turn the pages at a rapid rate a la an old “flip book” and try to imagine the movie as it really ought to be. Laurel and Hardy’s comedy isn’t completely obliterated by Anobile’s method, but still, one is better advised to look for the McCabe or Skretvedt biographies, which distill L&H’s comedy far less clinically and more lovingly.

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The Laurel & Hardy Scrapbook, by Jack Scagnetti (1976)

Virtually the only virtue of The Laurel & Hardy Scrapbook is that it has some very nice casual photos of Stan and Babe that I’ve not seen anywhere else. Otherwise, the book contains: the standard information on how the boys teamed; misinformation in some photo captions (for example, claiming that Stan’s finger-lighting trick from Way Out West was prefaced by Stan’s pouring gasoline on his fingers [kids, don’t try this at home!!]); and worst of all, “promotional” material for Larry Harmon’s abysmal L&H cartoons and a short-lived L&H pizza-restaurant chain. The best L&H books are a labor of love; this one is a labor to endure.

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Stan: The Life of Stan Laurel, by Fred Lawrence Guiles (1980)

This book is as far removed from a reverential, John McCabe-type biography as L&H’s Hal Roach films are from their Fox features. Guiles has achieved the dubious goal of painting Stan Laurel as the typical womanizing, alcoholic, cold-blooded Hollywood idol — much, in fact, like the silent-film-star stereotype whom Laurel fan Dick Van Dyke portrayed in Carl Reiner’s The Comic (1969). Guiles admits in his introduction that he relied heavily upon the memories of Laurel’s ex-wife Ruth, and predictably, the ex doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

Guiles also takes great liberties in making some of his points. One example is his supposition that The Music Box came about because Stan’s ideas had dried up and one of his gagwriters suggested, “in desperation,” that L&H remake their silent hit Hats Off. (Considering that the movie went on to become their most celebrated, award- [their only Oscar] and otherwise, all artists should have such dry spells.)

The book is quite readable but finally ends up as another attempted debunking of a comedy great. Since Laurel was among the first to point out his own flaws, this attempt to display every one of them often comes off as strident. Though the author acknowledges John McCabe’s help in assembling his story, one imagines McCabe himself regretting the collaboration.

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The Boys: The Cinematic World of Laurel & Hardy, by Scott Allen Nollen (1989)

If Charles Barr’s book Laurel & Hardy is academic analysis that makes sense, The Boys is the antithesis. Despite the book’s dedication “to all people who have laughed at a Laurel and Hardy film,” and an attempt at legitimacy by sporting a foreward by seminal L&H biographer John McCabe, most of the book comes across as the same sort of literary pretentiousness that Laurel himself poo-poos in McCabe’s foreward. It offers a few interesting insights, but not enough to actively seek out the book. Far from reflecting the author’s admiration for L&H, the book seems mostly intent on showing its author in a bright academic light (Look, Ma! My own book!), and it mostly fails.