Laurel & Hardy at Twentieth Century-Fox – Another nice mess

LaurelAndHardyFoxContract

Above is a copy of the contract that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy signed with Twentieth Century-Fox on July 26, 1943. It indicates the renewal of the initial contract between L&H and Fox that was signed in May 1941, thus continuing Fox’s series of Laurel & Hardy comedies.

This contract renewal might seem surprising to anyone familiar with L&H’s history. After leaving Hal Roach Studios in 1940, Laurel & Hardy Feature Productions was established, and Stan signed the “company’s” services over to Fox, thinking he’d finally have the creative freedom he wanted. The movies Great Guns (1941) and A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) quickly proved Stan wrong.

In later years, Stan said he re-signed with Fox because he had thought that Fox would finally let him do Laurel & Hardy movies his way — which they finally did, somewhat, though Stan never again had the creative latitude he’d had with Hal Roach. L&H also did two 1940’s feature films for M-G-M that are, if possible, even more painful than the Fox films.

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In nearly every L&H biography ever written, the author breezes through Stan and Babe’s Hal Roach years and then takes a long breather to apologize for the movies to come. And yes, it’s worth noting: The movies L&H made for Fox and M-G-M are done completely in Big Studio style, which is to say, anti-Stan style. The movies were no longer shot in sequence, and Stan and Babe were given make-up treatment that made them look older than they did when they were touring Europe ten years later. Most reprehensibly, Stan, the uncredited writer-director-editor of their Roach movies, was completely shut out of the movies’ creative processes at Fox; instead, he and Babe would be given completed scripts on Friday and were told to memorize their lines by Monday.

(L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt detailed how a creatively muffled Stan would show his displeasure with the Fox scripts by filling their margins with huge squiggles whenever he came to an out-of-character passage – but to no avail, since no studio personnel ever saw or cared about Stan’s editorializing.)

Yet it bears mentioning that even at the Roach Studios (where Stan was given his most creative latitude), even the L&H/Roach features rarely operated at full steam. When you start naming L&H’s finest Roach features, the most frequently mentioned titles are Sons of the Desert and Way Out West. There are also L&H buffs who make valid cases for Fra Diavolo, March of the Wooden Soldiers, Our Relations, and Block-Heads. That still leaves seven Roach features – more, even, than their entire Fox output – which are middling at best, and often have their own out-of-character moments. (Witness Ollie’s unusual berating of the chef in Swiss Miss, or the mechanical gag quality in much of L&H’s Roach swan song, Saps at Sea.)

When viewed in this light, at the very least it doesn’t seem as though, as L&H biographer John McCabe once suggested, Fox was out to “freeze out” Laurel & Hardy or unduly humble them. (Indeed, why would a major studio sign up a money-making comedy team and then deliberately try to put them in a bad light?) It seems as though Fox’s screenwriters, as alien as they were to Stan and Babe’s working methods, at least sympathized with them and tried to write material in their style (though that often amounted to simply cribbing old routines from earlier L&H movies). Stan and Babe were also lucky that for their last three movies, Fox paired them with Malcolm St. Clair, a comedy veteran from Buster Keaton’s salad days, who seems to have mostly left L&H alone to do what they could with some uneven scripts.

Everyone seems to have a most- and least-favorite L&H/Fox movie. For me, The Bullfighters is enjoyable almost all the way through (quite a feat for a Fox film); even its climax isn’t really annoying, just sort of a fizzed-out dud. For all-out character assassination, you just have to vote for The Dancing Masters, with scenes that barely connect from one to the next, and a brain-dead ending that looks as though it was filmed on the floor of your kid brother’s treehouse.

On the other hand, if you want to discuss 100% laugh-free L&H, check out their two M-G-M features of the 1940’s, Air Raid Wardens and Nothing But Trouble. Suffice to say, M-G-M’s then-studio head (and American-apple-pie purveyor) Louis B. Mayer seemed determined to stuff these two features full of his ripe view of Americana at the expense of any comedy. (But then, he was also responsible for squelching both Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers at their creative peaks, so what can you expect?)

So – even though they’re not operating at full throttle, and one wants to lay a sympathetic hand on the shoulder of 1941’s Stan Laurel – maybe we should be grateful that late-era Hollywood allowed Stan and Babe any wiggle (or squiggle) room. As Peanuts’ Linus once suggested for reading The Brothers Karamazov, enjoy what you can from these movies, and then just “bleep” out the rest.

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