The following is another entry in this blog’s self-proclaimed Laurel & Hardy Month. Didn’t know there was one? Click on the above to read the origins of our newly minted tradition!
Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward (2009, second edition, iUniverse) is an extremely well-written and –researched book which turns on its head the consensus, well-spread among L&H buffs, that the duo’s post-Hal Roach films were not worth the viewing. MacGillivray saw his first L&H movie, a 20th Century-Fox film, when he was eight years old, and went on to become “Grand Sheik” of a Tent (local chapter of the L&H “appreciation society” Sons of the Desert) in Boston. He provides ample evidence that, though the L&H “big studio” films of the 1940’s aren’t their finest work, their level of comedic quality is worthy of a buff’s attention.
MacGillivray also does an excellent job of documenting L&H’s post-Hollywood career, which consisted primarily of sketches written by Stan and performed live in European theaters. And MacGillivray unearths information about some proposed (and quite unusual) L&H projects that never came to fruition, including a Fox musical titled By Jupiter that would have pitted L&H against Martha Raye, and a never-done radio series titled Laurel & Hardy Go to the Moon. Finally, MacGillivray documents the Film Classics prints of L&H films that were shown on TV (and are best remembered for L&H’s “shield” credit at the start of each film), and the heretofore unsung work of L&H documentarian Robert Youngson, whose film compilations introduced Stan and Ollie to a new generation of moviegoers.
There is much to savor here, written in an easygoing style that belies the obviously thorough research that went into it. Unless or until some hard-digging film historian uncovers more L&H gems, Randy Skretvedt’s L&H biography and this fine book appear to be the final word on Laurel & Hardy’s prolific comedy careers.
Forties Forward author Scott MacGillivray (shown above) graciously submitted to this E-mail interview in March, 2000 (shortly after the book’s first version was printed).
Movie Movie Blog Blog: How long have you been a Laurel & Hardy “buff”?
Scott MacGillivray: Since I was eight years old. I was having a boring Saturday afternoon, and my mother suggested that I watch a Laurel & Hardy movie on television. I was skeptical, because I knew vaguely of “Laurel & Hardy” as a bygone show-business name from way before my time, but I watched the movie and was immediately hooked.
MMBB: How would you summarize Laurel & Hardy’s appeal?
SM: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the most lovable screen personalities in movie history. The “Stan and Ollie” characters are innocent children in a grown-up world and, unlike The Three Stooges or Abbott & Costello for example, Laurel & Hardy have more depth. They behave like human beings instead of cartoon characters. Audiences sense and appreciate the close friendship of “Stan and Ollie.” Most people who see them become fans, and they start collecting books and movies so they can enjoy visits with Stan and Ollie again and again.
MMBB: What motivated you to write this book?
SM: I love old movies, and I enjoy reading about new discoveries — an old film being restored, or some new information about an old favorite. But whenever a new book would appear about Laurel & Hardy, I always found that the author didn’t have anything new to say about the team’s later films, produced after 1940. Everything was always borrowed from some other book. I thought there had to be more to the story.
I tried to put the later Laurel & Hardy pictures into their proper context, after so many authors just dismissed them without further ado. The “forties films” are not in the same league as the team’s earlier films, but they aren’t the total disasters they’re supposed to be. The book has stirred up some interest in the forgotten Laurel & Hardy movies, and brought back some pleasant memories for people who’ve seen them and enjoyed them.
MMBB: How long did it take you to research and write the book? Did you talk to any of L&H’s contemporaries while preparing the book? How much of the material in your book was previously uncovered in other L&H biographies?
SM: There isn’t a lot of material in print about Laurel & Hardy’s later work. For example, one book devoted almost 400 pages to Laurel & Hardy’s earlier works, but only seven pages to the 1940s material. And there has never been anything about theatrical reissues, home movies, or Robert Youngson’s compilation films. So Forties Forward came from original research over a period of about six years. I conducted several interviews with Stan Laurel’s daughter, Lois Laurel Hawes, and her husband Tony Hawes, who knew Laurel & Hardy professionally. Lois and Tony allowed me to publish dozens of photographs from Stan Laurel’s personal collection, and no author has been given that privilege before.
Also, I interviewed some of the actors who worked with Laurel & Hardy, I visited the 20th Century-Fox archives in Hollywood, I went through old trade papers and exhibitors’ journals. For the Robert Youngson chapter, I interviewed Mrs. Youngson, who gave me her insights about her husband’s work, and I spoke with the late William K. Everson, who was probably the number-one silent-film expert in the world. And old movies have always been a hobby with me, so I’ve picked up a lot of miscellaneous information and memorabilia over the years.
MMBB: Why do you think L&H’s post-Roach films have been so ignored?
SM: The rights to the vintage Laurel & Hardy movies keep changing, so there have been long periods when the older films are not available to the public. In many areas, the “forties films” were all one could find on television, so many fans like myself share early, fond memories of films like The Dancing Masters and The Big Noise.
But so many authors have slammed the 1940s Laurel & Hardy movies that it became unfashionable to look at them, let alone express any fondness for them. Fans weren’t supposed to like them, even if they hadn’t seen them. Forties Forward has sent many readers back to the films themselves, so they can form their own opinions — and enjoy their “guilty pleasures” out in the open!
MMBB: You printed a letter that Fox producer Sol Wurtzel wrote to Stan regarding their first Fox film, Great Guns. Wurtzel told Stan that his (Stan’s) concerns about the film were unwarranted, that the movie was “a credit to the company.” Any comments on the irony of that statement?
SM: That isn’t strictly true; the letter from Wurtzel was a thank-you note that did not reflect any concerns Stan may have expressed. Wurtzel was a no-nonsense businessman, not given to displays of warmth or cordiality, and the letter to Laurel & Hardy demonstrates how genuinely pleased he was to be associated with them.
Wurtzel correctly pointed out that the movie was a credit to the company. It was going to make a lot of money and a lot of friends among audiences and exhibitors. Laurel & Hardy were still very popular in the 1940s, and could be depended upon to generate revenues for the studio. Wurtzel’s film became a huge hit, and Laurel & Hardy were signed for ten more movies. The series stopped only when the studio’s “B” department actually shut down permanently.
MMBB: Why do you think the Fox writers’ material for L&H was so foreign to their established style of comedy?
SM: Laurel & Hardy were accustomed to experimenting with a funny idea, and seeing how much mileage could be gotten out of a comic situation. A formal script was of secondary importance. In the 1920s and 1930s, they worked for a small studio that worked in a casual, impromptu manner. But in the 1940s they worked for big movie companies, where the atmosphere was more corporate: You made this movie with this script, on this budget in this many days. The sudden “culture shock” is what Stan Laurel ruefully recalled in later years, but it didn’t apply to the team’s entire wartime output. As Forties Forward points out, Laurel & Hardy did manage to improve their working conditions to an extent, and the studios became more accommodating.
MMBB: If you had to choose a favorite of the post-Roach films, what would it be, and why?
SM: That’s a tough one. The Bullfighters, in which I documented Stan Laurel’s creative participation, is fun to watch, and I get a kick out of The Dancing Masters and The Big Noise. But my favorite is probably Jitterbugs, because Laurel & Hardy are obviously having a good time onscreen, and they have a chance to demonstrate their acting abilities by masquerading as other characters.
MMBB: You list several L&H movie projects that never made it to film. What’s your biggest regret about the unrealized projects?
SM: I would like to have seen how much farther Laurel & Hardy might have gone with 20th Century-Fox after The Bullfighters. They finally had more artistic input, more control over their work, and more indulgent bosses. The conventional wisdom is that the films steadily went from bad to worse, but the truth is that the downward slide was only temporary, and the team was gradually on the upswing and gaining ground. It’s too bad that the momentum had to be halted.
MMBB: As poor as the Film Classics prints are, does their famous “shield” (shown above) inspire any nostalgia for you? If you’re like me, you started watching L&H via these prints.
SM: Yes, indeed! I actually prefer the Film Classics plaque to the original titles for that very reason. The plaque is even pictured in the book!
MMBB: Yours was the first L&H book to detail the contributions of compiler Robert Youngson. How instrumental do you think his movies were in reviving interest in L&H?
SM: Robert Youngson was a real showman. His first comedy compilation was a monster success, and it exposed a whole new generation to silent-screen comedy. The Laurel & Hardy clips came as a pleasant surprise, because people who knew Stan and Ollie from TV probably weren’t aware that they had made silent pictures. The silents were also widely circulated in home-movie form (the DVD of the ’50s and ’60s). So Youngson really gave the silent films a showcase, and made them relevant and palatable to modern audiences.
MMBB: Do you think the onset of video and DVD have helped people get or maintain interest in L&H? Do you see any disadvantages to these formats?
SM: The disadvantage is not the technical format, but the absence of the films from store shelves. This can’t really be helped because the rights have constantly shifted for years. The demand for Laurel & Hardy is there, and video dealers are trying to meet that demand, but there isn’t much material in circulation right now. In Europe, however, the rights question doesn’t prevail, so most of Laurel & Hardy’s 106 films are readily available for home viewing. And I’m happy to report that the European market offers not one, but two boxed collector’s sets of Laurel & Hardy’s wartime films.
MMBB: Do you think L&H will continue to win new fans, and why?
SM: It only takes one movie to make someone a fan, and the films will definitely continue to entertain people. An “average” Laurel & Hardy comedy is better than the best efforts of many other comedians. A lot of parents are showing Laurel & Hardy to their kids, so there is a certain amount of exposure that doesn’t depend on the video marketplace. But the absence of Laurel & Hardy’s vintage films on American television is very unfortunate, because people aren’t seeing the team’s best work. Once again, the “forties films” are filling the void and keeping Laurel & Hardy before the public. (And so are the Sons of the Desert, but that’s another story!)