Laurel & Hardy in WAY OUT WEST (1937) – My kind of Western

The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon

The following is my entry in The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, being hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe on May 16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ reviews of their favorite cinematic versions of comfort food!

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Way Out West is an anomaly in Laurel & Hardy’s film career. Laurel & Hardy shorts and features, like most of the work from their producer Hal Roach, were taken for granted by everyone but the public. Contemporary critics sniffed their noses at L&H, and the movie industry regarded them as modest time-killers between the big-studio productions.

But Way Out West had something beyond its modest pretensions at Western-spoofing. Its jaunty score, superbly done by L&H veteran Marvin Hatley, was nominated for an Oscar. And in the wake of L&H’s success, Western spoofs suddenly became the rage, as W.C. Fields, Mae West, and The Marx Brothers followed suit.

But as with most Hollywood spin- or rip-offs, none of them managed the charm of the original. This is the one everyone remembers, mostly because of a softshoe number that goes beyond comedy to touchingly demonstrate Stan and Ollie’s underlying affection for each other. If you don’t laugh at it, it’s probably because you’re crying with joy from it. (The complete movie is embedded below; the dance routine starts at the 13:43 mark. Try not to at least smile at it. I dare you.)

The plot concerns the deed to a late miner’s valuable property, which the miner was naive enough to entrust to Stan and Ollie for its delivery to the miner’s daughter, named Mary Roberts. Stan inadvertently spills the beans to Mary’s evil caretaker (famed L&H scowler James Finlayson), who enlists his wife to impersonate Mary so they can snag the deed for themselves.

As plots (particularly Laurel & Hardy’s) go, this one is pretty sturdy, though it’s light enough to encompass three musical numbers (all low-key and charming) and tons of physical comedy within the film’s 70 minutes. Most Laurel & Hardy feature films were criticized for trying to shoehorn brief L&H routines in between the “straight” plots or romantic interests, but this movie is pure Laurel & Hardy in every sense.

Among the movie’s highlights are a chase scene that culminates in Stan’s nearly being tickled to death, and an endlessly inventive burglary scene involving nothing more than a block-and-tackle and a mule (who gets a cast credit, and deserves it). And of course, there are the wonderful musical numbers. (40 years after the movie’s release, two of these songs were released on a record in Britain and went straight to #1.)

The best-loved comedians are inevitably the ones who make us think they’re us. This movie has a running gag of Ollie confidently negotiating a stream, only to be continually sucked in by an unseen pothole. It’s a perfect metaphor for Laurel & Hardy and their ongoing audience appeal.

(Also click here to visit my webpage devoted exclusively to this wonderful movie, and click here to listen to my new Laurel & Hardy podcast!)

Laurel & Hardy in OUR RELATIONS (1936) – Two Laurel & Hardys for the price of one

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The following is my second of two contributions to the Dual Roles Blogathon, being held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, 2016 by, appropriately enough, dual bloggers: Christina Wehner, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies where actors play more than one role!

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Our Relations is a huge step forward for Laurel & Hardy in feature films. After the episodic nature of most of their feature films to date, the movie suddenly resolves many of the problems Laurel faced in making their films longer yet more palatable. This movie sports tasty production values, glistening cinematography (by Rudolph Mate), and a solid storyline.

It even uses the dual-role motif (last used very weakly in the short Twice Two) to satisfying effect. Here, Stan and Ollie come across an old photo of their twin brothers Alf and Bert, whom we are told are the black sheep of the family. Stan and Ollie haven’t told their wives about their darker halves, so they burn the photo (“We’ll burn our past behind us,” Ollie intones), thinking that will end the story. Guess who makes it to port shortly after that.

It must be said that Stan and Ollie have a radical notion of “black sheep.” Considering that Alf and Bert eventually get locked in a hotel room by their conniving captain (James Finlayson), their concept of worldliness wouldn’t fool a kindergartener. Nevertheless, it makes for a nice farce when the two pairs get mistaken for each other over and over.

The movie’s nicest surprise is how well Stan and Ollie actually get on with their wives. Stan’s wife is a tall blonde (Betty Healy) whom he refers to as “Bubbles,” and frankly, she’s almost nice enough for Stan to seem unworthy of her. Ollie’s spouse is the diminutive but ever powerful Daphne Pollard, yet she’s far more loving than she was in Thicker Than Water. When the wives eventually get indignant, it’s because of their sorrow at the (mistaken) thought of having been two-timed, not because they’re gun-toting maniacs. It makes you wish that the rest of The Boys’ movies had similarly vulnerable females.

Except for a couple of sequences that are prolonged beyond their comedic effect (a tousle with perennial drunk Arthur Housman, the waterfront finale where The Boys are placed in peril), Our Relations is one of Laurel & Hardy’s most thoroughly satisfying feature films.

If you enjoyed reading this blog entry, click here to read my first entry in the Dual Roles Blogathon: Buster Keaton in The Playhouse.)

Laurel & Hardy in SUGAR DADDIES (1927) – Not-quite-believable farce

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Film historians tell us that Hal Roach took Mack Sennett’s frenetic style of comedy, slowed it down some, and added believable characterizations — but try telling that to anyone watching Sugar Daddies. At one point, a blackmailed playboy (James Finlayson!) tries to escape from his blackmailer (Noah Young) by positioning his lawyer (Stan Laurel!!) on top of him, throwing a gown around the two of them, and passing themselves off as the wife of the playboy’s butler (Oliver Hardy) — and as they barely scoot pass Young, he says (via inter-title), “This looks fishy to me.”

Actually, the two-men-posing-as-a-woman routine was a decent enough gag in Love ‘Em and Weep (and its later remake, Chickens Come Home), but in those movies, the gag was milked for only a minute or so. Here, it occupies the last half of this two-reeler, practically underlining the movie’s desperation.

As for any “typical” Stan-and-Ollie interplay, there’s a quick hat-snatching routine that’s a brief promise of greater things to come. But this is one of the few L&H movies where H.M. “Beanie” Walker truly deserves a writing credit, because snappy subtitles are the movie’s main attempt to inspire laughter. When playboy Finlayson, who married a woman the night before while on a bender, asks what color his new wife’s hair is, Hardy the butler replies, “Red, white, and blue, sir — I’ll look for the stars.” That’s just the kind of wittiness that the real-life Hardy dismissed as “fresh” dialogue that makes the audience resent the characters on screen.

The best element of this indifferent movie is George Stevens’ glistening photography, particularly in the climactic chase that was shot on location at a Long Beach amusement park. Fortunately, moviegoers would soon be carrying on about other elements besides the cinematography in Laurel & Hardy movies.

THICKER THAN WATER (1935) – Laurel & Hardy’s farewell to short subjects

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(WARNING:  Major spoilers abound!)

As seems to befit Laurel & Hardy’s final “official” short subject (they later did  The Tree in a Test Tube while on a lunch break at Twentieth Century-Fox), Thicker Than Water meanders all over the place, as though L&H had better things on their minds. It switches from a domestic setting to a city auction house to a hospital as nonchalantly, and with as much logic, as a Stanley eye-blink.

The first scene shows Ollie at the behest of the latest shrewish Mrs. Hardy (Daphne Pollard, who is offered Ollie’s finger to kiss and instead bites it). Stan is the Hardys’ boarder, and naturally Mrs. Hardy is none too happy about it. Mrs. Hardy commands Ollie to do the dishes while she goes out, and Ollie, having no dog to boss around, orders Stan to stay and be as miserable as he is. This results in a somewhat belabored scene where Stan and Ollie do their best to clean the dishes, with the inevitable disastrous results.

Mr. Finlayson (James Finlayson, of course) comes to collect the monthly payment for the Hardys’ furniture. Mrs. Hardy had thought it paid already, and her inquiry to Ollie results in an Abbott-and-Costello-like verbal fight, with Ollie saying he gave the money to Stan to deposit, Stan saying he gave it back to Ollie to pay for his rent, etc., etc. When the matter is finally straightened out, Mrs. Hardy belittles Ollie some more, Stan challenges Ollie’s manhood(!), and Ollie vows to take money out of the Hardys’ joint account to show Stan (not Mrs. Hardy, mind you!) who’s boss. The scene ends with the movie’s cleverest touch: Stan leaving the Hardys’ apartment and “pulling” the movie screen forward to the movie’s next scene.

Stan and Ollie’s curiosity draws them into an auction, where they end up bidding on behalf of a woman who is short of cash and needs to rush home to get some more. (As befits the movie’s haphazard logic, the woman is never heard from again.) Ollie is thus forced to buy the clock on which he and Stan had bid (against each other!). They lug the clock home and then decide to put it down in the street(!) to take a rest. Busy street, large clock, apathetic truck driver — you do the math. When Mrs. Hardy comes home and discovers what has happened, she knocks Ollie out with a frying pan nearly as big as she is.

Ollie’s injury results in him needing a blood transfusion (just like most concussions, right?), for which Stan becomes the unwilling donor. (Stan seems to have bad luck in hospitals — witness his being on the wrong end of a needle in County Hospital.) The transfusion goes wrong, and some of Ollie’s blood must be pumped into Stan to balance the procedure. The final result is an appropriate closing image for L&H’s short subjects — Stan-as-Ollie, complete with mustache and condescending gloat, followed by Ollie-as-Stan, head-scratching and crying all the way.

There are worse short subjects in the Laurel & Hardy canon, though none with so many promising ideas so half-baked. Thicker Than Water almost seems a poorer farewell for Stan and Ollie (in short subjects) than does The Bullfighters (for their Hollywood movies).