BELOW ZERO (1930) – Laurel & Hardy in a cold, cold world

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The following is my entry in The Winter in July Blogathon, being hosted by Debbie at the blog Moon in Gemini from July 13-15, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on some of their favorite winter-themed movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Sometimes, the grim hostility in Laurel and Hardy’s movies seems to stem from nothing else than some scriptwriters eager to goose the film into action. At least the grimness of Below Zero makes some sense. It’s winter, it’s the start of The Great Depression, and Stan and Ollie are about penniless. L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt has said he prefers the L&H movies’ original black-and-white format to colorization because of the time and mood of the films. This movie definitely nails its period.

Laurel & Hardy’s early team efforts usually reflect a three-act structure (for example, their silent You’re Darn Tootin’ had scenes at a band concert, a boarding home, and outside a restaurant). Below Zero has sort of a two-and-a-half-act structure. It has a long, almost unrelenting setting in the frozen outdoors, then a scene in a restaurant, followed by a short attempt at redemption in the outdoors again, outside the restaurant. It’s as though even the movie was aware of its grimness and wanted to give L&H a break, miniscule as it was, at movie’s end.

Stan and Ollie’s roles as itinerant street musicians seem an extension of the same role from You’re Darn Tootin’. One can almost imagine them having played on the street for a year, to no good end, until the Depression and winter set in. After many fruitless attempts to collect money for their talent, Ollie urges them to move on and then discovers that Stan had parked their act in front of a home for the deaf. Ollie does the inevitable camera-look — but then, considering how eager he is to sing “In the Good Old Summertime” while his listeners get frostbitten, who is he to judge?

Stan and Ollie find a wallet in the street and then go to great lengths to evade a vagrant who noticed them perusing the wallet. A policeman comes to their rescue (for once), and magnanimous Ollie offers to take him out for a steak dinner as recompense. After eating in the restaurant and observing a patron who was violently ejected for lack of pay, Ollie decides to double-check his funds. Turns out that the cop was smiling down on them sooner than Ollie had thought — the cop’s photo is in the wallet. Eventually the cop figures out the situation and tells the restauranteur that he’ll pay for his own meal and leave Stan and Ollie to fend for themselves.

Stan and Ollie are rousted and dumped behind the restaurant. Ollie nearly gets run over by the omnipresent motorist before yelling, dramatically and quite convincingly, for his buddy. He finally finds Stan hidden in a water barrel. When Ollie sees that the barrel is empty and asks Stan where the water is, Stan replies, “I drank it!” and rolls out of the barrel looking eighteen months pregnant. (These days, such a premise would probably inspire an R-rated sequel.)

As implausible as the freak ending is, it’s almost a relief after what Stan and Ollie have been through. It’s comforting to know that their friendship can survive such unrelenting harassment, but this might be about as close to the edge as we’d ever want to see them.

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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!)

Stan Laurel wins an Honorary Oscar, 1961

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The following is my second of two entries for The 1961 Blogathon, being hosted by little ol’ me at this blog on April 27-29, 2018 in honor of my 57th birthday. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to a variety of movies released in or related to the year of 1961!

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On Apr. 8, 1961 — 19 days before I was born, as it happens — in a letter to a friend, Stan Laurel wrote:

“You will be pleased I know to hear that I have been awarded an ‘Oscar’ – Danny Kaye will accept it for me on the Academy Awards show April 17th (TV.) needless to tell you I’m very thrilled – so unexpected.”

Sure enough, nine days later, Laurel was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for “his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy.” Jerry Lewis, a distant friend of Laurel’s and a huge fan of his movies, had lobbied for Laurel to be awarded the Oscar. Comedian Danny Kaye accepted the Oscar on behalf of Laurel, who was too ill to attend the ceremony.

At this blog, I have previously written about how sad it was that Laurel and several other movie comedy legends were awarded only Honorary Oscars in the twilight of their lives, rather than “legitimate” Oscars at the time when they were doing their best movie work. That said, since comedy was regarded as a lower kind of movie by the Motion Picture Academy (at least until Woody Allen’s Annie Hall swept the Oscars in 1977), we should be grateful that our comedy heroes were acknowledged at all.

Here’s Danny Kaye accepting the award:

Letter source: Letters From Stan.com. http://www.lettersfromstan.com/stan-1961-04.html

(If you enjoyed reading this, click here to read my first blogathon entry, about the Bugs Bunny-Wile E. Coyote cartoon Compressed Hare.)

 

 

I have a Laurel & Hardy podcast, y’all!

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I have been a Laurel & Hardy enthusiast since I was a kid, and I finally decided to share my passion in a podcast. Below is a link to the first episode of my very first podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts – A Laurel & Hardy Podcast. Listen (at iTunes) and enjoy (I hope!).

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/steve-bailey/id1371780163

The smoking gun

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Like everyone else, I have some definite opinions regarding the ever-raging debate on U.S. gun control. But I’m not about to share them here, because this is not a political blog and I don’t want to get into a Phil Donahue-like discussion where nobody ever wins.

Instead, I only want to reflect on how this gun debate has made me long for a time when America was just plain less mean. Yes, I know I’m venturing into Old Fogey-Land, but please hear me out.

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Two days ago, Feb. 23, was the 53rd anniversary of the death of a wonderful comedian, Stan Laurel. Did you know that he kept his name in the public phone book?

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Laurel lived out his last few years in Santa Monica, CA, and his name, address, and phone number were printed in Santa Monica’s White Pages. He felt that any fan who wanted to talk to him or meet him had a right to do so. Many famous people, including Dick Van Dyke and Peter Sellers, met Laurel for the first time in this way. But Laurel was quite willing to meet non-celebrities as well.

People would phone Laurel to speak to him, and he would often invite these people to his apartment to regale them with stories related to his life and career. At these times, Laurel’s wife Ida (pronounced “EE-da”) would retire to another room, as she realized that this was Laurel’s way of entertaining people since he no longer made movies.

My point is this: What celebrity would dare to have their public phone number known these days? (I don’t even think there were any other in Laurel’s era who did it.) And these days, it’s not at all a stretch to imagine some crazed fan holding a gun on Laurel and taking him and his wife hostage.

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Or take “The Carol Burnett Show.” Burnett began nearly every episode of her TV variety show by “bumping up the lights” and taking questions from the audience. Sometimes, she even did more than simply answer questions. One elderly audience member asked Burnett where the restroom was, and (probably for a laugh) Burnett ushered the lady up to the stage and pointed out exactly which direction she should go to find it. On another occasion, an audience member asked for an opportunity to sing. The man was invited on stage and, accompanied by Burnett’s in-house orchestra, the man proceeded to belt out “What I Did for Love,” from the musical A Chorus Line.

(Of course, the most famous recipient of Burnett’s generosity to fans is Vicki Lawrence, who first met Burnett after writing her a letter stating how the two of them looked alike. As it happened, Burnett was looking for an actress to play her younger sister on a recurring sketch of her then-new variety show. The rest is TV history.)

Of course, TV variety shows are now dead, but if they weren’t, again imagine a celebrity inviting an unknown audience member up on stage. And imagine if said fan had a loaded pistol and an agenda. (The opening scene of the 2004 black-comedy remake of The Stepford Wives tried to play just such a scenario for dark humor.)

I’m hardly the first person to note that, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, a bit of America’s innocence died as well. And like a glacier suffering from climate change, shards of that innocence have been dropping off piece by piece ever since.

LAUREL & HARDY’S LAUGHING 20’s (1965) – Nice compilation of L&H silent comedies

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Although Laurel & Hardy’s “talkie” short subjects finally got their due on a lavish American DVD set in 2011, their silent shorts aren’t as readily available in the U.S. (because they are owned by different hands). So if you have trouble obtaining L&H’s terrific silent shorts as a set, your best bet is to check out Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20’s, one of the many silent-comedy compilations lovingly put together by film historian Robert Youngson in the 1950’s and ’60s.

Youngson’s efforts, well-chronicled in the L&H biography Laurel & Hardy From the Forties Forward, were instrumental in rekindling interest in silent-film comedy in general and L&H in particular. Though Youngson’s narration tends to be a bit verbose, his affection for Laurel & Hardy’s peerless comedy is obvious and infectious. And this compilation, especially, presents most of its subjects virtually complete (except for subtitles) and, with modest but effective musical scoring, nearly as lovingly as the originals.

Among the L&H gems presented here are: Liberty (1929), one of my personal L&H faves, with Stan and Ollie doing a “Harold Lloyd” stunt number atop an unfinished skyscraper; From Soup to Nuts (1928), with Stan and Ollie wreaking havoc as waiters at a dinner party; and The Finishing Touch (1928), with the duo building (or, more exactly, not building) a house. The film’s closer features climaxes (and only the climaxes, unfortunately) from L&H gems such as The Battle of the Century (with its famous pie-throwing melee) and Two Tars (a hilarious traffic jam that inspired much in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend).

(Also included are very funny excerpts from short subjects of L&H’s contemporaries  at the Hal Roach Studios, Charlie Chase and Max Davidson.)

To a film generation acquainted only with color, sound, and fury, the methodical pace of Laurel & Hardy’s silent work is almost like a foreign language to be learned. But the beauty inherent in a second language is on ample display here, especially as an anecdote to latter-day bodily-function comedies.

John McCabe’s MR. LAUREL & MR. HARDY (1961) – Beautiful tribute to Stan and Ollie

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Prof. John McCabe befriended Stan and Babe after meeting them at one of their British-hall performances in the 1950’s, and one of the byproducts was this wonderful book. At the time of its first publication, biographies and histories of movie comedians were scarce, and their filmed work, while broadcast frequently on TV, was at the mercy of programmers who would butcher these comedy classics to get commercials in. Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy, along with Robert Youngson’s movie compilations of silent-era comics, helped to renew fervent interest in the duo’s movies and assured them of their rightful place in film history.

I hadn’t looked at this book in a long while, but recently on the podcast “Maltin on Movies,” film historian Leonard Maltin and show-biz gadfly Mark Evanier reminisced about their favorite Laurel & Hardy moments, and they highlighted this book in particular. So I re-read my dog-eared copy of the book for the umpteenth time, and it made me realize that, just as Stan and Ollie’s love for each other shown through in their movies, so McCabe’s affection for the duo shines through in his book.

It must be noted that elements of the book have dated somewhat. Years after its publication, Laurel & Hardy movies that had been regarded as long-lost have turned up over the years, so the book must regarded as of-its-time as far as completeness is concerned.

Another dated part of the book is its entries on the movies that Laurel & Hardy made for Twentieth Century-Fox in the confines of the big Studio System. While rightfully depicted as lesser than their work for Hal Roach, McCabe posits that the quality of the films got worse and worse in order to “freeze out” Laurel & Hardy, as though Fox, the studio that hired them in the first place, wanted to use its corporate clout only to put a great comedy team in their place. In fact, some of the later Fox films have their champions (see Scott MacGillivray’s terrific book on this subject); it’s more likely that Fox had not a clue what to do with comedians who wanted to do things their own way.

But these are minor debits in regard to the overall quality of the book. McCabe otherwise documents the duo’s history succinctly and lovingly. One of its most charming parts is Chapter 2, which begins with some correspondence between McCabe and Hardy’s widow Lucille. McCabe did an interview with “Babe” (as Hardy was affectionately known off-screen) in the 1950’s, and McCabe asked Lucille for permission to print it in his book. At first she declined. But after some introspection, she wrote McCabe back and said that McCabe’s printed interview had triggered personal memories of Babe, and she realized she was being selfish not to allow the interview to be printed. This correspondence is followed by the interview itself. Thus, the entirety of Chapter 2 shows how much Hardy’s work with Laurel deeply affected everyone, from fans to his widow.

This lovely book is long out of print but is well worth seeking out. It’s a perfect introduction to Laurel & Hardy for those who are unfamiliar with their work, and a great look back for those who have enjoyed L&H for years.