Way Out West (1937)

Way_Out_West_PosterWhen put up against more sophisticated brands of humor and satirical wit, it would be easy to call the likes of Laurel & Hardy the lowest form of comedy. It sounds degrading but it’s also quite true. Their pictures are short. They’re for all intent and purposes plotless aside from one broad overarching objective. Their gags are simple. Pratfalls. Mannerism. Foibles. Visual gimmicks. More pratfalls and mayhem. It’s not brain science. It’s not reinventing the wheel. So, yes, it might be the simplest brand of comedy but it also might just be the funniest and most universal comedy out there.

People crashing through floorboards and chasing after each other frantically, laughing hysterically is hardly revolutionary but at the same time, most everyone can enjoy that at a visceral level. That’s why as a young man I loved Laurel & Hardy and I still love them to this day. You would be hard-pressed to find a greater, more timeless, more idiosyncratic comic duo than the two of them.

And it really is their dynamic that is at the core of all their comedy. It’s their close relationship that while antagonistic and full of bickering and manhandling has something also very sincere underneath it. Visually they’re so apparently different. Each man has his own look and routine.

Stan Laurel is the pencil-thin Brit with a bowler to match a pair of squinting eyes and a penchant for high shrieking laughter and sniveling. His tuft of hair is iconic. His nonchalant execution of supernatural feats unparalleled  (ie. lighting his thumb).

Meanwhile Oliver Hardy is the rotund fellow. The dominant personality who is always leaning on his counterpart both figuratively and literally. He’s also the one that believes he has the brains and the manners to help them pass as normal in their contemporary society. Of course, the key to all the comedy is that they’re both buffoons. Playing with their hats. Fussing with their ties. Awkwardly undressing to complete a business transaction.

They’re really made for each other. They’re inseparable. A perfect reflection of this being the very comical moment when they both go to sit down in a drawing room. Ollie rests his legs and Stan promptly props himself on his companion’s knee only to get brushed away to another chair. They really are conjoined at the hip despite how visually disparate they are.

But of course, none of this talks about Way Out West in particular and although there seems little need to talk about the film because the film is Laurel & Hardy, here’s a bit of definition all the same. Brushwood Gulch embodies all the western tropes you could possibly imagine. Bars, stagecoaches, floozies, and locals who hang around the avenues ready to break out into a western ballad at a moment’s notice.

Stan and Ollie’s arch nemesis James Finnalyson is also planted in the town as the opportunistic bar proprietor who looks to snatch away the deed to a mine that our intrepid yet idiotic heroes are meant to bestow upon the meek Mary Roberts. The ornery Irishman’s raised eyebrow shtick is in constant demand as he gets thwarted by Laurel and Hardy’s bungling at nearly every turn.  Although they still find time to make an utter shambles of the whole situation, getting chased out of town only to sneak back in to get the deed back so it can be delivered to its rightful owner.

Over the course of an hour, we get the joys of watching our two heroes do the oddest choreographed dance routine you’ve ever seen, seeing Stan eat a bowler hat, and having Ollie get synched up to a second story landing with the most disastrous results involving a pack mule. Any chance at a stealthy entrance goes out the window in a matter of seconds. That and the fact that they’re theme song tips everyone in the audience that trouble is afoot. Because there’s no pair that can make a fine mess of things as beautifully wonderfully chaotic as Laurel & Hardy. They’re imbeciles of the highest order and subsequently eternally endearing. Bless their souls.

4/5 Stars

Our Relations (1936)

405a7-l26h_our_relations_1936How can you get sick of Laurel & Hardy? Maybe it’s possible, but I always enjoy coming back to them, because they are easy on the eyes and the mind. They have the mayhem of The Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges, but they remain, perhaps, even more endearing more often than not. They may not be as witty as Groucho or as belligerent as Moe and his crew, but they have heart and every “fine mess” that they get into is usually a pleasure to watch.

Our Relations is another one of their short features and it borrows its main plot device from the long overused identical twin trope. We have undoubtedly seen it countless times on many a movie and most definitely a TV show. But before I harp on them too much, I will give them some slack because it was the 1930s, not 2014. That being said, the confusions and mix-ups that occur as a result of this situation are a segue to some fun comedy.

The story begins with a strangely well to do Ollie and Stan having a nice time with their wives. It is their two seafaring twins who cause trouble at a bar and hold onto an invaluable ring. They get more than they bargain for having to navigate two angry wives, two angry girls, an angry waiter, an angry sailor, some angry gangsters and the always miffed James Finlayson. Notice I didn’t specify which pair of twins, because each set has their share of grief.

It gets difficult telling them apart after a while as they keep playing “the shell game” and our only cues are their ties and some theme music that tips us off.  Most definitely this is a fun romp with our two…four heroes. The facial expressions of Stan Laurel always crack me up (including his sniveling), and Ollie is forever a klutz with the help of his bumbling buddy.

It culminated with the wonderfully hilarious scene in the cement that was the goofy apex of a solid Laurel and Hardy film. If you want culture or high brow humor please go somewhere else. As for me and myself, I will continue to enjoy what these two men gifted us all those years ago. It also had a moral to the story. There is nothing quite as important as our relations. Scratch that. Maybe it was just made for us to laugh, and there is nothing much wrong with that.

3.5/5 Stars

Block-Head (1938)

71c93-l26h_block-heads_1938There are short films and then there are feature films. This is your typical Laurel and Hardy short feature which falls somewhere in between.

This Hal Roach-produced comedy romp pulls its plot from current events such as WWI, big game hunting, and Middle American suburban life. But forget that, the most important part is that Laurel and Hardy are up to their usual gags playing their usual selves in this laugh-laden story with a typical bouncy score.

It starts off with an oblivious Stan guarding his trench for over 20 years as the story moves from 1917 in France to the year 1938. Don’t question it, just accept that Stan is stupid and he has a mountain of ration cans to prove it.

When he finally is brought back to civilization there’s one man who is especially surprised, his good ol’ buddy Oliver who is just about to celebrate an anniversary with his wife.

The friends finally get their reunion at the old soldiers home where Stan is laid up and the fun begins. Because Stan and Ollie are the perfect antithesis, they always lead to the greatest of guffaws.

The laughs continue to spew out whether it’s Stan’s supposedly amputated leg or a truck piled high with dirt. And that’s before they even arrive home where they must deal with 13 flights of stairs and the ever present James Finlayson ready to trade some choice words and fists with Ollie.

Ollie also has some marital problems of his own that are complicated by the pretty young wife that lives across the hall. He and Stan manage to do what they do best by completely decimating their house and blowing up their kitchen. The end title card drops as our two heroes gallop away followed by a jealous husband with an elephant gun. Sounds about right.

I dearly hope I never grow tired of Laurel and Hardy, because if I do it will almost feel like I lost just a bit of my humanity. They are often so dumb, so mean to each other and to others, but at their core, they are always a lovable duo. By now they are caricatures in appearance and for their buffoonery, but they are also so beloved by the masses. I would like to think, even to this day.

Ollie with his fiery temper and bossing of Stan. Stan with his stupidity and often surprising talents (smoking a hand-pipe and pulling down the shadow of a window blind just to name a few). I wish there had been more screen time for Billy Gilbert, but otherwise, this is a wholly worthwhile addition to the L & H legacy.

4/5 Stars