Babes in Toyland (1934)

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Laurel and Hardy had better films with better gags and more iconic moments but Babes in Toyland, or The March of The Wooden Soldiers as it was also known as develops the most immersive fantastical world that they ever had the privilege of gallivanting through. It’s almost fitting that we find them in an almost childlike world because they brought laughter to not only adults but a plethora of children as well and this picture does them both justice.

It’s true that out of the imagination of babes (which was consequently Oliver Hardy’s lifelong nickname) comes a film steeped in nursery rhythms and kiddie stories. Above all, it proves to be the perfect playground for two of comedy’s greatest treasures as they play Make-Believe in a world of Mother Goose, the Three Little Pigs, Old King Coal, and a host of others. Except it’s not made up at all. By 1930s standards everything is very much alive and it very easily could be a child’s delight. Also, rather unwittingly a minor Christmas classic was born.

Ollie Dee and Stannie Dumm, as they are affectionately called, work at the local toy factory in Toyland and reside in a Shoe with a certain Old Woman as well as Little Bo Peep.

But she is being accosted by the resident villain and shoe forecloser Silas Barnaby. He’s a hyperbolic, conniving, cackling antagonist who undoubtedly finds origins in the invariably black and white worlds of a child’s fantasy (It’s no coincidence that Disney’s canon has boasted some of the most iconic villains). He’s played by none other than 21-year-old Henry Brandon and though he’s draped in a beard there’s no doubt that his stunts in the final scenes evoke the physique of a young man.

Anyways, our heroes promise to raise the necessary money to keep the shoe so Little Bo Beep doesn’t have to marry such a horrible fellow. But of course they go and make a shamble of things messing up Santa’s wooden soldier order and they get fired. Even a trojan Christmas present in July sent to Barnaby fails because of Stan’s typical good-natured idiocy.

He’s up to his usual tricks as the lovable pal who begins his trademark sniveling while his friend is getting tortured with a dunk tank only to offer Ollie a glass of water once he’s made it back to dry land with his usual vacuous deadpan. Furthermore, still plagued by malapropisms, he turns “heartbroken” into “housebroken” and similarly misconstrues other words.

The villainous Barnaby is not to be outdone. First trying to arrest Ollie and then framing Bo Peep’s true love with the kidnapping of one of the three pigs. Banishment to the dreaded Bogeyland looks all too imminent. Still, Babes in Toyland stages one of the most delightful battles of good versus evil that evokes everything from The Nutcracker to The Wizard of Oz. Toys become ammunition and buildings are to be sieged as everything comes alive.

Like Our Relations two years later, this film employs one of the oldest sitcom tricks but here it’s all but forgivable. Because, again, television tropes hadn’t been invented yet much less television. It’s true that the kids will probably enjoy this the most or perhaps the young at heart. Still, Hal Roach delivers another Laurel and Hardy comedy with its share of child-like charm and some dashes of Disney magic (namely a Mickey Mouse lookalike and the Three Little Pigs theme song). Yes, it’s puerile entertainment but what’s wrong with that?

3.5/5 Stars

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

Sons of the Desert (1933)

sons of the desert 1Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. 

When I was a kid Laurel & Hardy were a mainstay of the local lending libraries and I viewed many of their pictures from Bonnie Scotland to Flying Deuces to Saps at Sea.  I’m not sure if I can make that point enough. I watched a lot of Laurel & Hardy and a lot of Road Movies with Hope and Crosby. Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed those comedies which got played over and over in my household. But the point is you only see a limited number. That being said, I never got the opportunity to see of Sons of the Desert until a few years back and it’s yet another quality comedy in the Laurel & Hardy hall of fame.

The film opens with a powwow of the Sons of the Desert society with its many members waiting with baited breath for the proceedings before they are rudely interrupted by two malcontents. None other than our lovable heroes who sheepishly wade through the crowds. They’ve made their presence known and never let up from thenceforward.

But more importantly than their entrance is the solemn oath they take along with the legions of others, resolving to show up at the annual convention in Chicago no matter the obstacles in the way. For Stan and Ollie that’s means getting their wives to let them attend or better yet pulling the wool over their eyes because that’s a lot more entertaining from a comedic perspective.

Chance events like meeting relatives and sinking ocean liners are really inconsequential insertions into the already nonsensical storyline. After all, if something’s already absurd what’s the difference if it gets even crazier? The bottom line is that Sons of the Desert keeps Stan and Ollie at its center and they don’t disappoint getting into mess after mess as they always do.

In this particular iteration, a bit of the battle of the sexes is going on although there’s no way either of these men can dominate their wives and that’s the funny part. Ollie’s the instigator, blustering his way into the scenario with his typical overconfident ways, dragging Stan along with him and getting them both into a heap of trouble. They’re up on the roof in the rain without a paddle or any prayer of keeping dry. And in precisely these types of moments, you see the irony of Ollie’s catchphrase. Stan might unwittingly add to the chaos but Ollie is the instigator of every mess.

They try and exert their dominance and when that doesn’t work they try deception, putting on a false front for their spouses. And when that doesn’t work they run and hide, snivel and beg for forgiveness. Either that or get all the contents of the kitchen cabinets hurled their way. In the end, Stan has a fairly amiable homecoming but Ollie can’t say quite the same thing.

Some memorable moments involve Stan snacking on wax fruit and trying to string along some flimsy lies about how they “ship hiked” across the ocean, highlighting his perpetual struggle with the English language. Meanwhile, Ollie is trying his darndest to fake an illness with Stan’s help and the boys end up hiding out in the attic away from their wives before they’re forced to sneak down the drainpipe in the pouring rain. They can be conniving buffoons but there’s also very rarely a moment when we’re not on their sides.

As if having each other was not enough already, they always have the backing of the audience. They give us that same gift of Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd or The Marx Brothers or Tati or any of the other great comics. They give us laughter in droves. The mode isn’t all that important. It’s simply the fact that they too have a timeless ability for evoking giggles.

3.5/5 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


A Chump at Oxford (1940)

0132a-lh_chump_at_oxford_1940This short comedy film has Laurel and Hardy scrounging around for work and they masquerade as a maid and butler in a well-to-do home. As expected they cause loads of trouble and skip out. Next they are a pair of street sweepers who come upon some luck while on break. They unwittingly capture a bank robber and they are soon rewarded with  a free education at Oxford. There they are met with a group of haughty Oxford snobs who cannot wait to mess with the new arrivals. The ensuing moments include getting lost in a maze, dizzy spells, run-ins with the Dean, and a chance encounter with Oxford Athletic hero Lord Paddington, who shares an uncanny resemblance to Stan. Despite all the ups and downs, Stan and Ollie make it through and they succeed in making this comedy quite funny.
3.5/5 Stars