Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Laurel and Hardy Sound Shorts (1930)

This one has a lot of potential, but never seems quite as funny as it could have been. Officer Edgar Kennedy is warned by the Chief of Police that unless he makes an arrest soon in the string of burglaries that have been occurring in the neighborhood, he's out of a job. So he recruits vagrants Laurel and Hardy to break in to the Chief's home and will save the day by arresting them. The idea of the boys as burglars and their various failed attempts to enter the house without making a sound seems like the kind of thing that could have resulted in a minor classic, but for some reason the gags never quite pay off. This one was also shot simultaneously in a Spanish-language version titled LADRONES, which features an alternate and slightly extended ending.

This is one of my favorites. The boys sneak off for an evening to a swanky new nightclub that's just opened in town, and bring along a bottle of Mrs. Laurel's best liquor (not realizing that she's swapped its contents with raw tea, as revenge for their little scheme). Watching it this time around, I was struck by the comparatively high production values that Hal Roach put in to these short films. The Rainbow Club set is an elaborate Art Deco affair, filled with extras, and Laurel and Hardy's entrance into the club is shot with a high-angle dolly shot that takes advantage of the full scope of the production design. It also contains one of the boys' most infectious "laughing" routines, as they become intoxicated by the phony liquor. The surviving copies derive from a 1937 reissue print, featuring the musical underscoring that would become standard. A simultaneously-shot Spanish language version, LA VIDA NOCTURNA, features extended nightclub acts among other differences.

Despite its gimmicky premise (the boys play both themselves and their infant sons), this one works very well, and is impressive for its forced perspective in shots involving oversized props. Another example of the extreme care and expense that went in to making these films at this time. Contains one of the best "Laurel-isms": "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead." And the build-up to that final gag, with the bathtub overflowing, delivers big on its payoff. One of the Laurel and Hardy comedies that was reissued later in the '30s with a new bed of musical underscoring, featuring the familiar LeRoy Shield tunes that had become a staple of Hal Roach comedies. The difference between the new soundtrack and its 1930 counterpart reveal how much those melodies contributed to the films and worked with the image to create a unique rhythm all their own.

One of the strangest, and yet also one of the most interesting, comedies the team ever made. It's one of those films that is as much about their characters as anything else, a poignantly funny examination of their friendship. This is also perhaps the first of their films that clearly presents their characters as childlike outsiders alone in a cruel world, a dynamic they would explore more often especially in their features. The setting is a particularly tough and seedy part of town, where Laurel and Hardy attempt to scrape together enough to eat by working as street musicians. Their luck turns when they find a lost wallet, but this quickly attracts the attention of local pickpockets. Saved by a policeman, they offer to take their new friend out for dinner to show their gratitude, but it turns out the wallet they found just happens to belong to the cop. Unlike Chaplin's Tramp, who would have immediately been suspicious of the cop and would never have invited him to dine in the first place, or Keaton, who would have accepted the situation with a bemused shrug, Stan and Ollie are much more trusting, and see the officer as a friend and protector in their rough surroundings, which makes the final outcome all the more poignant. Contains one of those surreal sight gags Laurel was so fond of: dumped in a barrel of water, he proceeds to drink the entire contents, emerging with a giant, swelled belly.

One of their very best. Taking as simple a premise as trying to install a rooftop antenna, the result is a sublime masterpiece of construction. Not much more to say about this one except that it's one of the few truly perfect comedy films. This is the kind of material Laurel and Hardy could do better than anyone else and that made them so special.

This one gets a bad rap in some quarters, and indeed I've frequently seen it cited as the worst film the team ever made. I'm certainly in the minority on this one, but I find it to be a quite funny send-up of the "old dark house" genre that was so popular at the time. I must admit I'm partial to "fright humor", and when it's done right (Abbott and Costello were masters of it, and Bob Hope's THE GHOST BREAKERS and Don Knotts' THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN are classics of this kind), it leaves me in stitches. The boys go to an old mansion to hear the reading of the late Uncle Ebenezer Laurel's will. A detective (Fred Kelsey, of course), suspecting foul play was involved, places the guests under house arrest while he investigates. When Laurel and Hardy retire to their room for the evening, they are so jumpy and on-edge that every little creak sends them into hysterics. Some may find this tiresome, but the atmosphere is genuinely creepy and spooky enough that it works for me. The funereal pacing is eerie and unsettling, taking its cue from the kinds of films it was sending up. The "dream" ending is certainly weak, though. Certainly not a minor classic or anything, just funnier than its reputation might suggest.

A remake of their earlier silent DUCK SOUP, itself based on a music hall sketch by Laurel's father. The premise is a bit more complicated than usual, and even at three reels, there is still a lot of plot to cram in. Laurel and Hardy are tramps on the run from the cops, who seek refuge in a house belonging to big game hunter Col. Buckshot (James Finlayson). While Buckshot's away on safari, the servants have put the place up for rent, and an interested wealthy couple have come to take a tour of it. To avoid capture, Ollie is forced to pose as Col. Buckshot, and Stan pulls double duty as both his butler and maid. They get a lot of mileage out of the comic role-playing, but it runs out of steam by the end. Laurel's appearance in drag as Agnes the maid is a lot of fun, and his scenes with Thelma Todd are a delight, but all in all, the premise wears thin by the time Finlayson shows up at the end and a chase ensues.

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