I have many favourite Laurel & Hardy films.
There are far fewer, in fact, that don't qualify as favourites. I can't honestly put my hand on my heart and say that there are any I don't like at all.
Nonetheless, there is a top drawer and a bottom drawer, and part of the purpose of this post is to nominate the following for the top drawer:
Unaccustomed As We Are (1929), Berth Marks (1929), Men O'War (1929), Jitterbugs (1943) and The Bullfighters (1945).
In so doing, I am not, emphatically not, denying masterpiece status to Going Bye-Bye or Helpmates or Pardon Us or Below Zero or Pack Up Your Troubles or just about any other of the great products of Laurel & Hardy's classic period.
They are all transcendent, heartbreaking, beautiful things. Though I'll admit that Way Out West and The Music Box seem to me somewhat smaller than their reputation, certainly I would quarrel not with the bestowing of masterpiece status on the likes of Sons of the Desert, Blockheads and Our Relations.
Nonetheless, these five neglected films from the two neglected ends of their career in talkies do seem to need a little extra help, and so I shall be putting their case below.
On behalf of Stan and Ollie themselves I am assuming no case needs making. Stan Laurel, perfectionist and ideas man, Oliver Hardy, superb interpretive actor (and fully Stan’s equal as a comic presence) produced in collaboration a unique comedy – alternately incredibly subtle and incredibly broad – seemingly as without precedent as it is without inheritors.
The appeal of few other comedians is as hard to define, or to convey to those unfortunates not already spellbound. Sheer professionalism has a lot to do with it, natural chemistry a lot more, a happy ability to inspire warmth and goodwill in their audience still more again, but on top of all that is that final layer that defies analysis: like Morecambe and Wise their material is by no means consistently strong yet in both cases that is somehow beside the point, the point being the men themselves and the world they create in front of you, and invite you into.
I love their earliest talkies; most writers on the duo view them as at least inferior, if not actually disastrous like those we will arrive at shortly. They were stars in the silent era, and many traditionalists insist that this was when they did their best work. But sound added a necessary finishing touch. Indeed, with the ambiguous exception of W. C. Fields (ambiguous because, though he made some silent comedies, it was only really in the sound era that he became a star comedian rather than comic actor) they are the only silent comics to have been actually improved by the transition to sound. Others may have weathered it with varying degrees of success, only Stan and Ollie derived benefit. This was due mainly to the happy accident of their both having not only pleasing voices – Ollie’s with the tang of Old Southern gentility, Stan’s rootless with just the ghost of Ulverston behind the curtain – but also voices that seemed to match their personae.
Yet from the first they clearly vowed to take on the talkies and master them, not reluctantly accommodate them. Their very first sound film, delightfully titled Unaccustomed as We Are shows this determination and succeeds brilliantly: already the film is filled with sound jokes involving off-screen action. At the end Stan falls down the stairs out of shot, and the joke is conveyed not visually but with a massive crash symbolising some horrendous calamity we cannot see.
This is a wonderful example of the team's domestic horror films, later reworked in Blockheads, with Ollie naively bringing Stan home to dinner on the assumption that his terrifying wife will instantly warm to him. It has a sharpness to it that would be smoothed out as the formula became fixed; it also has Thelma Todd as the neighbour who ends up in a packing case in her underwear.
Provided the joke and the comedians are funny in the first place, I have a soft spot for single jokes being relentlessly milked for all they're worth. This technique reaches perfection in the generally unpopular Berth Marks, which spends most of its running time in a cramped sleeping compartment with the duo as they attempt to get undressed and go to sleep. Like A Perfect Day, another of their one-joke movies, it leaves some audiences tense and irritated, but anyone who finds pleasure in the endless repetition of Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer should get the point, and if you are on its wavelength it becomes one of those dangerously hilarious films that don't leave you enough breathing space between laughs, and leave you beetroot-hued and gasping, often in a crumpled heap some distance from the chair you were sat in.
My favourite of all these early shorts is Men O’War which combines glorious jazz age settings with some fine slapstick in a row boat and one of the team's best dialogue sketches: the soda fountain routine. Stan and Ollie are entertaining two girls and only have enough money for three drinks; the idea is that Stan will refuse a drink and he and Ollie will secretly share. But every time Ollie attempts to pull of the deceit ("Soda... soda... soda... and my dear Stan - what will you have?") Stan requests a drink. Again, the joke lies in repetition, in this case the repetition of a single misunderstanding despite more than adequate attempts to correct it each time. Confused, Stan simply cannot grasp that he should turn the drink down; Ollie for his part does not expect the true situation to become clear no matter how often he summons Stan away, remonstrates with him, and goes through it all again.
These films were all made at the Hal Roach studios, which provided exactly the right creative environment for the team to flourish throughout the thirties. What happened in 1940 is sometimes blamed on sheer bad luck, sometimes on friction between Roach and Laurel, and sometimes on the Faustian lure of the Hollywood sell-out. Whatever the actual motive or cause, the team left Roach in a superficially advantageous move to Twentieth Century Fox; they would also make two films for MGM, who had distributed their Roach films.
The results were a basically inferior crop of films made without sympathy for the team’s methods, or in many cases much awareness of their style, in which Stan soon learned he was expected to take no creative part other than as an actor.
And yet, I watch these films a lot, and there is fun to be had here, though few of the standard books on the duo have anything but venom for them. Doug McClelland’s Golden Age of B-Movies makes an affectionate case for The Big Noise, often said to be among the worst of all, but over-eggs the pudding somewhat by trying to downgrade the Roach films, which he reckons “can often be annoyingly repetitious and long-winded”.
Finally, the right book did come along: Laurel and Hardy from the Forties Forward by Scott MacGillivray. It's the ideal introduction for reluctant fans to the slim but definite pleasures of these final efforts; he never tries to hail then as neglected masterpieces, or even hint that they might surpass any of the Roach work, but he does make much of the received wisdom on them seem unnecessarily severe and carping, and sends you back to them with fresh eyes and perspectives.
I certainly think there is a good compilation waiting to be made from the highlights of these films, and two at least, Jitterbugs and The Bullfighters seem to me to need no special pleading at all.
Certainly, they are not as fine as Sons of the Desert. Certainly, they attempt to reshape Laurel and Hardy to fit the mould of a very different era of comedy: the slicker, brasher, more wisecracking forties style, radio-influenced, typified by Hope and Benny and Bud and Lou. I once wrote, in defence of these films, that "though not a patch on the Roach films they are still eight Laurel and Hardy movies out of a total that is finite and can never be increased: maybe you can be cavalier with statistics like that, but I say any Laurel and Hardy film is better than one fewer Laurel and Hardy film".
But I've just watched Jitterbugs and The Bullfighters again and I think I want to go further. Both have faults, but both are fine comedies with many great scenes in each, and neither disgraces the duo in any way. I hereby elevate them to front rank status.