"Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy have many ups and downs—Mr. Hardy takes charge of the upping, and Mr. Laurel does most of the downing."
From their initial teaming in 1926 (they had both appeared in 1917's Lucky Dog, but not as a team), Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy created an enviable body of work comprising some 105 films. The majority of these were two- and three-reel comedy shorts, but after the pair's first sound efforts in 1929, some feature-length films were mixed in among the shorts until 1935. Thereafter, the boys made features exclusively until their final screen appearance in 1950's Atoll K (also known as Utopia and Robinson Crusoeland). Until 1940, Laurel and Hardy worked at the Hal Roach Studios where they were generally happy despite occasional studio interference. The Hal Roach films were for the most part released under the MGM banner. During the 1940s, the boys had their own production company, but their films were made at either Twentieth Century-Fox or MGM where they had little creative input and the results were less than satisfactory, although not as bad as some have made out.
Some of the pair's best work during the sound era was done during the early 1930s. The feature Sons of the Desert (1933) is one of their finest efforts and The Music Box, a three-reeler made in 1932, deservedly won an Academy Award as that year's Best Live Action Comedy Short Subject. Artisan, on behalf of Hallmark Home Entertainment who hold the North American rights to all of Laurel and Hardy's Hal Roach sound productions, has now released these two items along with three other shorts from the 1930-1933 period (Another Fine Mess, Busy Bodies, and County Hospital) on a DVD simply entitled Laurel and Hardy.
Facts of the Case
Sons of the Desert—Stan and Ollie are members of the fraternal organization "Sons of the Desert" that is planning its annual convention for Chicago. Taking an oath of solidarity with all the other members, the boys agree to attend the convention. The only problem is how to get their wives' consent. Feigning a serious illness, Oliver arranges for Stan to have a tame doctor prescribe an ocean voyage to Hawaii as a cure. Stan will provide company for Ollie on the trip, and the wives agree out of concern for Ollie's health. The boys, of course, have no intention of going to Hawaii, but go to Chicago instead. What the wives don't know won't hurt them. Except that the boat returning from Hawaii capsizes, and worried about whether their husbands are among the survivors, the wives go to a local theatre to take their minds off things. There they see a newsreel that just happens to highlight the "Sons of the Desert" convention and reveals the attendance of Stan and Ollie. The boys return home from the convention unaware of any of this. Their wives aren't home, but the pair does find a recent newspaper that tells about the capsized boat and they realize the fat's in the fire.
The Music Box—Laurel and Hardy have their own delivery business. They're given the job of delivering a player piano to a local house that turns out to be situated at the top of a formidable set of terraced steps. Getting the piano up the steps is only the start of their job, however. Once at the house, it turns out that no one's home, so the boys do their best to get the piano inside and uncrated on their own.
Another Fine Mess—Laurel and Hardy are on the run from a policeman and take refuge in the house of Colonel Wilberforce, a wealthy businessman who has left on a hunting trip. A recently-married couple come to the house hoping to rent it in Wilberforce's absence. With the policeman still looking for them outside, the boys pose as Wilberforce (Hardy) and his butler and maid (Laurel in a dual role) in an effort to deal with the potential renters.
Busy Bodies—Stan and Ollie have good jobs working as carpenters at a sawmill. Their mutual incompetence, however, leads them through a string of mishaps that eventually finds the mill foreman after them. As they try to get away in their car, the sawmill's big band saw looms as a rather large obstacle.
County Hospital—Ollie is laid up in the hospital recovering from a broken leg. His friend Stan pays him a visit and brings hard-boiled eggs and nuts as a present. Miffed at what he considers the thoughtlessness of Stan's gift—Ollie would have preferred candy—he soon finds that to be the least of his worries. Stan manages to annoy Ollie's doctor to the point that the doctor ends up outside the hospital room's window hanging on for dear life. As a result, Ollie is ordered to leave the hospital, thus ending the extended period of relaxed recovery that he was anticipating. So they set off in Stan's car.
Laurel and Hardy's silent films have been available for quite some time now on 10 discs issued by Image Entertainment. On the other hand, aside from a few titles considered to be in the public domain, the boys' sound work has been unavailable in Region 1. (It's a different matter elsewhere, but more about that later.) Hallmark Home Entertainment holds the rights to those sound films and for a long time, it looked as though the company had no interest in making them available on DVD. That seemed like a strange stance for a company interested in family entertainment to take on a product with the broad built-in audience that Laurel and Hardy films have. Finally, however (and perhaps more in an effort to shut up noisy fans than any real response based on its appreciation of the films' merits), Hallmark announced a DVD to include one of Stan and Ollie's features and several of their shorts. The suggestion has been made that the success of this release will determine whether it's the first of a series or the one-and-only.
Certainly based on the titles that have been included, this DVD deserves to be a success. The Sons of the Desert feature is one of Laurel and Hardy's best (vying with Way Out West and Block Heads. It's a masterpiece that includes many of Laurel and Hardy's best bits of business, all well edited so as not to outstay their welcome, in a charming blend of vocal and situational comedy. The boys are front and centre virtually throughout, but able assistance is provided by Charlie Chase as a practical joker at the convention and by Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie as the wives. Direction was in the hands of William A. Seiter who seemed completely in synch with the boys. It's hard to say how much of the film's success was due to him, but it's too bad it was the only film he worked on with them.
The four shorts that accompany the feature range from excellent (The Music Box, Busy Bodies to very good (Another Fine Mess) to merely average (County Hospital). Both The Music Box and Busy Bodies succeed despite their distinctly different approaches. The former has a simple but well-thought-out plot that manages to deliver about as many variations on how (and how not) to get a heavy box from A to B as you could imagine. The latter has virtually no plot beyond the situation that has the boys working at a sawmill. It's never quite clear what their jobs are there, other than to move a few boards around and heft a few tools, but the mayhem that results is in the best Laurel and Hardy tradition. Another Fine Mess offers an example of one of the pair's best recurring gags—Stan dressed in drag. His quick changes from butler's to maid's uniform become increasingly bizarre as costume pieces are forgotten, but the best part is his rather risqué conversation with the young woman of the couple trying to rent the house. Another benefit of this short is the work of frequent Laurel and Hardy foil James Finlayson as Colonel Wilberforce. County Hospital is fun, but ultimately somewhat of a disappointment. The part that occurs in the hospital is good, with several fine sight gags and a nice performance by Billy Gilbert as Ollie's doctor. Once the boys head out in Stan's car, the film fizzles out, however. Some terrible rear projection work on the sequence with a sleepy Stan driving through city traffic robs the material of any amusement.
So, yes, the DVD content is well worth your attention, but is Artisan's presentation up to the mark? Unfortunately, that's where we run into a problem. Many fans who have been clamoring for years for Hallmark to get on the ball have given up in frustration and looked elsewhere. They found what they were looking for in Kinowelt's German DVD releases for Region 2. Generally crisp and clear transfers, English soundtracks, and removable German subtitles have characterized over 20 Laurel and Hardy DVDs released to date. These are readily available to people in Region 1 who have been willing to invest in a region-free player capable of converting the PAL discs for viewing on NTSC sets. Compared to these discs, the Artisan release does not compare favourably. It's not bad, but generally it's lacking in crispness when compared to the Kinowelt discs that contain Sons of the Desert and The Music Box, for example. Although black levels aren't too bad and all the films are presented full frame in accord with their original aspect ratios, the Artisan disc generally suffers from a soft image that offers average shadow detail at best. Speckles and scratches are commonly visible. At issue too is the source material from which the DVD has been generated. Some of the prints certainly look like ones created for television usage with some incidental music not on the originals and one substituting a later Film Classics logo for the MGM one. Two sound tracks are presented. Contrary to the packaging, which identifies one as 1.0 mono, both appear to be Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. One is advertised as being restored. Both, however, have appreciable hiss and crackle although the restored one has them at a reduced level, substituting a muffled effect at times. Be warned also that the sound accompanying the menus is annoyingly louder than that of the films themselves.
The Artisan disc concludes with a collection of modest supplements, including a ten-minute tribute to Hal Roach, some then-and-now scenes of locations used by Laurel and Hardy for shooting various sequences, a photo montage, information on the tents of the "Sons of the Desert" Laurel and Hardy appreciation society, and biographies of Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Hal Roach.
My feelings about this disc are mixed. You're much better off to avail yourselves of the Kinowelt discs, but it's not reasonable to expect that everyone is going to go out and invest in the equipment necessary to do so. So for those who care about having the boys available on Region 1 DVDs, I'd say go for this Artisan disc. The content is great and the price is right, but the presentation is only marginally acceptable. The "digitally remastered" advertising on the front and side of the packaging shouldn't fool anyone into thinking that this contains some well-restored content. But if enough people buy it and then let Artisan (Hallmark) know their feelings about its quality while also expressing interest in more titles, maybe a future release will be superior.
The court gives a tip of the hat to Laurel and Hardy and lets Artisan and Hallmark off the hook on this first disc while urging them to do better by the boys on their next effort.
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Scales of Justice
• "Hal Roach King of Laughter" Tribute
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