Judge Joe Armenio wonders how long it took the good folks at Hallmark to come up with the title for this DVD.
"A lot of weather we've been having lately!"—Ollie's attempt at small-talk flirtation in Way Out West
Hallmark's 2004 release Laurel and Hardy contained the feature Sons of the Desert (1933), as well as four shorts: Another Fine Mess (1930); The Music Box (1932); County Hospital (1932); and Busy Bodies (1933). The blandly if appropriately titled follow-up volume, Laurel and Hardy II, contains two roughly hour-length features: Way Out West (1937) and Block-Heads (1938). It also includes a two-reeler from 1931 called Chickens Come Home.
Facts of the Case
In Chickens Come Home, Ollie is a fertilizer magnate who's running for mayor, and Stan is his assistant. When an old girlfriend (Mae Busch, who plays Mrs. Hardy in Sons of the Desert) blackmails Ollie with an incriminating photo, the boys attempt to keep her quiet and away from Ollie's wife.
In Way Out West, Stan and Ollie are supposed to deliver the deed to a gold mine to a timid girl (Rosina Lawrence) who works in a saloon, but her boss (L & H regular James Finlayson) and his singer wife (Sharon Lynn) attempt to take the inheritance for themselves.
Block-Heads features Stan as a soldier who guarded a trench for twenty years because no one told him that World War I was over, and Ollie is the old buddy who takes him into his home.
The humor of Laurel and Hardy, like that of many great comics, is built on their outsider status. They always seem much more comfortable with each other than with the wider world, and the demands of work and marriage are alien to them; they have to conjure elaborate schemes in order to live the sort of lives that seem to come effortlessly to others. Ollie is the man of action, his brusque assurance attempting to hide his essential incompetence (although his bulk and weirdly babyish face always give him away as an outsider, someone abnormal). Stan is the sweetly dim follower, always fouling up the plans, subjecting Ollie to some indignity. In all of the films here there's a scene in which Stan causes his partner to become humorously covered in something, then attentively dusts him off while Ollie glares at him with a sort of benign outrage. Yet we know that for all of his fake bluster Mr. Hardy will never leave Mr. Laurel, since they belong together, and all is right with the world.
Chickens Come Home, directed by James W. Horne, is a failure partly because it splits the pair up for much of its half-hour running time, as Stan is dispatched to keep the blackmailer occupied while Ollie distracts his wife. Neither man, it turns out, is as funny on his own as he is with the other. The film also has some major problems with tone. Many Laurel and Hardy routines are based on the disapproval of hectoring women (representatives of the world of domesticity that the boys don't understand), but the gals here are totally out of control, grotesquely shrill and aggressive to the point of violence. At one point, Stan's wife threatens to break his legs; in another scene she chases him with an axe, and he's not even the one being blackmailed. There is also a totally unnecessary character—a priggish, gossipy old woman, who seems to be there only to drive home the image of women as shrill harpies. The film feels uncertain and jerkily paced, perhaps out of an early-talkie anxiety about dialogue, but the boys had been working steadily since the advent of sound and should have been used to it by then. The problem is more likely inherent in the script.
The opening scene of Way Out West (also directed by Horne), an energetic musical number in the saloon, announces that this is going to be a sprightlier affair, and a better film than Chickens Come Home. The gags are more imaginative, and some of them have a terrifically anarchic energy, like the four-way scramble over the deed, or Stan and Ollie's climactic attempted break-in, or the scene in which Sharon Lynn tickles a hysterical Stan. There are also a few musical numbers, including Stan and Ollie doing a little soft-shoe to the cowboy stylings of the Avalon Brothers. These numbers are charming in themselves, and also give the film an attractively light and varied texture. It also helps, I think, that the boys' foes are stock characters from Western films (all the supporting performances are excellent) rather than nagging wives.
Block-Heads (directed by John G. Blystone) has a perfect premise—guarding a trench for twenty years is just the sort of simple, devoted, misguided thing that Stan would do. Unfortunately, though, most of the film's jokes don't have anything to do with the set-up. One would think there would be a lot of fish-out-of-water gags, but once Ollie rescues Stan, all we get are some slapstick and some mildly madcap domestic misunderstandings set in an apartment building. The plot takes shape only in the film's last reel, which makes the jokes feel like a series of non sequiturs, rather than arising (however tangentially) from the story, as in Way Out West.
Hallmark took a good deal of heat from enthusiasts about the quality of the transfers on the first volume, and not much has improved for the sequel. The films all look rather dull, flickery, and scratchy. Chickens Come Home is in the worst shape, followed by Way Out West and Block-Heads. I'm not sure about the other two, but the print used for Chickens Come Home is clearly one created for television in the 1950s; there is a telltale "Film Classics" title card at the beginning of the movie. Overall, I'd say the video quality is mediocre rather than distractingly bad, except for about a minute near the end of Chickens Come Home when some strange white lines threaten to take over the screen. Hallmark also hasn't seen fit to grace us with any extra features, unless you consider a one-minute trailer for the first DVD an extra.
Laurel and Hardy aren't exactly being given the deluxe treatment by Hallmark. The presentation here is uninspiring, and the material is a mixed bag. Still, it's a better world now that Way Out West is widely available, and fans will probably be glad to see Block-Heads, too, although its charms largely escaped me.
Somebody should have told poor Stan the war was over, that's all I'm saying.
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