Stan & Ollie: OUR RELATIONS (Hal Roach/MGM 1936) & WAY OUT WEST (Hal Roach/MGM 1937)

Like many of you Dear Readers, I’m eagerly awaiting the new STAN & OLLIE biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, which hasn’t hit my area yet (and visit yesterday’s post for my thoughts on that film’s Oscar snub). I’m a huge Laurel & Hardy buff, and I spent last week warming up by watching “The Boys” in a pair of their classic comedies:

OUR RELATIONS wasn’t the first time Laurel & Hardy played dual roles (their 1930 short BRATS casts them as their own children, while 1933’s TWICE TWO finds them as each other’s spouses!), but it’s loads of fun! Stan and Ollie are two happily married suburbanites, while their long-lost twin brothers Alf and Bert are the seafaring “black sheep” of the family. Mother has informed Ollie the rascals wound up being hung from the yardarms, but it turns out Alf and Bert are alive and well, pulling into port on the S.S. Perriwinkle. The pair are conned out of their money by fellow sailor James Finlayson (who else!) under the guise of “investing” it for them (as Fin says when they leave, “Barnum was right!”). The ship’s captain (Sidney Toler, the future Charlie Chan) sends them to Denker’s Beer Garden to pick up a package for him – an expensive engagement ring for his sweetie. Couldn’t have picked two better guys for the job, right?

With but a dollar between them, Alf and Bert run into a couple of golddigging floozies (Lona Andre and the always welcome Iris Adrian ), who spot the ring and take the boys for a couple of high rollers –  and procede to run up a huge tab at the guy’s expense! The burly waiter (Alan Hale Sr.) takes the ring as collateral while Alf and Bert go to Fin to get their money back. Stan and Ollie soon arrive at the Beer Garden with their wives (Daphne Pollard, Betty Healy),  and now the fun really begins, with both sets of twins winding up at a posh nightclub before everything comes to a head on the waterfront, with Alf and Bert in cement overshoes as some gangsters (Ralf Harolde, Noel Madison) try to get the ring Bert unknowingly slipped into Stan’s pocket…

OUR RELATIONS is a classic slapstick comedy of errors with gags galore, like when the duo touch each others noses and go “Shakespeare – Longfellow” whenever they say the same thing simultaneously. Or sharing a beer with their one measly dollar, asking for two straws, and Hale brings a flagon that’s all foam (Stan asks for two spoons instead!). There’s a riotous scene involving Stan, Ollie, and perennial screen drunk Arthur Housman stuck together in a phone booth that was later reworked in the Three Stooges short BRIDELESS GROOM . And of course, plenty of Tit for Tat between Mr. Laurel, Mr. Hardy, and Mr. Finlayson!

Besides those previously mentioned, eagle-eyed comedy fans will want to keep a sharp lookout for Johnny Arthur, Dell Henderson, Gertrude Messinger, James C. Morton (as the mallet-wielding bartender), former Tarzan James Pierce, and Tiny Sanford. IMDb says Charlie Hall appears briefly at the pawn shop, but I guess I missed him! The story is credited to Richard Connell (best known for his oft-filmed short story THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) and comedy vet Felix Adler, with adaptation by Charley Rogers and Jack Jevne, with Stan providing plenty of uncredited material, as he always did. Harry Lachman’s direction keeps things moving briskly, and the whole shebang is credited as “A Stan Laurel Production”.

WAY OUT WEST is also ‘A Stan Laurel Production’; both were designated as such by Hal Roach to appease his star comic (who’d been serving in that capacity unofficially anyway) after an argument. Anytime you put classic comedians in a Wild West setting, fun is sure to follow, and WAY OUT WEST is no exception. Stan and Ollie are on their way to the rowdy town of Brushwood Gulch to find young Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), whose father has died and left her the deed to a gold mine. They’ve never met her, and saloon owner Mickey Finn (Finlayson, of course!), Mary’s ‘guardian’, conspires to pass off his main attraction wife Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne) as Mary and get the deed for themselves. When the Boys discover the ruse, chaos ensues as a mad scramble to return the deed to its rightful owner begins…

This scenario (from a story by Rogers and Jevne, with Rogers, Adler, James Parrott, and an uncredited Stan writing the script) allows Laurel & Hardy to engage in some of their most memorable gags, including Stan’s famous “Thumb Trick” – and admit it, all you L&H fans out there have tried it! We first meet The Boys on the road to Brushwood Gulch, where they have to cross a river, which proves disastrous for poor Ollie! The “block and tackle” scene is simply a masterpiece of comic construction (not to mention destruction!). Best of all is the musical interludes with The Avalon Boys singing group (featuring a young bass singer named Chill Wills !), as Stan and Ollie do a cute comic dance routine to “At the Ball, That’s All”, then later join in on a rendition of “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, with Stan lip synching towards the end, dubbed by first Wills, then Lawrence!

James W. Horne took the director’s chair for WAY OUT WEST, as he did in so many other L&H romps. James C. Morton is again a bartender (complete with mallet!), Stanley Fields an ornery Sheriff, and Harry Bernard, silent star Flora Finch, Mary Gordon, and Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones contribute uncredited bits. WAY OUT WEST serves as the jumping off point for the new STAN & OLLIE movie, and I for one can’t wait to see it. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, and you can bet I’ll have a review for it ASAP… or I’ll eat my hat!

 

Double Your Fun: Laurel & Hardy in BLOCKHEADS (MGM 1938) and SAPS AT SEA (United Artists 1940)

Hal Roach first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy in 1927, beginning a long and prosperous screen comedy collaboration. The pair became the movie’s most beloved, and funniest, screen team, a point  that’s hard to argue against after a recent rewatching of BLOCKHEADS and SAPS AT SEA, two films that each clock in at less than an hour, but pack more laughs than many longer, larger budgeted films of the era – or any era, for that matter!

In BLOCKHEADS, L&H are soldiers during WWI, and Stan is ordered to stand guard in the trench until the troop returns from battle. Twenty years later, he’s still there! Found by a pilot he shoots down, Stan is taken to an Old Soldiers’ Home, when Ollie (once again a henpecked husband) spots his picture in the newspaper. Ollie rushes to see his old pal, and finds him sitting in a wheelchair with his leg tucked under him. Thinking Stan’s lost a limb, Ollie picks him up and brings him home to meet his wife, and of course mayhem ensues as they attempt to climb upstairs to Ollie’s thirteenth floor apartment, encountering trouble at every floor, and a final melee with Ollie’s wife, neighbor Patricia Ellis, and jealous husband Billy Gilbert !

A battalion of comedy writers (Felix Adler, James Parrott, Charley Rogers, Arnold Belgard, and former silent star Harry Langdon) are credited with the script, but let’s not forget the behind-the-scenes contributions of Stan Laurel. Stan held court during the writing sessions for L&H’s films, supervising the entire project, and many of the quick-hit gags sprung from his fertile comic mind. It’s hard to say who came up with what, since all were great gag writers, but they come fast and furious: Stan in the trench, eating beans, tosses his empty can onto a pile (a virtual “hill of beans”!); the aforementioned wheelchair sight gag; perennial nemesis James Finlayson battling Ollie; an obnoxious brat (Tommy Bond, Butch of the OUR GANG shorts) kicking his football on one of the floors; and Stan smoking his “hand pipe” (first used in WAY OUT WEST). One of my favorite gags is when Stan tells Ollie, “You remember how dumb I used to be?…Well, I’m better now”, followed by a series of mishaps that causes Ollie to repeat, in his own inimitable way, “You’re better now”!

Billy Gilbert as the big-game hunting jealous neighbor adds his own blustery brand of buffoonery. Like Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy, Gilbert made a great foil for the boys in many of their shorts and features. Minna Gombell takes the role usually filled by Mae Busch as Ollie’s combative wife. John G. Blystone is the credited director (he also worked with the boys on SWISS MISS), but Stan had final say on all things Laurel and Hardy. After BLOCKHEADS, the team and producer Hal Roach left MGM (though Stan and Ollie would return five years later under drastically different circumstances).

Roach moved his output to United Artists, and his last with Laurel and Hardy is one of my favorites, 1940’s SAPS AT SEA. In this one, the boys work in a horn manufacturing company, where all the noise causes Ollie to have a nervous breakdown (“Horns! Horns!). He’s sent home to get some peace and quiet – no chance of that with Stan around! Ollie’s doctor (Finlayson again) recommends an ocean voyage, which Ollie refuses, but Stan has a brilliant idea (for a change); they could just rent a boat and stay in the harbor, getting as much fresh salt air as they would by going a-sea!

After some chaos involving wayward plumbing (silent legend Ben Turpin cameos as the cross-eyed plumber in his final film appearance) and Stan’s music teacher (Eddie Conrad) stopping by to give him music lessons (driving Ollie berserk!), the boys head to their dilapidated rented scow ‘Prickly Heat’, with a goat named Narcissus in tow (because Dr. Fin recommended Ollie drink plenty of goat’s milk!). Escaped killer Nick Grainger (Richard Cramer, playing it straight), chased down to the docks by police, sneaks aboard and hides on the boat, but Narcissus chews through the line, causing the boat to drift out to sea.


Grainger and his gun (nicknamed Nick Jr.) take control, dubbing the boys Dizzy and Dopey, and ordering them to rustle up some grub… or else! Having no food on board, Stan and Ollie decide to serve Grainger a “synthetic” meal, consisting of string spaghetti, sponge meatballs, paint tomato sauce, soap grated cheese, and the like. The killer watches them make the deadly concoction, then forces them at gunpoint to eat it themselves! More mayhem occurs when Stan begins playing his trombone, causing Ollie to go berserk again and subdue the criminal, just as Harbor Patrol comes across the adrift boat, followed by a funny coda and “another nice mess” Stan gets Ollie into!

Director Gordon Douglas , a graduate of the OUR GANG shorts, keeps things moving swiftly, and writers Adler, Langdon, and Rogers return, but as usual Stan Laurel is the genius behind the scenes. Some of the gags are old (the ‘mama’ doll under the rocking chair, for instance), but Stan and Ollie make them all seem fresh. SAPS AT SEA is their last really great comedy; when they signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox, creative control was taken out of Stan’s hands, and their later films suffered for it. Thank goodness their films under Hal Roach still survive, masterpieces of comedy delivered by the best in the business. The world is a better place thanks to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy!


An Oscar Extra: SO THIS IS HARRIS (RKO 1933)

Tonight is Hollywood’s big night, the 90th annual Academy Awards presentation. In Oscar’s honor, I’d like to present the Best Short winner for the 1932-33 season, SO THIS IS HARRIS. Crooner/bandleader Phil Harris stars as himself in this Pre-Code classic, along with comic actor Walter Catlett as a homebrew making husband jealous of his wife’s infatuation with the singer. Mark Sandrich, later the director of four Fred Astaire /Ginger Rogers romps, uses some innovative techniques, including the kaleidoscopic opening and neat swipes, to create a fast-paced, fun little outing. And wait til you get a load of the “Singing in the Shower” number – now THAT’S Pre-Code! Also featuring perennial Laurel & Hardy nemesis James Finlayson (“D’oh!”), enjoy SO THIS IS HARRIS, and happy Oscar viewing!:

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