Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Way Out West (1937)

A word is overdue now for my favourite comedy double act. There are so many of Laurel & Hardy's films that I love to watch: this one just happens to be the film that I enjoy the most consistently.

Apart from anything else, this is a darn good comedy Western, one of the best of its kind, that utilises the appeal of "the boys" to maximum effect. Their comedy routines honed to perfection, combined with an above average plot, make for magic entertainment. In the corrupt town (is there any other kind in the Wild West?) of Brushwood Gulch, hard-working Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) slaves away Cinderella-like at the saloon of her irascible landlord and legal guardian Mickey Finn, and his wife and star attraction Lola Marcel, played with villainous relish by James Finlayson and Sharon Lynne. But unbeknownst to Mary, her gold prospecting father has recently died, and two unlikely knights on white chargers (or more accurately, a single mule) are riding into town to present her with the valuable inheritance of her late father's goldmine.

The villains alas, get word of the loot first, thanks to the incompetent innocence of Stan:

"Yeah, you see it's private. Her father died and left her a goldmine, and we're not supposed to tell anybody but her..."

.. and some skillful acting on the part of Lola as "Mary":

LOLA ("sobbing"): "Tell me. Tell me about my dear, dear Daddy. Is it true that he's dead?

STAN: Well we hope he is, they buried him!

LOLA: Oh, it can't be! What did he die of?

STAN: I think he died of a Tuesday, or was it a Wednesday...?"

The deception complete - in spite of Stan's unwitting resistance - the boys are packed off having delivered the deed, until they meet up with the real Mary. Ollie, ever the chivalrous one, marches up to the villains' lair and demands the deed back, or Stan "will eat his hat." So in they march, knocking on the door, and then when the door opens, he knocks accidentally on Finn's head:

OLLIE: (to Finn) "Out of my way, you snake in the grass!

STAN: You Toad in the Hole!"

The resulting chase round the saloon culminates in a hilarious scene in which Lola traps Stan in her boudoir (lucky chap) and burrows into his clothes to grab the deed back, and the ticklish Stan is paralysed with laughter. Even Sharon Lynne can't conceal the grin from her face, as you'll notice if you watch the scene.

"Just in the nick of time" comes the Sheriff, whom unfortunately the boys have already had a run-in with over sharing a stagecoach with the Sheriff's wife (Vivien Oakland) - and quick as you know, the boys are racing out of town - "you can't see them for dust!"

But fear ye not, the boys are back - after Ollie has first of all insisted than Stan carry out his pledge to eat his hat - with salt added for flavouring! Returning late that night to Brushwood Gulch, they sneak in to rescue the deed - and Mary - even in spite of being trapped in a piano (that Finlayson plays!), and Ollie having his neck twisted around 360 degrees (oddly pre-dating a similar scene in The Exorcist.)

Riding out of town to pastures new, the three triumphantly make their way home to the town where Mary was born, "way down South." Ollie declares that he is from the South too, as does Stan - "the South of London...and some good old fish 'n'chips!" The film ends with a running gag, as they march singing merrily across the river, until Ollie once again finds the deep end and takes a plunge!

And in the midst of this joyous and all too short 66 minutes, come two famous song & dance numbers, The Shoe Shuffle, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine - a song which was popular enough to become a top ten single in its own right. The voices that Stan adopts when he switches from heavy bass to soprano, were actually the voices of co-stars Chill Wills, and Rosina Lawrence.

The Shorts

I realise that I've unfairly restricted this blogpage largely to "feature" films, so this is an ideal opportunity to also mention some of the classic Laurel & Hardy short films that they made in the 1920s and 30s, and were in many ways, their metier.

I can remember laughing uncontrollably when I saw Beau Chumps (the British title for Beau Hunks) on TV when I was younger, a spoof of Foreign Legion films - as much as Way Out West was a spoof of westerns - where the boys foil a raid by the Arab armies by throwing drawing pins on the ground under their bare feet! Another amusing running gag was how everyone in the legion - including Ollie, and even the commander of the outpost (Charles Middleton - best known as "Ming the Merciless") has ended up there because of their one-time sweetheart, "Jeanie Weenie" - a pre-megastardom Jean Harlow, no less.

The most famous of their comedy shorts is probably The Music Box, an Oscar winner (the very first in that category) with the boys hauling a musical piano up a large flight of steps (that still stand today in suburban Los Angeles), and brilliantly finding ways to climb up the hill and then come tumbling straight back down again! As in Way Out West, there is also a pleasant little song and dance number, to the tune of the musical piano, naturally.

One of the best examples of their endearing antipathy with James Finlayson, is Big Business (perhaps the best of their silent films), where the boys are Christmas tree sellers - in June - and Finn is naturally an unwilling customer. The boys will not take no for an answer however, and Finn - unfortunately for him - does not know how to reject them politely. The disagreement escalates into a slapstick war which half demolishes both the boys' car and Finn's house, and in due course embroils the local policeman (Tiny Sandford), and ends with the four of them in a fit of mutual weeping - while the audience is weeping with laughter.

Stan & Ollie are in dungarees again in Dirty Work - a title with a double meaning, as the boys are chimney sweeps at the house of a mad scientist, who has discovered the formula for rejuvenation. At the end Ollie overdoses on the formula and turns into a chimpanzee - complete with bowler hat! (Was this where they got the idea for the PG Tips ads I wonder?) Their interaction in this short is particularly engaging. "I have nothing to say!" is Ollie's frequent response to the various indignities heaped upon him by Stan - not quite as distinctive as "Here's another fine mess..." perhaps, but just as funny.

Helpmates is a brilliantly funny black comedy, as Ollie tries to clean up after a wild party, before his dragon of a wife comes home. In one tour de force sequence, he slips on a carpet sweeper and crashes into the dishes that Stan has just cleaned, then accidentally catches his arm on a string which unleashes the soot from the stove and covers him! He then accidentally washes his hands with butter instead of soap, and to top it all, Stan gets a towel from the cupboard, but out falls a tin of flour onto Ollie's head, transforming him from a Minstrel into a ghost!

By the end of the film, Ollie has returned - alone - with a black eye, and Stan has rendered the house to ashes - "I guess there's nothing else I can do.", he says!


I believe the secret of their appeal was very much how they seemed to be on the same level as their audience. They never spoke down to them. Chaplin had a brilliant common touch with his Tramp characterisation, but had a tendency to preach with his comedy, once his power and his success increased. Buster Keaton was technically brilliant, but didn't quite have that magic of engaging his character with the audience, the way that especially Oliver Hardy did with his frequent despairing looks to camera. Laurel & Hardy had just the perfect mix, and like so many successful double acts, it was one of those happy coincidences that just happened to come together and create a unique style, that has never really been surpassed.

Stan Laurel was of course, the prime mover in many of these classic comedies. He was actually already semi-retired as a comedy actor, and working largely behind the camera at the Hal Roach Studio before his official teaming with "Babe" Hardy. Many of their short films in fact, are not film scripts as such, but simple synopses around which they planned their own comedy routines, and then performed them in front of camera. Peter Cushing remembers a time when, during the making of A Chump at Oxford (below), the boys have a scene where they are tricked into walking through a maze, and naturally get lost. The scene was originally shot with doubles in long shot, but both Stan and Babe felt it needed themselves to do the scene, adapting it to their own unique style, an example of their model professionalism which they maintained throughout their 40-year careers.

A Chump at Oxford (1940). Standing in the middle with fake moustache: a young Peter Cushing.

It's sad to reflect that the time of Way Out West was actually at the end of a renaissance of fine comedy for Laurel & Hardy. This was the second and last of two official "Stan Laurel Productions" which were markedly slicker and more professionally made than many of their other films, and refuted the notion that L&H were only good in short films. But the golden run was brief.

For whatever reason - though their popularity remained - the feature films which they had successfully (and gradually) adjusted to from shorts, were to go by the wayside quite quickly, and contracts were negotiated for them away from Hal Roach, to other studios such as Twentieth Century Fox, who just did not understand the way Laurel & Hardy ticked.

But when watching Way Out West, time and time again, I defy anyone not to be engaged and feeling better after the experience. This, as I say, was their appeal. Other comedians made you laugh: these two made you laugh, and also made you feel like you really knew them at the same time.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films