Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Blu-Ray Review | Laurel OR Hardy | Flicker Alley


Oliver Hardy and Mae Hotely in 1915's LUCKY STRIKE

Some of my fondest memories of my grandfather involve watching Laurel & Hardy shorts on his couch on Saturday mornings. Other kids looked forward to Saturday morning cartoons, but I looked forward to Saturday morning Laurel & Hardy on AMC, back when AMC stood for (and actually meant) American Movie Classics. When I wasn't with my grandparents on Saturdays, he would tape them for me to watch later, and I still have VHS copies of these old AMC programs with some of Laurel & Hardy's most iconic films - the Oscar-winning The Music Box, Block-Heads, Berth-Marks, Men-o-WarCounty Hospital - I loved watching the two legendary comedians get themselves into another nice mess, and then try (usually unsuccessfully) to get out of it again. Whether they were trying to sneak away from their wives to go to the lodge, or trying to convince a vengeful husband that they weren't actually flirting with their wives, or trying to fix something around the house only to make the problem ten times worse, Laurel & Hardy created templates that would be followed by filmmakers, comedians, and sitcom writers for decades to come. 

Yet one rarely thinks of Laurel without Hardy, or Hardy without Laurel. It's always "Laurel and Hardy," and never just Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy. However, the two actors weren't always a comic duo. Both men cut their teeth on silent films, before eventually being teamed up by Hal Roach just before the dawn of the sound era, resulting in some two decades of classic comedy. The films the two men made separately are not nearly as well known as the films they made together, and many of those early solo shorts have been long unavailable. But now thanks to the remarkable new Blu-Ray collection from Flicker Alley, fans and newcomers alike can discover the origins of Laurel and Hardy through their solo works dating all the way back to 1914.

The two disc set devotes an entire disc to each actor, showcasing their growth as individual performers from supporting players to solo artists, tracing them from their somewhat inauspicious beginnings all the way through 1926, one year prior to the official beginning of their partnership with 1927's Duck Soup (the pair had previously appeared in films together, but never as a comedy duo). The earliest film included in the set is 1914's Mother's Baby Boy, which stars Babe Hardy (as he was billed early in his career) as a spoiled mama's boy who enlists the help of his family to deal with some rather persistent bullies who interrupt his fumbling attempts at courting. Many of Hardy's early films involve mistaken identities and lower class characters who fall in love before striking it rich - bringing other suitors to their door before ultimately deciding to stick with the ones who loved them when they were poor (The Servant Girl's LegacyLucky Strike). While Hardy hadn't yet developed the fussy pomposity that would define his Laurel and Hardy persona, these earlier films often came with much happier endings than the fates that befell his characters in later years. 


Stan Laurel in 1923's WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD

Laurel's disc begins with 1918's Bears and Bad Men, in which Stan plays a bit part as a village idiot. This straight-faced, dim-witted persona carries through many of his films, on into the Laurel and Hardy era, but it's fascinating to watch that develop as producers pushed him as a kind of Buster Keaton knock-off. While Laurel's solo films don't quite have the same visionary comedic prowess that Keaton was working with at the time, sharp-eyed Laurel and Hardy fans will notice the seeds of ideas that would later be explored in some of the duo's classic comedies taking root here. Pay attention to Stan's workplace hijinx in 1922's The Egg, and how they presage the sawmill antics of 1933's L & H classic, Busy Bodies. Laurel was often considered the creative brains behind the operation, while Hardy was more of an affable actor-for-hire, which is perhaps why Laurel's films feel more like a staging ground for better things down the road. 


Yet neither Laurel or Hardy would find the success on their own that they would ultimately find together, and there often seems to be something missing from this collection of curios, and that's each other. Laurel needed Hardy as much as Hardy needed Laurel, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when watching them perform solo. These aren't bad films by any stretch of the imagination, but they lack the spark that the two found when working as a team. Flicker Alley's beautifully restored Blu-Ray set is a must-have for fans of Laurel and Hardy, if for know other reason than to discover why they worked so well together by understanding what they lacked apart. Laurel and Hardy films have a special kind of magic, that rare spark of two performers who each brought to the table something the other lacked, and managed to achieve greatness together. Laurel and Hardy were lighting in a bottle, and here we get to see their humble beginnings in one fantastic package. 


Laurel Or Hardy: Early Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is now available from Flicker Alley!

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