The sound-era comedy shorts of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have long been widely available on video. However, their silent era shorts have been difficult, if not altogether impossible, to find. These shorts have never appeared on television and most have never even been available on video. This is an unfortunate situation, for the silent comedies of Laurel and Hardy contain some of their most creative work. During the sound era, they would rework and polish many of the routines that they had first devised in their silent shorts. The basic premise of "We Faw Down" (1928), for example, was retooled into feature length in Sons of the Desert (1934). And they reworked "Angora Love" (1929) as the sound-era short "Laughing Gravy" (1931).
Now, Hal Roach Studios is in the process of releasing all the silent-era shorts of Laurel and Hardy on DVD. The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy: The Complete Collection is projected as a ten-volume series. The first six volumes are now available with each volume containing six shorts (for an average of two hours per disc).
Together, Laurel and Hardy made about 35 silent shorts. So that means, Laurel and Hardy appear as a team in three to four shorts on each disc in this series. The remainder of shorts come from their pre-team solo outings. Stan Laurel, in particular, made several dozen silent comedies, and Oliver Hardy (while not nearly as prolific as Laurel) appeared in many shorts as well (frequently as a villain). So Hal Roach Studios has a large group of comedies to choose from when compiling this set.
The sequencing of the shorts in this collection is haphazard. Chronology has been completely rejected, so it's difficult to trace the careers of Laurel and Hardy by using these DVDs. You'll need a guide, such as William Everson's The Complete Films of Laurel and Hardy, in order to understand how the careers of Laurel and Hardy developed and eventually merged. Before I began watching the discs, I put together a chronological list of the shorts contained in these three volumes and then did a lot of disc switching to restore the proper order. The extra work is worth it because it allows you to better understand how the screen personas of Laurel and Hardy evolved.
The first time Laurel and Hardy appeared in the same film it was 1919 and the short was "The Lucky Dog." Their appearance together in this short was wholly accidental. They were not yet a team and they wouldn't be a team for eight more years. "The Lucky Dog" is the happy result of chance. Laurel is the star of the film. He appears in virtually all the scenes, while Hardy only has a supporting role. They first meet in an alley when Laurel stumbles across a hold-up in progress. Hardy is busy emptying the pockets of a gentlemen when Laurel happens by, chasing "the lucky dog" of the title. In a fortuitous turn, Hardy stuffs the loot into his pocket--only it's not his pocket. Laurel stands so close that Hardy accidentally slips the wad of bills into Laurel's pocket by mistake. This not-so-subtle blending of Hardy into Laurel would become a frequent characteristic of their comedies. In "Angora Love" (1929), for example, Hardy's feet hurt so he closes his eyes and begins to massage a foot--only to discover he's actually massaging Laurel's foot by mistake.
Between "The Lucky Dog" and Laurel and Hardy's official union in (1927), eight years passed. During those years, Laurel and Hardy appeared separately in a variety of shorts. A good sampling of these early shorts (including "The Lucky Dog") is represented on the first six volumes of The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy. Laurel's starring roles frequently bore little resemblance to the character he would play once teamed with Hardy. In "Roughest Africa" (1923), a parody of travelogues, he plays an intrepid explorer who takes on an entire pride of lions. In "Oranges and Lemons" (1923), he plays a mischievous sprite who wreaks havoc at a fruit packaging plant. In "On the Front Page" (1926), he plays a straight-laced butler who eventually loosens up a little bit thanks to a husband-consuming vamp (Lillian Roth). And in "Hustling for Health" (1918), he plays a character in the Charlie Chaplin mold. He even gets the girl in the end. Meanwhile, Hardy took supporting roles in the comedies of several other comedians, including several Charley Chase shorts, such as "Fluttering Hearts" (1927), "Crazy Like a Fox" (1926), and "Bromo and Juliet" (1926).
Hardy also had supporting roles in several Glenn Tryon shorts at Hal Roach Studios. Roach hoped Tryon could fill the shoes vacated by the recent departure of Harold Lloyd. In Tryon's "Along Came Auntie" (1926), Hardy played the third-billed lead. But Tryon never captured a big audience and his shorts are primarily known today for the presence of Hardy.
Once Laurel and Hardy both signed on with Hal Roach Studios in late 1926, they occasionally appeared together in the same comedy shorts. The first such film was a Glenn Tryon short called "45 Minutes to Hollywood" (1926). The short is noteworthy as the first Hal Roach comedy to bring together Laurel and Hardy; however, they weren't yet a team, so the characters they play bear little resemblance to the characters they would eventually play in a series of classics shorts and feature films. Hardy plays a hotel detective who frantically pursues Tryon. He is eventually led to a hotel room where Stan Laurel plays a small role as a guest "too hungry to sleep, too wobbly to get up." Festooned with a huge mustache (like James Finlayson might have worn), Laurel wrestles with intruders in his room. But Hardy remains locked out in the hallway while the commotion takes place within, so Laurel and Hardy actually share no scenes in this short.
Next up, Hal Roach tackled a comedy short written by Stan Laurel (based on a sketch by Stan's father). The resulting short, "Duck Soup" (1927), was difficult to view and feared lost for several decades, until a print surfaced in Europe in 1974. Now, in this first-ever authorized commercial release of "Duck Soup," audiences can experience the first short that paired Laurel and Hardy together. No longer were they playing second banana roles for Hal Roach. This short thrust them together in starring roles. They play a down on their luck pair who try to avoid becoming part of a hobo roundup by taking refuge in a mansion. The master of the property has left on business, so Stan and Laurel must deal with troublesome prospective lessors--with hilarious results. "Duck Soup" was remade in the sound era as "Another Fine Mess."
This initial pairing of Laurel and Hardy was temporary. In "Love 'Em and Weep" (1927), for example, Laurel gets the leading role opposite James Finalyson. Mae Busch plays a floozy who attempts to blackmail Finlayson. They had a dalliance several years previously and now she's ready to let Finlayson's wife know about it--unless he shells out several thousand dollars. To try and distract her, Finlayson insists that his employee, Laurel, escort Busch to a restaurant: "You have a powerful control over women," he says, but we know it's a lie. So does Laurel. He breaks into what may well be the first weepy cry of his career. Meanwhile Hardy, fourth billed, has little to do but react as a dinner party guest at Finlayson's mansion once Busch storms in. It includes a very funny bit where Laurel and Finlayson try to escort the unconscious Busch out of the house: Finlayson bends over and supports her on his back. Her coat envelopes Finlayson. It looks as if she's walking upright--if you don't pay attention to the hairy, bowed legs peeking out from beneath the coat's hem. Three years later, Laurel and Hardy would remake "Love 'Em and Weep" as "Chickens Come Home," but in the remake, significantly, Hardy would take Finlayson's role.
It's difficult to pin down the single comedy short where Laurel and Hardy become an official team. Some critics and fans opt for "Do Detectives Think?", while others name "Putting on Philip," and yet others name "Duck Soup." The truth is all these shorts were important in one way of another in solidifying the Laurel and Hardy team. But during this early period, Hal Roach also placed them in shorts that were throwbacks to their pre-union status. "Sugar Daddies," for example, was filmed and released after "Do Detectives Think?", but in it Laurel and Hardy don't pal around. They each have their own separate lives. But gradually Hal Roach came to realize that Laurel and Hardy worked best when working together.
"Do Detectives Think?" (1927) introduced Laurel and Hardy in their standard costumes, suits topped by bowler hats. It also featured James Finlayson in the second banana role, a role he would repeat often, much to his chagrin (for he was frequently on the receiving end of their wrath). "Do Detectives Think?" features a wonderful bit of comedy in which the wind blows off both Laurel's hat and Hardy's hat. In the confusion, they pick up the wrong ones. Several minutes later, they're still struggling to get the hats exchanged properly. With a little unintentional sleight of hand, Laurel somehow manages to keep returning his own hat into Hardy's hands. Hardy's big bowler slides down over Laurel's ears, while Laurel's narrow bowler sits high on Hardy's crown.
Immediately after the success of "Do Detectives Think?", Laurel and Hardy starred in "Flying Elephants" (1927)--a short which doesn't allow Laurel and Hardy to interact until near the end. It's a stone age tale (the only non-contemporary comedy short that they both starred in) where Stan and Oliver must follow an edict handed down by King Ferdinand (i.e., the head caveman). The edict says all men from 13 to 95 must get married within 24 hours "under penalty of banishment and death--or both!" But Stan's character bears little resemblance to the one he would play when teamed with Hardy. Here, he prances like a little sprite: "Spring is here. The buttercups are calling me," he says. Eventually, Laurel and Hardy battle for the affections of the same woman.
"Sugar Daddies" (1927) is built around one of the gags from "Love 'Em and Weep"--except this time Laurel (dressed in drag) is placed upon Finlayson's back. And instead of a simple party exit, Finlayson must carry his burden through an amusement park while an escaped murderer pursues him. Unlike their classic comedies to come, Stan and Ollie aren't friends in "Sugar Daddies," and they have little time to work together.
While waiting for the hair on their shaved heads to grow back after the prison comedy "The Second Hundred Years" (not included in the first six volumes of this DVD series), Laurel and Hardy made cameo appearances in a Max Davidson comedy called "Call of the Cuckoo" (1927). Along with Charley Chase and James Finlayson, they play loonies at a "training school for radio announcers: The quicker they go daffy, the sooner they get a diploma." They cavort on the lawn next door to Davidson's house and drive him into moving.
In 1928, Laurel and Hardy perfected their team. They created a string of classic comedies that placed them among the most popular of all silent comedians.
"Putting Pants of Philip" is one of their funniest efforts. However, Laurel and Hardy aren't playing their typical characters. Hardy plays a well-respected man about town who meets his Scottish nephew at New York harbor and is shocked to find the kilt-wearing Stan. Whenever he sees a good-looking woman, Stan does a scissors kick and takes off in pursuit. Soon a crowd of spectators begins following them around the streets, much to Ollie's chagrin, who would prefer if Stan would walk several steps behind. He doesn't want to be associated with this galoot. When asked to name his favorite comedy short, Oliver Hardy picked "Putting Pants of Philip." This short contains several choice bits of comedy, but the best involves a blast of air from a sidewalk grate that lifts Stan's kilt--and causes several young women to faint.
From "Leave 'Em Laughing" (1928) throughout the remainder of their silent comedies, Laurel and Hardy consistently played the same characters in each short. They had discovered characters who played well off each other, so they stuck to those characterizations while perfecting their interactions.
"Leave 'Em Laughing" breaks into three parts. In the first part, Stan and Laurel try to sleep, but Stan's toothache cause problems. (The following year, this first section would be reworked into an entire 20 minute short as "They Go Boom.") Part two places them at a dentist's office, where Stan's aversion to pain causes more problems. (This second section would be reworked in their first feature, Pardon Us.) And part three fills them with laughing gas. As they try to drive home, they frequently break into hysterics, causing havoc for traffic cop Edgar Kennedy. (This final section would be repeated in County Hospital.)
"The Finishing Touch" (1928) is an archetypal Laurel and Hardy comedy. The boys play contractors hired to finish work on a house. The owner offers them 500 extra dollars if they'll finish the job by noon. That's all there is to the plot. The camera simply watches as they go work. Hardy stuffs some nails in this mouth, preparing to do some serious nailing; however, Laurel removes a box and Hardy crashes to the ground. Gulp! Hardy takes a break by reading a newspaper while perched on the end of a plank; however, Laurel decides to saw the plank. Crash! Down goes Hardy in a heap. Edgar Kennedy drops by as a policeman ordering the boys to keep the commotion down: there's a hospital next door. But a bucket of glue falls off the roof onto Kennedy, followed by a couple dozen wood shingles--which quickly become adhered to Kennedy as he does a slow burn. Even a nurse from next door takes a tumble into a whitewash trough. No one's dignity is spared in "The Finishing Touch." Laurel and Hardy would revisit this territory frequently in their careers, while assuming different vocations--chimney sweeps, piano delivery men, sawmill workers, etc.
"Their Purple Moment" (1928) is "dedicated to husbands who hold out part of the pay envelope on their wives -- and live to tell about it." Portraits of marital less-than-bliss would frequently becomes a foil for Laurel and Hardy's comedy. In this outing, Stan has been squirreling away three dollars a week from his pay check for several months. Now he and Ollie are ready to take the cash and paint the town red. But Stan's wife has already discovered his hiding place and replaced Stan's stash with coupons. Stan doesn't discover the ruse until he and Ollie have rolled up an impressive tab.
Throughout most of their comedies together, Laurel faced the indignities heaped upon him with great patience. But every so often, his anger boiled. When it released, the results were frequently hilarious. "Early to Bed" (1928) is one of those film. The short starts innocently enough with Laurel and Hardy sitting on a park bench, but after Hardy reads a letter he turns to Laurel: "I'm rich! My uncle has left me a fortune," he says. Stan begins to cry. "What's to become of me?" he asks. Therefore, Oliver invites him to be his butler. (Does that really sound like a good idea?) Soon, Oliver becomes a major pest to Laurel. He always wants to party. When he comes home after a night out drinking, he won't let Laurel be. He wakes him up, pours water on him, and wrestles with him on the floor. Stan has had enough of this routine, but Ollie won't let him resign. So Stan tries to get fired. He breaks vases, he kicks furniture, he pulls down curtains, and he throws chairs through plate glass windows. Eventually, he unleashes his anger on Ollie. He begins chasing him while swinging a fireplace shovel. This leads to one of Laurel and Hardy's all-time great sight gags: Oliver hides in a fountain, replacing the head of a cherub with his own. He even manages to spout a stream of water like the other cherub heads. However, Stan becomes suspicious and watches the heads. Eventually, Ollie runs out of water. Stan thinks it must be a mechanical failure, so he smacks the head several times with a shovel!
"Habeas Corpus" (1928) returns Laurel and Hardy to a cemetery -- as in "Do Detectives Think?" A nutty professor needs bodies for his experiments so he hires Stan and Ollie to dig up a few graves. Significantly, we don't even need to see Laurel and Hardy to recognize their presence. We only see a close-up of hands knocking on a door, but the hesitant motions of Stan and the circular, take-charge motions of Ollie are unmistakable. The graveside shenanigans in "Habeas Corpus" are fairly conventional stuff with few surprises. But this short features a priceless bit of comedy involving Oliver's attempts to boost Stan over the cemetery wall, with unfortunate (but hilarious) results.
"We Faw Down" (1928) is another archetypal Laurel and Hardy comedy. It gives us Laurel and Hardy as married men reluctantly spending the day with their wives. However, the lure of a poker games proves too strong and they devise a story in order to get away: the boss wants them to go to the Orpheum Theatre. The wives scowl suspiciously as the boys stumble out the front door. Does this plot sound familiar? It's essentially the same story they would tell in their classic feature-length comedy Sons of the Desert. However, instead of going to a theater, in Sons of the Desert they are supposedly going on a sea cruise. But the results are the same. In "We Faw Down," the wives learn that the theater has burned down, and in Sons of the Desert, the wives learn that the ship capsized. In both cases, the boys return home, oblivious to the dangers they would have suffered--and the grief they put their wives through. That grief has now turned into anger over the deception.
In "Liberty" (1929), Laurel and Hardy ventured into territory frequented by Harold Lloyd. They end up balancing on the girders of a high-rise office building, desperately trying to find their way back down again but only getting further and further into trouble. It's the high-wire antics that most people remember about "Liberty," but the best comedy comes in the setup: when Laurel and Hardy breakout of jail, their accomplice hands them a new set of clothes, but the pants get mixed up. They discover this only after they're already wearing each other's pants, so they must find somewhere to change. They try an alley, but a lady pokes her head out of a window and screams. A cop sees them unbuttoning their pants and he chases them. A lobster falls into Laurel's pants, causing him to jump in surprise with each nip of the lobster's claws. Eventually, they try changing at a construction site only to discover they are in an elevator headed to the top floor. Filmed high above Los Angeles by director Leo McCarey and cameraman George Stevens and utilizing camera angles that enhanced the illusion of danger, "Liberty" is one of Laurel and Hardy's most inventive comedies.
"Wrong Again" (1929) is built upon a classic misunderstanding. Hardy is a stable boy who overhears two men talking about the stolen "Blue Boy." Hardy assumes they're talking about a horse, also named "Blue Boy." So he and Laurel return the horse to its owner. "Put him on the piano," says the owner. Stan and Ollie hesitate only briefly before they proceed to do exactly as the owner requested.
"That's My Wife" (1929) gives us a familiar scenario: a man (Hardy) must convince a wealthy relative he is happily married. However, Hardy's wife has just walked out on him, thanks to the hanger-on guest (Laurel) who Hardy has failed to kick out. "He's untidy," says Hardy's wife. "He eats grapes in bed!" So Laurel dresses as Hardy's wife. "She's not much to look at but she's a clown," says Hardy to wealthy Uncle Bernal.
"Big Business" (1929) is one of the all-time great comedies. The Library of Congress even placed it on their list of 100 American films officially designated as American classics. As in "The Finishing Touch," the plot is exceptionally simple. Stan and Ollie play door-to-door Christmas tree salesman who run into a particularly tough customer (James Finlayson). Eventually, the customer tires of their efforts. He uses a set of shears to reduce a Christmas tree to kindling. So there! But Laurel and Hardy won't take this lying down. Soon they and Finlayson trade turns demolishing each other's property. Before long Laurel and Hardy are throwing his furniture into the front yard, while Finlayson reduces their car to a pile of rubbish.
"Double Whoopee" (1929) is another of Laurel and Hardy's most famous comedies. It places them as a footman and a doorman, respectively, at a posh hotel. A Prussian prince is on his way in when Laurel and Hardy show up for work: "There is some reason to believe that they may be competent," says their letter of introduction. The prince is a scowling, monocled martinet who has blown into town because he wants to make "whoopee," or so he tells the crowd in the theater lobby. Modeled after Erich von Stroheim in Foolish Wives, the prince looks dignified, in a nazi-ish sort of fashion, but much of the comedy is aimed at stripping away that dignity--by sending him crashing to the bottom of an open elevator shaft not once but three separate times! This short is filled with great bits, but the most famous involves Jean Harlow. She arrives in a cab in front of the hotel. Hardy greets her and offers to escort her to the front desk: "Might I presume that you would condescend to accept my escourtage?" Oliver says. Thanks to Stan's unfortunate timing, the car door slams on her dress--but she doesn't realize it as the dress rips away. Now wearing only a slip, she sashays across the lobby. In addition, frequent foil Charles Hall plays a cabby who Hardy inadvertently signals with a puff on a whistle: "It blew," says Hardy sheepishly. Soon Hall and Hardy begin a demolition routine reminiscent of "Big Business"--buttons are pulled off, cap bills are ripped loose, Hardy's whistle is crushed under Hall's heel--but before Hardy's uniform is completely demolished, a policeman runs off Hall. But my favorite piece of comedy involves Stan helping to fix a hotel customer's collar: he holds the customer's coat and gives the collar a yank only to discover he's now holding an entire shirt in his hand. Astonished, the customer opens up his coat to reveal a bare chest. And later, after Stan has become irritated after losing his coat to Harlow--leaving him standing in his long underwear in the lobby--the customer confronts him: Stan scowls, rips out a patch of hair from the man's chest, and then stuffs it in the customer's vest! "Double Whoopee" represents Laurel and Hardy at their absolute best.
In 1929, Hal Roach Studios gave in to the public's demand for sound productions. While Laurel and Hardy easily made the transition to sound, Hal Roach was less certain about what to do with several silent productions that were already finished. "Bacon Grabbers" and "Angora Love" -- both filmed without sound -- sat on the shelf for over six months while five Laurel and Hardy sound shorts were released.
Amongst all the comedies collected in The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy, "They Go Boom" (1929) comes as a surprise. Finally, we get to hear Laurel and Hardy talk. And when we do hear them, it's obvious how well-suited they were for sound. Their voices are a perfect complement to their characterizations
"They Go Boom" returns to a situation first developed in "Leave 'Em Laughing." Stan and Ollie try to get a night's sleep but Hardy's sniffles keep them awake--or rather Stan's efforts to help his friend keep them awake. Incredibly simple premises, like this one, would become a hallmark of Laurel and Hardy's comedies. Whereas "Leave 'Em Laughing" starts with Laurel and Hardy trying to sleep -- but quickly moves on -- "They Go Boom" spends its entire running time in their apartment, with the camera typically turned toward the bed. Thanks to the addition of sound, time slows down in Laurel and Hardy's world. Now, we experience the over-bearing pleading of Oliver: "Don't stand there looking so dumb. Do something for me!" he yells. And we can experience the air-headed assuredness of Stan: "I know just what you have. You have the sniffles," he tells Oliver, reciting simply the obvious. (While most surviving copies of "They Go Boom" are burdened with noisy optical soundtracks, the soundtrack for this version was prepared by returning to the original 16" Vitaphone discs. As a result, this is the best "They Go Boom" has sounded since its original release.)
While "They Go Boom" was released, "Bacon Grabbers" and "Angora Love" (both 1929) both collected dust on a shelf. When they were released, silent pictures were dead. So both films only received cursory engagements before disappearing. One sign of the studio's lack of interest in "Bacon Grabbers" is the musical soundtrack. While most Laurel and Hardy comedies received orchestrated scores, "Bacon Grabbers" received just a pipe organ and a few synchronized sound effects. Because of this disinterest, "Bacon Grabbers" was on the brink of decomposition when it was printed onto safety film in the late '60s. Of all the Hal Roach Studios productions included in this set, "Bacon Grabbers" is in the worst condition, but it's still very watchable. It represents a return to "Big Business" territory. It's the story of two repo men (Stan and Ollie) sent to repossess Edgar Kennedy's radio. But soon a battle of "wits" develops. Jean Harlow has a small role as Kennedy's wife.
While "Angora Love" (1929) drags in spots and suffers in comparison to many of their best comedies, it nonetheless contains several priceless routines--such as when the boys try to bathe a goat in their apartment, while the suspicious landlord (Edgar Kennedy) keeps interrupting them. Many of the gags in "Angora Love" would be duplicated in their sound short "Laughing Gravy."
"Unaccustomed As We Are" (1929) comes from the period where Laurel and Hardy were transitioning to sound. In fact several scenes are so reliant upon dialogue (check out the hallway conversation with Thelma Todd) that a barrage of title cards must be utilized. This clumsy sequence reveals that this short was actually filmed as a sound short, but the version included on this DVD collection is a back-modified version, originally created for those theaters that had not yet upgraded for sound equipment. (Volume 7 will include the sound version of "Unaccustomed As We Are.")
The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardyhas been mastered from the best surviving sources. In many cases, this means original nitrate camera negatives were used, and for several shorts, the musical accompaniment and sound effects were provided by using the original "Vitaphone" soundtracks.
This is a great collection; however, one nagging problem affects several shorts -- over-matting. This becomes a large problem on "Putting Pants on Philip," which contains one of the greatest sight gags of Laurel and Hardy's career. Laurel plays a Scottish lad visiting in New York who walks over a sidewalk grate when a gust of air sends his kilt skywards. Soon he attracts a crowd of onlookers. After losing his shorts (thanks to a sneeze!), Laurel steps on another grate and but the grate is cropped off the bottom of the screen! So we can't tell what has happened until we see the women onlookers fainting. This is the unfortunate result of an inattentive mastering job. For the most part, though, the shorts on this DVD collection look great.
Another huge bonus is the ample supply of Charley Chase shorts included as part of this collection. Oliver Hardy had supporting roles in several Chase comedies, so several of these comedies have been collected as part of this set. "Fluttering Hearts" in particular is one of the great silent comedies.
On the inner sleever of each volume, you'll find insightful notes on each short, as well as original poster artwork. I anxiously await the remainder of the volumes.
The first six volumes of Hal Roach Studios'
"The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy: The Complete Collection"
are now available on DVD (distribution by Image Entertainment).
This set is projected as a ten-volume series that will include
all of Laurel and Hardy's silent comedies, as well as a selection
of their solo silent outings. Suggested retail price for each
volume: $29.99. For additional information, we suggest you check
out the Image Entertainment