Saturday, April 5, 2014

Goodbye, Stan and Ollie

In the past couple of years I have been busily crossing things off of my Bucket List — something that has both good and bad points. When you make one of those cross-outs, you get a good experience, if you’re lucky; but you also don’t have that experience to look forward to any longer. I suppose that if a person is being smart about it, they’re adding something new to their list every time they cross something off. A truly clean slate is a terrible thing to contemplate.

I’m remembering how sad I was when I realized, somewhere in my mid-forties, that I’d actually seen all the old Universal Monster Movies that had been unavailable to me for most of my life, that I didn’t have any more Monsters laying in wait for me up ahead. In the same way, it’s with mixed emotions that I report finally watching Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West for the first time. Long has it been on my radar. I probably first learned about it from William K. Everson’s terrific book about the team and their movies, of which I’ve owned a copy since my mid-teens. I can no longer tell you where I bought it or how it came into my hands, but I have returned to it many times over the years, and although it contains errors (Everson was writing about the films from memory, without the benefit of having VHS or DVD copies to refer to), it certainly helped to fuel my enthusiasm for the boy’s work, the way all good books on the cinema should. High anticipation can sometimes sabotage any given book or movie... thankfully, that didn't happen for me this time.

Way Out West a great picture of its type… but sadly it was the team’s de facto swan song. Stan Laurel was at this time producing the pictures himself, while Hal Roach’s role had been minimized to that of financier and producer, and this arrangement produced the best features that Laurel and Hardy ever made… but it was all about to come crashing down around their ears. The team had one more great picture ahead of them — 1938’s Blockheads — before Roach sold them downriver to MGM, where they became contract stars with no control over their material or how they were used. Both Stan and Ollie are beginning to show their age in Way Out West: it wasn’t long at all before Laurel and Hardy became more Sad than Funny. During their final pictures, illness and age reduced Stan to a visually painful state of fragility: you can’t laugh at someone who’s hurting that much. 

All the better, then, to have made Way Out West when they did. It is a Perfect Little Thing. As far as Laurel and Hardy goes, it amounts to a Statement of Principles. Its whisper-thin plot serves only as a clothes hanger to show off business, and the business has never been happier for the pair. Often excerpted as a clip, the sweet little softshoe that the boys perform early on is just the first of many highlights. Sharon Lynne’s attempt to get a deed off of Stanley’s person amount to the funniest and most joyful “bedroom scene” — and it is a bedroom scene — ever put on film. Jimmy Finlayson is on hand to do his antagonistic thing, and although conflicts between the him and the boys reached much more exaggeratedly violent heights in earlier movies (most notably in the short, Big Business), they’ve never been more satisfying.

Laurel and Hardy are at their best not when they are demonstrating how stupid people can be, but when they are trying their hardest to Do the Right Thing and be heroes, while everything they touch falls to pieces. Here in Way Out West, they’ve never tried harder to good and to be helpful to someone who deserves help… and they’ve never made a bigger mess out of it. 

Having seen Way Out West at long last, I’m so happy that it lives up to the hype as possibly their best movie. I know that I will watch it again, likely with increasing enjoyment on repeated viewings.

But like Dilsey in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, I’ve seen the first and the last. Only a couple of “new to me” Laurel and Hardy pictures remain, and none of them will measure up to this one. Another mountain climbed, another Great Thing done, finished… until now, I always knew that at least one great Laurel & Hardy was ahead of me down the road, something to look forward to. That time is over. The great age of these two giants has, at last, gone past me.

— Freder.

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