"Way Out West" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
Well, this is it. My last review for the month of April and the end to my month long dedication to classic comedies. We end on a high note. I've saved the best for last.
Throughout the month I've written about Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Bob Hope among others. All great and talented comedians but now I will discuss my absolute all time favorite comedy team. My childhood heroes.
I wonder if any of my readers have something so special to them they hate to hear an opposing viewpoint on it. Say a favorite song, poem, piece of music, cherished memory. Anything. I have such things. I understand it takes all different types to make up a world. There are two sides to every story we are told. Yet, there are certain things in my life which carry so much importance to me I simply am unable (not unwilling, there's a difference) to see the opposing viewpoint. Laurel & Hardy is one of those things.
My earliest childhood memories include me watching Laurel & Hardy. I have no idea when I first saw them in a movie. I have no idea what it was exactly that appealed so strongly to a three year old but they were my idols. Sure some young boys want to grow up and be policemen, firefighters, maybe they even want to grow up and be like their dad. That's all fine and noble but I wanted to be just like Laurel & Hardy.
I wrote about "the boys", as they are sometimes called, once before. During the month of December I reviewed their comedy "March of the Wooden Soldiers" (1934) because of its holiday appeal. But I talked about the film in relation to its holiday appeal instead of focusing more on the comedy team's ability. So in a sense this is my first true review of Laurel & Hardy.
Most fans of the team often cite "Sons of the Desert" (1933) as their best film. It is a good movie and has some funny bits but it was never my favorite. For me it has always been a toss up between "The Devil's Brother" (1933) and "Way Out West" (1937). "The Devil's Brother" I feel is technically a better film. Better production design, more plot, better acting and stronger directing. But "Way Out West" is funnier and features more famous gags by the team. Some of the most popular routines they ever did are in this film. This, in my opinion, makes "Way Out West" have the most broad appeal. Fans of the team enjoy it and those who have never seen a Laurel & Hardy comedy (who exactly are these people?) before can enjoy it as well. It perfectly sets up the team's relationship. You come to understand immediately what each man's role was.
"Way Out West" is very light on plot. I can describe it all in a few sentences. "The boys" are sent to deliver a deed to a gold mine to Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) after her father has died. They arrive in the town of Brushwood Gulch seeking her out. They have never met her before. Her guardians; saloon owner Mickey Finn (James Finlayson) and his cabaret star wife, Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynn) dupe "the boys" into believing Lola is really Mary Roberts. Once they learn of their mistake the team must get back the deed.
It's not Shakespeare but it doesn't need to be. What "Way Out West" does is provide comedy sequences for the team which delay the progression of the plot. The whole story could have been told in 20 minutes but it wouldn't be as funny as it is now.
Stan Laurel said the idea behind the film was to make a comedy with as little plot and dialogue as possible. You must remember the team got their start in the silent days of comedy. So that wasn't a big stretch for them. Laurel wanted to make a comedy that was purely about the comedy. The risk paid off. At the time of the film's release, several critics claimed the film was one of the team's best.
The film was directed by James W. Horne. It is widely known however that Stan Laurel was the driving force behind the team. He would edit the films, have a hand in writing them and probably had a hand in the directing. Every Laurel & Hardy comedy, whether it is a two-reeler or a feature film, has the same look to them. Though directing credit is given to a number of different people.
The script was by Charles Rogers and Felix Adler. I've written about Adler a few times already this month. He wrote for Harold Lloyd in the comedy "Welcome Danger" (1929), the Three Stooges, their short comedy masterpiece, "Disorder in the Court" (1936) and for Laurel & Hardy, "Saps at Sea" (1940). Rogers was a writer and director. For Laurel & Hardy he wrote "Our Relations" (1936) and "Swiss Miss" (1938) and is credited as directing "The Devil's Brother".
"Way Out West" also marked one of the few times (it only happened twice) that Stan Laurel was given "producer" credit. At least acknowledging his creative input.
In their day Laurel & Hardy were not critical darlings. They had strong public support but elitist critics, likes those at "Variety" or "New York Times" criticized their every effort. Their humor was seen as too low-brow. They did anything for laugh. Their comedy lacked the social message of a Chaplin film. It lacked the technical inventiveness of a Buster Keaton comedy. But most people would say Laurel & Hardy provided more belly laughs than most of their contemporaries. The great comedian Steve Allen once said "Chaplin was the greatest comedian of all time. Laurel & Hardy were the funniest."
As I mentioned the team got their start in silent cinema. Both were originally solo acts. Laurel would write and star in his own shorts though never found much success. Producer Hal Roach however kept him on staff as a gag writer. Oliver Hardy, because of his physical appearance, often played "the heavy" or the bully opposite comics like Charley Chase or Larry Semon. Once in a while Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy would appear in the same short. Not as a team but as rivals. Sometimes they would no have scenes together. But around 1927 Hal Roach and Leo McCarey got the idea to pair the two as a team. Those early shorts; "The Finishing Touch", "Do Detectives Think?" and "Putting Pants on Philip" are good, some better than others. But for me it wasn't until 1929 the team really came together. They were always able to play off each other but it just took time to nail the characters. To understand what worked and what didn't. By the time sound pictures came to be, they were ready. Their persona was strongly in place.
By the time "Way Out West" came to be rumors were starting to circulate the team was going to split up. They were having contract difficulties with Hal Roach. Hardy even appear in a film without Laurel, "Zenobia" (1937) with Harry Langdon. But whatever the behind the scenes friction may have been the team still managed to put out a good film.
Memorable moments in the film include Laurel eating Hardy's hat after losing a bet. Laurel using his hand as a lighter. Two of the film's longest comedy sequences involve "the boys" attempt to get back the deed giving us the famous "haha/ho-ho/he-he" line and Stan being tickled into submission. Which is very similar to a moment in Harry Langdon's comedy "The Strong Man". We have the soft shoe dance and the block & tackle comedy sequence. I won't explain these moments in relation to the rest of the film because I think that would spoil the film. But keep your eyes open during these moments.
"Way Out West" is truly one of the masterpieces of cinema.