If any top drawer film comedian of the 1930s or 1940s is as poorly represented on DVD as are Laurel and Hardy, I’d sure like to hear about it. In order to get most of their films, fans have had to invest in all region DVD players and purchase Region 2 discs from overseas.
I would like to think that may be changing with the release, within one week of each other, of two Laurel and Hardy collections.
The first, from Fox Home Entertainment’s classics division, offers three feature films: Great Guns (1941), Jitterbugs (1943), and The Big Noise (1944). It is the DVD debut for each of these films, while Jitterbugs was never even released on VHS.
The films Laurel and Hardy made at Twentieth Century Fox studios have suffered from an unfortunate bad reputation for many years. This reputation can not be justified. Styles in comedy had changed by the 1940s. The old style silent-era slapstick gave way to the rat-a-tat brashness of Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope. In order not to appear like silent screen anachronisms, Laurel and Hardy had to modify their style. More dialog is evident, as is a bit more brashness. And, as would true professionals, the comedians rose to the occasion effectively. This is not to state that there is no characteristic Laurel and Hardy humor in the Fox features. There are plenty of real opportunities for the duo to shine in their inimitable style. The settings are different than they had been in the twenties and thirties, the pace is a bit faster, and the boys are a bit older and decidedly a tad less spry. But they are still delightfully amusing at every turn.
Great Guns is a military comedy, characteristic of the era. Made before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the war in Europe was an imminent threat, Great Guns takes the boys through basic training and war games maneuvers with plenty of stops for solid laughs. The scene where a pet crow disrupts an inspection and is concealed in Oliver’s pants to avoid notice by the brass is priceless Laurel and Hardy humor of discomfort. Their reworking of the lumber carrying bit during a bridge building sequence is another highlight. Great Guns was made to capitalize on the success Abbott and Costello enjoyed earlier in the year with Buck Privates. It was only fitting that the greatest comedy team of all be put through their paces in a military comedy. Great Guns is also a real audience-pleaser, as much today as it had been when first released.
Jitterbugs has always been an oddball effort in the Laurel and Hardy canon. While it is fascinating in that it allows both Stan and Oliver to extend their range as actors, it is a very subtle and decidedly uncharacteristic film. It has often been embraced as their best movie of this period because of the opportunities it provides Oliver to play a dignified southern gentleman and allows Stan to camp it up as a dress-clad dowager, these disguises being donned to outwit con men. Certainly more interesting than funny, Jitterbugs is actually the weakest film in this set. It produces pleasant smiles throughout, but not the hearty laughs found in other Laurel and Hardy comedies.
The Big Noise is a certified scream, filled with surreal gags and unbridled enthusiasm. A wacky inventor creates a highly powerful explosive that he wants to give to the American government to use in the war effort. Laurel and Hardy are the detectives he has hired to guard the bomb from ever-present enemy spies. And within that framework, we see the boys at odds with a push-button room, trying to undress in a cramped upper birth while traveling by train, taking off for a wild ride in an airplane that is being used for target practice by the military, and an ending that combines a hit song of the era with comic surrealism all under the guise of patriotism. And, yes, the little boy in this movie is a young Robert Blake.
The Laurel and Hardy collection from Fox also has a welcome spate of special features, including trailers from many of the Fox films, and commentary for each feature from noted entertainment historical Randy Skretvedt. The films are mastered from the best possible materials and offer sharp picture and crisp sound. The quality is a little less on some of the special feature trailers, but often publicity materials do not survive in the best of condition. This is a wonderful group of films from what I would consider to be the funniest comedians in movie history. Most highly recommended.
However my lauding of the Fox collection is not to discount the TCM Laurel and Hardy collection from Warner Home Video. Warner’s classics division has been highly impressive with their releases of vintage films from MGM, Warner Brothers and RKO studios, often including period cartoons and short subjects as special features. This Laurel and Hardy collection is no exception.
The TCM Laurel and Hardy collection gives us two features: The Devil’s Brother (1933) and Bonnie Scotland (1935), as well as several Special Features containing clips of the duo from their many cameos in such all star productions as Hollywood Party and Pick a Star (their egg-breaking bit with Lupe Velez in the former is a side-splitter).
The Devil’s Brother is based on Balfe’s operetta Fra Diavolo, putting bumbling Stan and Oliver alongside the story’s notorious bandit. Stan’s "finger-wiggle" and "kneesie-earsie-nosie" bits are a delight, the drunken laughter bit is contagious, and those are just two of the many highlights in this very funny movie. The sub plot is a bit intrusive, and one must be a fan of the operetta to enjoy Dennis King’s singing as Diavolo. But these are hardly enough hindrance to overshadow the wonderful Laurel and Hardy comedy that is featured throughout.
Bonnie Scotland has the boys attempting to collect an inheritance and accidentally joining the Scottish regiment. Another film with an intrusive subplot (a boy-girl romance that is the absolute definition of tedium), but also one that contains too much great comedy for this to matter. Laurel and Hardy’s impromptu dance bit while picking up trash on punishment detail is one of the most delightful sequences in any of their films. The over-the-top, surreal ending, where the boys defeat the enemy with the help of angry bees, has to be seen to be believed.
Commentary by noted film historians Dick Bann and Leonard Maltin is interesting, enlightening, and informative. The Special Features section includes a clip from the elusive color feature from 1930, Rogue Song, a film that has been lost to the ravages of time. And, as with most Warner Home Video releases, the picture and sound quality are superb. This collection features Laurel and Hardy at their best, and is also most powerfully recommended.
If you have to choose just one of these Laurel and Hardy collections, refrain from buying something else and get both. The films from both collections offer a solid array of the duo’s work from different periods of their career and give a good overview of their timeless artistry. Perhaps I am dreaming when I hope that sales of these collections will inspire more Laurel and Hardy DVD releases from companies that are foolishly sitting on the films they made from 1929-1940, but do take solace in the fact that Fox Home Entertainment’s classics division is already at work on a volume two, slated for release later this year.