Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the epitome of movie comedy teams, a study in contrasts that meshed with such remarkable cohesion, their films inspired as much love as they did laughter. When they left the Hal Roach studios after completing two features in 1940, they found a home at the prestigious 20th Century Fox. It was there that the boys discovered working in a major Hollywood studios was more rigid and impersonal than the homey feeling at Roach, where comedy specialists abounded. Comedy had changed. The silent screen throwbacks like Laurel and Hardy seemed archaic among the rat-a-tat dialog of Abbott and Costello or Bob Hope. The boys had to adapt for the times. Some could not manage to do so. Laurel and Hardy did just fine.
Fox Home Video has released the final three of six features Laurel and Hardy made for that studio during the 1940s. Fox executives couldn’t be bothered too much with the B productions by a couple of silent movie throwbacks, so the boys had to find their niche within the trappings of a big studio and a new comic style.
The earliest film on this new set, "A-Haunting We Will Go," is really not a Laurel and Hardy movie at all. Fox’s B department specialized in mysteries such as the Charlie Chan series, and that is what this picture is. It’s a tight little B mystery filled with such familiar faces as Richard Lane, Mantan Moreland, Elisha Cook Jr, and Addison Richards. It can be (and has been) described as a Fox B mystery in which Laurel and Hardy happen to appear — not essentially a Laurel and Hardy movie. If approached on those terms, "A-Haunting We Will Go" is actually rather enjoyable.
"The Dancing Masters," however, is very much a Laurel and Hardy comedy with throwback gags from earlier films, and a good supply of solid laughs. The boys are dance instructors who run their own studio, get involved with gangsters, and also become acquainted with a young couple who are trying to patent a ray gun for the war effort. Absurd and episodic, but loaded with fun moments, "The Dancing Masters" concludes with a wild runaway bus sequence that makes the best of Ollie’s great reactions, and exhibits the worst in B movie back-projection effects. Stan posing as a foreign scientist, answering questions with lines like "alakazam bazooka smorgasbord" is another of the highlights. Welcome appearances by the likes of Margaret Dumont and a very young pre-stardom Robert Mitchum add to the fun.
"The Bullfighters" is the best one on this collection, and perhaps the best of their later films. It is Laurel and Hardy comedy in the grand tradition. As a couple of detectives in Mexico chasing down an elusive blonde criminal, it is discovered that Stan is the exact lookalike of a famous matador. When the matador does not show for the big bullfight, Stanley must take his place. Stan took a turn behind the camera here, directing two slapstick highlights, including a reworking of their egg-breaking bit. The film’s conclusion is a letdown, until the surreal final shot, showing Laurel’s penchant for offbeat gag endings.
The films on this collection are beautifully restored from elements in the Fox vaults. Extras include commentary from noted Laurel and Hardy experts Randy Skretvedt and Scott MacGillivray.
The best screen performers are usually capable of rising above even the most unlikely material and bolstering any production in which they’re involved. Laurel and Hardy may have been out of place in a film like "A-Haunting We Will Go," but they rise to the occasion and add a bit of pleasant, seasoned hijinks to what is otherwise a very pleasant B mystery. The other films in this collection, "The Dancing Masters" and "The Bullfighters" allow the boys to recreate some of their best comedy bits while still offering a more updated style that befit the 1940s era perfectly and holds up just fine today. These films may be a bit different in execution than their silent classics of nearly twenty years before, and the boys are older and a bit less spry, but their timeless artistry remains evident. These three funny films are recommended to anyone who wants to open the door and peek into an era where such silliness could effectively provide a good time for any age.