For those of us not lucky enough to have experienced the 2004 mammoth 21-DVD United Kingdom box set, containing superb transfers of ALL the existing Laurel and Hardy Hal Roach-owned comedies, MVDvisual and Kit Parker Films (in cahoots with Jeff Joseph of SaBuCat/UCLA Film and Television Archive/The Film Foundation, The Library of Congress plus labor-of-love assist from Randy Skretvedt and Richard Bann) have come up with the perfect compromise, LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS.
This glorious 4-disc set, presenting the greatest comedy team ever for the first time in 1080p Blu-Ray quality (all titles remastered in 2K and 4K, from 35MM), only makes hope that this quartet is merely the first of a continuing series. In the meantime, we will relish these magnificent shorts and features in optimum picture and sound quality making the holiday season (or any season) just so much brighter.
Cherry-picked and comprising 17 Roach shorts and two features (plus the best looking versions of nebulous items like That’s That, a Roach-culled compilation made as a 1937 birthday present to Stan and the 1943 color Tree in a Test Tube, featuring Pete Smith narration, produced for the war effort), this set is (mostly) the best of the best. The two feature-length movies are 1933’s Sons of the Desert (my bid for one of the funniest comedies of all-time) and 1937’s Way Out West (another gem, superbly spoofing the Western genre). I would have perhaps opted for 1938’s Blockheads, but, hey, that’s what subsequent volumes are there for.
The shorts (spanning 1927-1933) are terrific choices, too, and include Brats, Hog Wild, Come Clean, Me and My Pal, One Good Turn, Helpmates, The Music Box, The Chimp, County Hospital, Scram!, Their First Mistake, The Midnight Patrol, Busy Bodies, Towed in a Hole and Twice Two. The crème de la crème of the collection aces out the aforementioned UK box via the spectacular virtually complete Blu-Ray debut of the once-thought lost classic, 1927’s Battle of the Century (only one brief segment is missing, and is covered by stills and intertitles). This anarchic short is not only everything we’ve wanted it to be, but it looks friggin’ gorgeous in this new transfer (an excellent score by Donald Sosin accompanies the visuals).
What made Stan and Ollie great has been chronicled in a gazillion books, but basically is their chemistry; you just KNEW these guys loved each other, even when they were fighting. They also represented the comedic force that begat chain reaction results from (supposedly) superior human specimens (pie fights, de-pant-ing, vehicular destruction…). They were kings of the late silent era (amazingly, the duo was simply thrown together by Roach for a couple of shorts, but clicked so well and fast that the inspired writing was on the wall). Their seamless drift into talkies further revealed that their Swiss watch timing wasn’t relegated to mere slapstick; the boys’ handling of dialog was just as good (and, treat above treat, occasionally graced us with Ollie’s fine singing voice).
Laurel and Hardy weren’t just a fantastic comedy team, they were comedy geniuses. Stan, often called the “brains of the pair” never failed to give his partner equal credit (“he could always make me laugh”). Indeed, in 1913, Stan toured with the Fred Karno troupe (that also included Chaplin), and, like, contemporary Buster Keaton, eventually “lived, breathed, ate and drank film.” But Hardy was no slouch either. He began a successful career behind the camera, functioning as Howard Hawks’ first a.d. Hawks often said that Hardy was the best assistant director he ever had, and often wished that the comedian had remained off-cam, as he would have evolved into a sensational director. Proof of that is via Ollie’s lasting contribution to cinema: the breaking of the fourth wall – that never-fails-to-crack-audiences-up reaction of staring into the camera. This brilliant device is so much a part of the cinematic landscape now, but he came up with it.
Naturally, no mention of Laurel & Hardy is complete without citing the regal Roach stock company, those wonderful faces and performers that really helped put those pics across, so it’s also grand to see Charlie Hall, Mae Busch, Billy Gilbert, Anita Garvin, Tiny Sanford, Vivien Oakland and last (but definitely not least), the outstanding James Finlayson. Have to likewise note that Leo McCarey wrote and directed many of these shorts – a hefty amount photographed by George Stevens. And we can’t leave out those unforgettable jazzy scores by that pair of gifted maestros, Marvin Hatley and LeRoy Shield.
While all of this is enough to warrant a purchase not only for yourself, but as gifts to comedy collectors, there are additional reasons to immediately grab a copy of this Blu-Ray: almost nine hours of extras, including audio commentaries (incorporating vintage recollections by L&H crew members), trailers, posters and photo galleries. Most interesting are the alternate versions of 1929’s Berth Marks and 1930’s Brats. While visually, the pics are identical, the audio is slightly different. In 1936, Roach and MGM remixed the soundtracks to feature more music (the versions that we grew up on). The original release prints, although inventive examples of early sound, had less music and audio effects. It’s fascinating to side-by-side them. My favorite supplement, however, could be a Super 8 sound filmed interview with Anita Garvin, ca. 1981!
Easily one of the top Blu-Ray discs of the year, LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS truly lives up to its title. So, what are you waiting for!?
LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS. Black and white. Full frame 1.32, 1.33, 1.37: 1 [1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LPCM. MVDvisual/Kit Parker Films/SaBu Cat/UCLA Film and Television Archive/The Film Foundation/The Library of Congress. CAT # MVD3582BR. SRP: $59.99.