The names of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy should need no introduction, but the fact is that while they are a household name, few of their films and short features are well-known. Outside of fan clubs who organise showings, the films are rarely seen nowadays, rarely turn up on television and haven’t been well served by colourised, incomplete videotapes and inadequate DVD compilations made from TV broadcast tapes. While Image in the USA have made some attempt to restore their work, here in the UK Laurel & Hardy have found themselves in a similar situation to Charles Chaplin until the recent MK2/Warners Bros collection of his work. It must be hoped that Universal’s monster 21-disc collection of their films can similarly restore their reputation and bring their work to a newer audience and there is every reason to expect this to be the case. While Chaplin can be admired for his ingenuity, his innovation, and the social commentary that he brought to his comedy, Laurel & Hardy’s provide a more universal type of humour that can be enjoyed by anyone, without having to look for any pretensions or claims to art.
Stan and Ollie’s universal, sight-gag humour was developed during the 33 silent short films they made for Hal Roach between 1926 and 1929, where they demonstrated themselves to be the accident-prone masters of the pratfall, the double-take and slapstick violence. Between 1929 and 1935 they successfully made the transition to short talkies, being adept at the delivery of some terrific one-liners – although the humour remained primarily visual. Universal, on this particular DVD release, have rationed us to only four of the forty classic talkie short films made for Hal Roach upon which the duo’s reputation was established and in one or two cases, hardly bettered. All the shorts on Laurel & Hardy Volume 4 deal with Oliver in various states of matrimony; preparing to get married, getting jilted, getting married, being married and about to be divorced. Considering the troubles he goes though trying to get married, you might wonder how he proves to be such a draw with the women with Stanley there to ruin any romance. Even in the short film here where he actually is married (Helpmates), poor Ollie has an uphill struggle to keep the ‘lovely wife’ happy.
Beau Hunks (James W. Horne, 1931)
His heart broken by Jeanie-Weenie (that’s Jean Harlow in the photograph) who has called off their wedding, Ollie decides to join the Foreign Legion to try to forget her and takes Stanley along to forget also. Finding that half the regiment are also there to forget Jeanie, the boys realise their mistake but are unable to leave and instead find themselves sent out to Fort Arid to relieve the fort which is under siege from the Riffs.
Also known in the UK as Beau Chumps, this short film is an out-and-out classic, relying on funny dialogue (“You don’t believe me!”) rather than the usual sight-gags and faring rather better here than the 1939 remake, The Flying Deuces. Many however feel the unusual length of the four-reel film (which runs here on the black and white version to 35m40s with PAL speed-up) slightly too long for the material. Director James W Horne can be seen in the film as the Riffian Chieftain.
Our Wife (James W. Horne, 1931)
Ollie is about to be married to his loving Dulcy – until her father (the magnificent James Finlayson) sees Ollie's photograph and locks her in her room. Ollie has no choice but to arrange an elopement, but unfortunately he leaves Stanley in charge of the arrangements. One of the weaker L&H short films in my opinion, though I think I’m very much in a minority here, there are however some classic moments and a cameo appearance from Ben Turpin as the cross-eyed Justice of the Peace.
Helpmates (James Parrott, 1932)
Ollie receives an unexpected telegram. His wife is arriving home at noon after a trip to her mother’s in Chicago and the house is a complete mess from the big party that Ollie had thrown the previous night. Ollie enlists Stanley to help clear up. Needless to say, things can only get worse...
An absolutely hilarious film, considered by many to be one of the best Laurel & Hardy two-reelers, there are many memorable routines in the film, although one of them (Ollie putting his head through a cupboard drawer) is inexplicably (and completely unacceptably) cut from the colourised version. This 1980’s HRS colourised version of Helpmates also notoriously changes the opening titles and cuts the camera pan of the house in a mess to a series of three still dissolves, presumably to remove the badly damaged frames that can be seen in the black and white version and edits down Stan and Ollie’s phone conversation. It’s nothing less than an abomination of one of the duo’s finest films.
Me and my Pal (Charles Rogers, 1933)
Ollie is about to be married to the daughter of wealthy oil magnate Peter Cucumber (James Finlayson again), but Stan’s wedding present – a jigsaw puzzle – proves to be too much of a distraction for the groom and his entourage, when they should be on the way to the church.
A very, very simple premise that succeeds for the most part through the duo’s inspired comic timing and some inventive slapstick. Not their greatest short film, but it has enjoyable moments.
Laurel & Hardy Volume 4: Ollie and Matrimony - Classic shorts is released both as part of the twenty-one volume Laurel & Hardy Collection, but is also available to buy separately. According to the information on the DVD, each film has been “newly restored and painstakingly preserved”, transferred from the finest surviving 35mm elements and all are complete prints. The DVDs are encoded for Region 2 and 4.
Each of the films is presented in the original black & white and in colourised versions. The quality of the black & white versions varies, but they are generally very good. There are frequent minor dustspots and marks and on one or two of the films a few more serious scratches and tears, but in the main the prints are clean and intact with good greyscale tones. Beau Hunks shows more damage than most of the other films and the image is slightly softer, but is still quite acceptable. The other films are remarkably good quality, clean and relatively sharp with very little in the way of flaws.
The computer-colourised versions are a waste of space. They are simply not necessary and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to watch them this way, particularly considering the softening effect it has on the print, although this varies from film to film. Beau Hunks has half-way realistic colouring and actually benefits from considerable restoration, showing none of the marks or damage of the black and white version. Me and my Pal suffers from excessive colour bleed and digital artefacting causing objects to waver on the screen. Of all the colourised films Helpmates suffers the most, not only looking terrible in the colour version with digital noise reduction softening the print almost into a blur (see below) but it is also missing, as I mentioned above, some of the funniest scenes in the film. Apart from Helpmates, the colourised versions run almost a minute longer than their b&w versions, but as there are certainly no additional scenes in them, I would suspect that they have been transferred at a different frame-rate during the colourising process. I can see no good reason for the inclusion of the colourised versions at all on the DVD, but at least you have the intact original b&w prints.
The films retain their original Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack, channelled through the centre speaker. Voices are clear with background noise minimised, although again the extent of hiss varies from film to film. As a whole though, it is good to see that the original soundtracks have not been tampered with and remain clear and noise-free, particularly considering their age.
There are no extra features on this DVD and although the films stand on their own without any commentary being necessary, some additional effort along the lines of the Chaplin releases would have been appreciated. Each DVD in the Laurel & Hardy Collection comes however with a 16 page booklet. As this was not included with the advance discs we received for review, I can’t comment on their content or whether each booklet in each DVD differs from the others.
It’s been a long wait for these classic films to arrive on DVD. There have been one or two collections in Europe and Australia, but it is an absolute delight to see Universal give the Laurel & Hardy films the comprehensive collection they certainly merit. From the sample discs I have seen from the set, they are also of a quality that will keep most fans happy. Certainly, considering the immense historical value of these films, not to mention their enduring entertainment value, a more thorough restoration to remove marks and scratches could certainly have been justified, much more so than the needless expense of colourising (and in some cases butchering) of each film. On the other hand, I doubt that the removal of marks on the print would have made these films any more enjoyable than they already are.