This week I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Joss Whedon. When trying to explain to other people quite what this meant to me, I struggled. He is one of my favourite screenwriters, the creator of my two favourite TV shows and the man who, last year, made my dream of an Avengers movie a beautiful reality. In the end I settled on saying that he is the one person alive today that I would most like to meet and speak to. That’s a little clumsy but I can’t call him my hero because you can only have one of those. Sorry Joss, I love you but that title goes to Stan Laurel, born in Cumbria 123 years ago tomorrow on 16th June 1890.
I am forever grateful that I grew up at a time when there really wasn’t much choice of what to watch on TV. As a result I quickly discovered and began to devour old black and white movies, especially the ones that were part of a series; the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, St. Trinians, Charlie Chan and anything with Norman Wisdom, George Formby, Will Hay, Harold Lloyd or Terry Thomas. There was one man though that I quickly grew to admire more than any of the others.
Actually two men because Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were a wonderful and culturally inseparable team. If you don’t know their work at all you could be forgiven for assuming that Hardy was the straight man but this is so so far from being true. This double act wasn’t Abbot and Costello, there was no straight one and a funny one just two very very funny ones. Both of them mined great humour from the simplest of props or situations and there was always a beautiful simplicity to the way things played out in their world. Oliver Hardy’s character may have harboured a pompous belief that he was street wise but both men were as clueless and naive as one another which is what made them so endearing. There was a glorious innocence to the comedy of both Laurel and Hardy but this aspect mostly focused on the laconic Stan. I am sure that as a result I am only one of thousands of people who grew to love his work in my childhood. By the same rationale I think this sometimes makes him a harder sell to adults who come new to his work and in particular those who have a more typically grown up and skeptical approach to life.
Stanley Arthur Jefferson and Norvell Hardy made 127 films together between 1917 and 1951 with twenty three of them running to feature length. Ten of these were made under the banner of RKO but the duo’s best work was produced by the Hal Roach studios prior to 1939. The best introduction to their art is the half hour, Oscar winning short The Music Box but their greatest film is 1937’s Way Out West.
The plot of Way Out West is pretty straight forward but gives us just enough around which to hang a series of wonderful sketches. The boys arrive in a western town to deliver the deeds of a gold mine to the daughter of a friend of theirs but inevitably end up upsetting the town sheriff as soon as they arrive. Once they find the young girl her guardians connive to gain ownership of the deeds for themselves and, duped by this plan, Stan and Ollie are run out of town by the sheriff before they have a chance to sort out the fine mess they have gotten themselves into. This is where most Laurel and Hardy films would end, with our heroes down on their luck and running from the law but on this occasion there is a young girl involved and so they gallantly return to town and are uncharacteristically able to prevail before the end of the film, with just one last pratfall for good measure.
In amongst all of this there are joyous scenes of dancing, singing, falling in water, chases, tickle fights, people being hit on the head, charmingly antiquated visual effects and Stan lighting a candle with a flame he flicks out of his hand like a cigarette lighter. The moment nine minutes in where Stan is hitch hiking is simply effortless genius and it just gets better from there.
They don’t make them like this anymore.
Is this one for the kids?
Absolutely. I used to run a film club in a Primary School and when we watched this film I had the dual treat of seeing Stan and Ollie do their stuff on the screen while fifty 7-11 year olds were literally clapping and rolling around on the floor in laughter in front of me. If you don’t instantly love this film then I am afraid you must have a serious case of having properly grown up and I don’t think I can help you. Fortunately I know a couple of men who can.