DVD pricing strategies, part 2 (Laurel & Hardy)
I suppose I should say to myself “what do you expect from a 2-DVD set you picked up for $6 in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart?” Well, some truth in advertising. That impulse pickup was of a Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy DVD set, put out by Platinum Disc Corp. under the “TV Classics” series. I’d be madder than I am if I weren’t enjoying some of what I’m seeing in the stead of what I expected.
On the box cover, you see the pair in their classic look — their familiar bowler hats, with Stan in his bowtie and dumb innocence and Ollie’s girth and moustache. Thing is though, that of the “14 episodes” advertised (actually two features and 12 shorts), only in the features and “as celebrities” in a Pete Smith short, do we see their familiar “Stan & Ollie” characters. And of the 10 other shorts I’ve now either seen or been able to trace the Internet Movie Database credit, only in one do they act together onscreen, and it’s not in their iconic roles … but more on that in a second. The others have one or the other acting or Stan directing. Before Hal Roach put the team together in 1926-27, Ollie had been played supporting “heavy” roles in shorts by the likes of Larry Semon, and Stan had played a more hyper (but equally clueless) character and directed some.
The real discovery for me in the several shorts was Larry Semon, who starred in THE SAWMILL and KID SPEED, with Hardy playing the villain. In the early 1920s, Semon was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, though he’s hardly known today. Unlike many of the silent comedians, his slide was not the result of sound — he died in 1928 and his career had been on the skids for a few years even before that. Still these two films, from 1922 and 1924 respectively, give a good sense of what Semon had going for him.
Of all the silent comedians, his style was the closest to that of a traditional circus clown — he played a child-like dynamo with a rubberlike face and large features exaggerated by a thorough face-blanching makeup job (KID SPEED has a couple of whiteface/blackface gags that I did laugh at). His clothes were even more ill-fitting than Chaplin’s: he wears a bowler hat with overalls that almost reach his armpit. That small body and delicate-looking hands make him an ideal “victim” for the massive Hardy. And Semon’s films feature some spectacular stunts amidst broad physical knockabout — of cars crashing off bridges and people falling several stories onto one another. There’s even space for the subtlety of Semon sitting on a log that gets sliced in half lengthwise, missing his back by inches.
Unfortunately, the pictorial quality of these prints is not very good (there are a lot of visual hiccoughs, even stepping on the punchlines) and the scores just have generic-sounding piano music seemingly played at random. Semon’s character doesn’t (for now) seem that deep, but he looks like a comedian who’d be worth a rediscovery and a proper restoration of his work, a surprising amount of which survives.
The Laurel & Hardy “together” short that I saw was LUCKY DOG, their first appearance together. But it’s from 1921, several years before they became a permanent team. This film (only the first reel of which was on this DVD set, though) starred Stan as a naif dandy and Ollie plays a mugger who holds up Stan at gunpoint. It’s amazing in retrospect that nobody thought to team them up before Roach did several years later, realizing that their contrasting personalities and “Another Fine Mess” story lines could get you several laughs for the price of one — the gag itself; Stan’s vacuous, puzzled reaction; Ollie’s frustration with Stan; Ollie turning to us to plead for our sympathy for having to deal with this dolt; Stan’s solicitousness with regard to Ollie’s (often unjustified) exasperated superiority.
But LUCKY DOG doesn’t rely for its interest on a trivial bit of casting coincidence — that Stan-Ollie dynamic, what made the team tick, is amazingly present in this 1921 film. For example, when Ollie tells Stan at gunpoint to turn around, rather than go against the fence, Stan does a 360. When trying to fish out his wallet, Stan unthinkingly hands his dog to Ollie, who unthinkingly accepts it before bursting into rage. These are jokes that could easily have come from one of their 1930s Hal Roach features.
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