I have finally found the crown jewel of my DVD collection:
The films of Laurel & Hardy have been tragically absent from DVD, with the notable exception of this collection from Turner Classic Movies. The complete films of Laurel & Hardy number 106, although three of those films are considered lost. I own every commercially available Laurel & Hardy film on VHS (including a few tapes bought in England that I had to pay to convert to Region 1). But getting them all together – the best available transfers along with newly-discovered and never-released footage and films – has been a dream I thought may never come to pass.
My understanding is that a complete Laurel & Hardy release was impossible because the video rights are owned by several different entities. The silent films are held by one such entity, most of the MGM features they made are only available on the TCM set, two features (The Flying Deuces and Utopia) are in the public domain and the post-Hal Roach travesties are contained in another set.
The DVD set above, though, has everything else. And that everything includes more than I ever dreamed. It includes every short film done with sound. It includes the basic feature films made entirely at the Hal Roach Studios (Pardon Us, Pack Up Your Troubles, Saps at Sea, etc.). It ALSO includes all of the Laurel & Hardy guest appearances and cameos, one of which – an Our Gang short called Wild Poses – I’ve never been able to track down. There is also bonus material, including a short film with the works of Laurel & Hardy discussed by film historians and famous fans such as Dick Van Dyke.
The most amazing inclusion are about a half-dozen of the foreign-language versions of several early short comedies. In brief, Hal Roach hit upon an expensive yet profitable way to keep his market share in foreign countries in the early days of sound film, when the English language suddenly became a barrier to a truly international film company. Roach filmed several Laurel & Hardy shorts in different languages – as many as three or four – to give fans all over the world their own Laurel & Hardy films.
Don’t misunderstand; these were not dubbed films. Stan, Ollie and one or two key supporting players would re-learn their lines in several different foreign languages, aided by speech coaches who would teach them their lines phonetically. The rest of the cast would be native speakers. As expensive and time-consuming as this was, it made foreign audiences adore Laurel & Hardy even more, preferring these films much more than the cheaply-dubbed films from the major studios. (Word is that Roach discontinued the practice because it was showing up his distributor, MGM). If the boys’ stilted speech sounded awkward in a different language, then it proved a perfect fit for their characters. (Although it must be said that Ollie takes to Spanish quite well, whereas Stan speaks it with a Midlands British accent).
So you have entirely new versions of pre-existing films, many of which are extended with all-new footage and gags so that they could be sold as feature films abroad. I was aware that some of these survived, but had never seen one before. This DVD collection contains about six of these foreign-language Laurel and Hardy films. It’s a positive delight to see new footage of Stan and Ollie. Ollie’s long-suffering cry of “Why don’t you do something to help me?” becomes “Porque no me ayudas?”
I really can’t overemphasize how important the films of Laurel & Hardy have been to me. I’ve been laughing at them for as long as I can remember. They bring such a charm and joy to their work that actually makes you feel better after watching them, a quality that is almost impossible to reproduce nowadays without being sappy or arch.
I also liberally steal from Laurel & Hardy, something I am not really ashamed of; I consider it more of a “tribute,” seeing as Stan – my muse – passed away more than 50 years ago. I would give my right eye (and here I’m only slightly exaggerating) to be able to play Stan in a film biopic of the team. If only I were taller, skinnier, gawkier and had red hair (or any hair, really).
I always hesitate to show Laurel & Hardy films to my friends. One reason is that they’ll realize where I’m stealing all of my comic inspiration and bits of business. The main reason is that I’m afraid they won’t like them as much as I do. And that’s difficult, because they mean so very much to me. If I am funny at all today, it is because of Laurel & Hardy.
When I still had an ounce of idealism, I always pictured myself accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor and dedicating it to Stan Laurel, a comic genius who has tragically never been given the respect or admiration of “auteurs” like Keaton and Chaplin.
This is what I did as a child; I watched and learned. I scoured every film shop and video rental store (this was before the internet, kiddies) to see if they had any new Laurel & Hardy films released on video. Even after the advent of eBay and the internet, my only hopes of improving upon my existing VHS collection was to buy existing 8mm film prints along with my own projector.
I’d like to continue this later with my thoughts on each of the short films contained on the collection. If, that is, I can find the right words to express my unqualified happiness.