During December 2020, TCM showed the movies of their "Stars of the Month," Laurel & Hardy. I am a huge fan, since childhood, so I set the DVR to record the movies for the next 4 weeks, dozens of them, shorts and features because there was no way I could watch these movies in real time, even working from home. Especially because I was working from home. I would be distracted all day turning to watch what pantomime I was missing doing my job...
That pace broke up the monotony of the films but allowed me to appreciate details I would have missed if I didn't see the films in close order. First, as everyone will note, Stan Laurel's character started off a lot more frisky and lively back in the silent films. He would do a scissor kick when he saw a girl. But as time when on, even though Stanley's lag time increased, every so often he would throw in the kick, when he got scared, angry, drunk or would slip it into a dance routine. I was surprised by that.
Another running gag I noticed was when they would get in a car, Ollie would drive, but Stan would start to fiddle with the switches on the wheel column. This starts in their silent films, where it's a big part of "Two Tars" and they did it in their 1940s MGM comedy "Air Raid Warden." Sometimes it was Stanley just reaching over and being slapped away, other times they would turn it into an elaborate business. That was funny to watch. I didn't realize how often they did the hat mix-ups, sometimes without even a topper for the gag, it was just part of their behavior. Also, how often Ollie would signal Stan to remove his hat; sometimes it would go into a bit, sometimes not. It's kind of surprising with so many of their films being so similar that they only actually made one true sequel, "Tit for Tat" which was the follow-up to "Them Thar Hills."
Stanley's night wear was always a night shirt with big, floppy wool socks. Every time. Those wool socks were like his night-time derby. All the way into the 1940s.
I had forgotten how often they had Stan get drunk (usually a set piece) because they would need him to act up in the next set piece or finale of the film, which might have seemed out of character for him otherwise.
I probably wouldn't even have bothered writing this blog post except last month I read the most ridiculous film critique about the boys. While everyone acknowledges that the team's quality of output dropped severely after they left Hal Roach studios to join 20th-Century Fox, this author insisted Laurel & Hardy had already "jumped the shark" (passed their peak) before that. He cited "Way Out West," "Blockheads," "Swiss Miss" and "Saps at Sea" as his evidence. Now, while no one would confuse "Swiss Miss" with one of their best movies, it was very much a Laurel & Hardy movie. The author claim from "West" forward the boys had cease to be "relatable" and had become "clowns." He denotes the use of Laurel's "white magic" bits (lighting his thumb, pulling down shadows of window shades) has some sort of depletion of gags. I see those things as extensions of everything they had done that constantly violated "real life." From the start, Ollie would play to the camera. Stanley would play with sound effects or wacky singing voices or just do a finger-twiddle. Pulling a glass of water out of his pocket is no different from hitting a pee-wee and having it return to him.
Now, while the independent films they showed (Flying Deuces) felt very Stan & Ollie, the two MGM films they showed were not. Sure, there were glimpses of the style and pace but you can see they were just characters in a factory, with plot points and patriotic themes to tout. And watching them interact with more "realistic" characters is just odd. Where the world of L&H consisted of people like Mae Busch, Charlie Hall, Thelma Todd, Billy Gilbert and James Finlayson, the boys playing against big studio players makes them look out of place and foolish. Or even clownish. In "Nothing But Trouble" they learn the young boy they've been helping is really a king (don't ask). They were forced to play the maudlin bit as being defeated, even when offered a job for the king. They make Stan say something like "Oh, no, we couldn't be with him. He's a king and well, we're nobody." Stan delivers it fine, but it's very sad. Even if the line were "Oh, he's a king and, well, we're us." would have made the line acknowledge their cinematic history and be more in Stan's character.
There is one bright spot in "Air Raid Wardens" where they get to play against their old nemesis, Edgar Kennedy. It's the one time everyone seems on the same page again.
TCM concluded their Laurel and Hardy film festival with their oddest film, their last, "Utopia." Yes, Stan looks awful. Hardy is passed his prime. They are working with cast members all speaking different languages, but the film is as strong a Stan and Ollie vehicle has anything done since 1939. It's fascinating to watch them resurrect their style and pace in a different, more political, venue. But it is their pace and style. It's a shame they didn't get to do a stronger send off.
In conclusion, you should go watch a Laurel and Hardy film now.