WAY OUT WEST(1937)
Written May-August, 1936. Filmed August-November, 1936. Released by MGM, April, 1937. A Stan Laurel Production for Hal Roach Studios. Directed by James Horne. 65 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Rosina Lawrence, Sharon Lynne, Stanley Fields, Vivien Oakland.
STORY: Easterners Laurel and Hardy travel via mule to the old western town of Brushwood Gulch. Their mission is to deliver a deed to a gold mine to one Mary Roberts, as bequeathed to her by her late father. Never having seen Mary Roberts, The Boys are duped by Mickey Finn, a shifty saloon owner, into thinking his wife Lola is Mary. They turn over the deed to the crooked couple, but realize their error when they encounter the real Mary. Breaking into the saloon at night to recover the deed, they make a shambles of the place, wind up with their mule on the roof, tie Finn up in a chandelier with bedsheets -- and succeed in their mission.
a difference a decade makes. When Laurel and Hardy became an official
team in 1927, the Hal Roach Studio was one of Hollywood's top comedy
factories, dedicated to turning out finely crafted short subjects at a
leisurely pace. In an environment devoid of any caste system, grips and
gaffers were treated with the same level of respect as star performers.
Stan and Babe had reasonably happy personal lives, and their
relationship with Roach was friendly and cooperative. By the time WAY
OUT WEST was released in April 1937, Hal Roach was intent on becoming a
major independent producer in the manner of David O. Selznick and
Samuel Goldwyn, and was turning out features like TOPPER rather than
two-reel comedies. The accountants and businessmen hired by the studio
throughout the 1930s had turned the former Lot of Fun into a place
where efficiency and profits were emphasized over camaraderie and
craftsmanship. There was little camaraderie to be had in later years,
anyway, as the grips and gaffers were now journeymen workers hired on a
per diem basis. Also by 1937, Stan and Babe were beset by personal
problems from wives and ex-wives, and their relationship with Roach was
strictly business. Things had not been the same between Roach and
Laurel since their bitter disputes over the screenplay for BABES IN
TOYLAND, and Roach, who kept L&H under separate contracts, often
let it slip to the press that the demise of the Laurel & Hardy team
may be drawing near. That all concerned were able to produce two of the
team's finest comedies -- WAY OUT WEST and BLOCK-HEADS -- under such
conditions is testament not only to their talents, but also to the
notion that some people operate best under pressure.
There is not a trace of behind-the-scenes turmoil in WAY OUT WEST; it is instead a joyous and perfectly constructed comedy. It is also my choice for the greatest of their films, feature or short, sound or silent. For a film that comes rather late in their tenure with Roach, it also serves surprisingly well as an introduction to the team for newcomers, for it is both a great film and a great Laurel & Hardy film. The scenes are tight and superbly constructed, filled with outstanding gags that probably would have worked in the hands of any skilled comedy team. Yet the film also explores and defines L&H's relationship as well as any; it's a highly personal vehicle that transcends the somewhat generic nature of the plot. Wheeler and Woolsey could have made a good film with the script from WAY OUT WEST, but it took Laurel and Hardy to turn it into a masterpiece.
And yet, even the few scenes without Stan and Ollie are a delight. We don't mind, for instance, that the Boys have a comparatively late entrance in this film. The opening scene in the saloon is populated by some great Old West types, headed by James Finlayson in what is perhaps his greatest role in a Laurel & Hardy film. There was no other player in L&H's stock company who could have infused the role of Mickey Finn with such comic invention and yet remain a credible and formidable adversary for the Boys. He's a slimy snake, but he's also loads of fun. The role also allows us to see what a great comic performer Fin was, both verbally and physically. The cultured tones of his Scottish brogue may seem out of place in a western saloon, but they also lend his character just the right amount of silly pomposity. Notice too how well he adapts his body to the situation, from stately and upright when he's trying to create an impression, to stooped and serpentine when he's plotting his latest scheme. WAY OUT WEST is not only L&H's best film, it's also the best vehicle for their most beloved supporting player. "Doh!"s and pop-eyed double-takes abound.
Marvin Hatley's inspired music makes for a neat transition from the saloon scene into our introduction to Stan and Ollie, as the "clip-clop" rhythm of Lola Marcel's "Won't You Be My Lovey-Dovey" segues into "The Cuckoo Song." It's a moment that has a subtle and perfect emotional effect. The exposition has been established and the mood has been set in a most entertaining and comic manner, yet our enjoyment is instantly compounded upon hearing the strains of the Boys' theme. (We don't even see the Stan and Ollie clearly yet, as they're off in the distance, trudging down the road.) Every Laurel & Hardy fan smiles reflexively at this moment. The Boys' first closeup ranks as one of their funniest entrances, as Stan leads the mule, Dinah, who, in turn, tows the slumbering Ollie. Five seconds after they appear, you know what these guys are all about. And you know that the smartest among them is the mule.
Stan then succeeds in hitching a ride on a passing coach by doing his impression of Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and offering the driver a show of leg (man, those guys in the old west must have been really lonely). After a funny scene on the coach during which we learn that Ollie's level of sophistication when flirting with the opposite sex (fellow passenger Vivien Oakland) is that of a bashful schoolboy, L&H arrive in Brushwood Gulch and embark upon one of the most revered scenes in all their films. They encounter a singing quartet (The Avalon Boys) on the steps of the saloon and are caught up in the infectious rhythm of the group's rendition of "At the Ball, That's All" (even Dinah can't resist tapping her foot). The dance in which the Boys engage would not rival Fred and Ginger for intricacy, but I am hard pressed to think of a more perfect two minutes in all of American film. In my old review of WAY OUT WEST, I described this moment as "ethereally joyous" and stated that it nearly brings a tear to my eye each time I see it. Randy Skretvedt likewise states that the dance "manages to be funny and poignant at the same time." Why is it that this scene evokes such a mix of emotions?
Part of the answer may be that few scenes in movie history come so close to capturing pure innocence and unbridled joy. This is how we would all act if we didn't know (or care) that others were watching us. There is also the added delight of seeing the Boys do something different (yet wholly in character), and we can sense Laurel and Hardy's pleasure in performing it. The steps in the dance routine are not particularly difficult, but they are endlessly inventive and surprising, and performed with pinpoint precision. It may be the one film scene I could watch on a daily basis and never tire of it.
It is also the first of two musical interludes in WAY OUT WEST. After L&H turn over the deed to charlatans Finn and Lola (Lola: "Is it true my dear daddy is dead?" / Stan: "Well, we hope so, they buried him!") we are treated to the Boys' rendition of "In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia." Why the Boys weren't afforded more songs in their films, I'll never understand. A number performed by L&H is always a highlight of any film, yet for some reason such moments were more the occasional novelty than an expectation. Even in films that are ostensibly musicals (SWISS MISS and the three operettas), the music is handled by others incapable of the same level of charm as Stan and Ollie. In WAY OUT WEST, the two songs are obvious highlights of the film. In their next film, SWISS MISS, the songs are handled by people like Walter Woolf King. Go figure.
L&H's encounters with Finn and Lola are spirited conflicts, none more so than the scene in which Lola tickles Stan mercilessly in order to retrieve the deed in his pocket. It's probably the best of their "infectious laughter" scenes in that, unlike similar moments in FRA DIAVOLO and Scram!, you don't need a cooperative audience for full impact -- Stan's incessant and raucous giggling is enough to send anyone into hysterics. The Finn and Lola business, however, also represents the one gaping plot hole in WAY OUT WEST, although it hardly matters. The Boys have been warned by the local sheriff (upset because L&H were "fiddlin'" with his wife, Vivien Oakland, on the stagecoach) to clear out of town on the next coach. Logic instead dictates that Finn and Lola, having stolen the deed to a gold mine, would be the ones to quickly clear out of town. But had they done so, of course, we wouldn't have one of the best climactic scenes Laurel and Hardy ever did.
The final 15 minutes of this film, in which L&H attempt to reclaim the deed from the scheming couple, is loaded with great sight gags. Stan uses a pulley in attempt to pull Ollie up to the roof of the saloon; being Stan, he finds need to "spit on me hands" in mid-pull, and Ollie plops to the ground like a bag of wet sand. They next try to use Dinah to hoist Ollie, but, being outweighed, the mule winds up on the roof instead. The next classic visual moment occurs when Ollie has his head stuck in a trap door. Stan's method of extricating him is to pull him up head first, with Ollie's neck stretching six feet as the result. The rest of this sequence is packed with wonderful little moments -- Stan igniting his thumb, the Boys trapped inside a piano as Fin pounds away at the keys, Fin tied up in the chandelier, the Boys and Dinah crashing full speed into the stair railing -- all of which would be comic highlights of most any other film. In a film bursting with brilliant gags like WAY OUT WEST, they come off almost as throwaways. A great comedy could probably be assembled from the bits that Laurel and Hardy casually tossed off.
The other candidates for Laurel & Hardy's greatest film -- SONS OF THE DESERT and BLOCK-HEADS-- have the sort of minor flaws from which WAY OUT WEST does not suffer. In my review for SONS OF THE DESERT, I felt obligated to point out certain weaknesses in a widely beloved film that most fans don't approach objectively. In truth, I rank SONS very highly among L&H's features, but I also feel that maximum advantage was not taken with its potential. BLOCK-HEADS may rank as their funniest feature, but it has some slight structural flaws and a weak ending. It's also a film smaller in scale than WAY OUT WEST, a film marked by high production values and classy settings. There is not one moment in WAY OUT WEST that isn't as good as it can possibly be. It also strikes that happy balance between a film that appeals to serious fans and one that will make any newcomer with a sense of humor an instant convert. I not only consider it to be Laurel & Hardy's greatest film, I also rank it among the top 10 greatest American comedies of all time. (Message to the AFI: it's even better than TOOTSIE!)
JB: The real gaping plothole in WAY OUT WEST is this: just what kind of person would entrust Stan and Ollie with delivering the deed to a valuable goldmine? That aside, WAY OUT WEST is hands-down Laurel and Hardy's most perfect feature. You would have to go back to one of the shorts of the mid-thirties, such as Towed in a Hole or Busy Bodies to find a film as flawlessly executed as this. That WAY OUT WEST is not my favorite is simply a personal quirk. I prefer Scorsese's MEAN STREETS to TAXI DRIVER, Steinbeck's SWEET THURSDAY to CANNERY ROW, and Lisa Kudrow to Jennifer Aniston. There's no explanation for things like this - there's just quiet contemplation and eventual acceptance. WAY OUT WEST is my second favorite behind BLOCK-HEADS. Tomorrow it may be my favorite.
WAY OUT WEST is one Laurel and Hardy film that hints that the director can make a difference. With the exception of SWISS MISS, all the remaining Roach features (plus THE FLYING DEUCES) gave subplots the heave-ho and concentrated on Laurel and Hardy. They are all good to great films - again, with the exception of SWISS MISS - but none of them moves like WAY OUT WEST, directed by James Horne. WAY OUT WEST is fast-paced and leisurely. It's filled with big scenes and little moments. It's an atypical Laurel and Hardy film loaded to the brim with typical Laurel and Hardy business, or possibly vice versa. Somebody must be responsible for this strange but wonderful mixture, and I'm suggesting that a good deal of the credit may belong to Horne.
WAY OUT WEST is also the most superbly paced Laurel and Hardy feature. There is never a moment where you wish they would speed things up, or slow things down. Every gag and routine is played out splendidly, without excess milking, and each little section of the film provides either a neat transition to the next, or a pleasant little rest stop so we can catch our collective breaths. The plot is deceptively simple, but it provides just the right amount of room for Stan and Ollie to play around. The first two thirds of the film are solely about The Boys arriving in Brushwood Gulch to deliver the deed to Mary Roberts, and the final third is about them getting it back. It's the kind of plot they might have used in a two-reeler, and could have proved unwieldy stretched out to feature length (think PARDON US), but this time around, they got it right.
This may be the first L&H film where the cartoony atmosphere of the later films began to creep in. This is not meant as a criticism, just an observation. Ollie looks like he is composed entirely of circles, like the early Elmer Fudd, and Stan at times looks like an animated caricature of himself. Some of the gags - Stan lighting his thumb, Ollie's neck being twisted a la Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST and then stretched like a rubber band - could have been created by Chuck Jones or Tex Avery. Certainly James Finlayson has never been more lively than he is in WAY OUT WEST. Just watching his face throughout the film, even when he is in the background, is good for an additional fifteen or so laughs.
What WAY OUT WEST is most famous for are the two musical scenes featuring Laurel and Hardy, not counting their final, charming version of Irving Berlin's "Dixie". I suppose you could them padding, but is it really padding when it helps the pace of the film and gives us insight to the characters? Beloved as Chico and Harpo are to Marx Brothers fans (and we at Laurel and Hardy Central are both nuts about the Marx Brothers), their harp and piano solos usually brought their films to a dead halt, something of a no-no for a team known for their lightning quick pace. But Laurel and Hardy pausing to join in on a song or perform a silly, impromptu dance is just part of who they are. They are like children, on their way to school but distracted by the musical bell of an ice-cream truck. They simply cannot help themselves, and we cannot help loving them all the more for it.