Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Laurel & Hardy Blogathon: Way Out West (1937)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Laurel & Hardy Blogathon, hosted today by MovieMovieBlogBlog in honor of the annual Oliver Hardy Festival held in Harlem, GA on the first weekend in October (this year it falls on October 4, hence the scheduling of the ‘thon).  It must be stressed that this blogathon is not related to nor endorsed by the Festival (I would, however, urge all L&H fans to make a pilgrimage to the Harlem museum at least one time in your life), and for a full list of participants and topics discussed click here.

The time period is the Gay Nineties, and in the small Western town of Brushwood Gulch, the locus of entertainment can be found in a saloon run by Mickey Finn (James Finlayson), whose wife Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne) is the resident chanteuse.  Finn and Lola are guardians to Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), whose father left her in their care when she was quite young.  Mary and her caretakers are not aware of this…but their lives are about to change with the arrival of two “desert rats” in town.

A screen capture of what I believe to be the reason why I return to Way Out West over and over again...there was never a more beloved team in all of cinema.

Stan (Laurel) and Oliver (Hardy) touch down in Brushwood Gulch (after an awkward encounter with the wife [Vivien Oakland] of the town’s sheriff [Stanley Fields]) to present Mary with a deed to a gold mine left to her by her deceased father.  Since neither Stan nor Ollie have ever met Mary, the greedy Finn concocts a scheme with Lola whereupon she will pretend to be the heir, and our heroes unwittingly hand over the title of the mine to her.  When they finally realize their mistake, the duo valiantly attempt to retrieve the deed but are unsuccessful.  Furthermore, they’re forced to high-tail it out of town when the grudge-holding sheriff arrives on the scene.

Undaunted, Stan and Ollie make a second effort to right the wrong by breaking into the saloon that night; despite the team’s noisy efforts, Finn and his wife are slow to realize that they’re being visited by home invaders.  It’s at that time that our heroes also encounter Mary, and an explanation of what’s transpired is passed along to her.  Laurel & Hardy finally manage to retrieve the gold mine deed, and the two of them (joined by Mary) make plans to head south as the film concludes.

Every feature film featuring the greatest movie comedy team of all time is revered by L&H fans…though there is often spirited discussion as to which movie is their best.  A consensus has gathered around their 1933 outing Sons of the Desert (the title of which inspired the team’s fan club), which film historian William K. Everson once described as “subtler if not funnier.”  But Everson was also quick to remind folks that Way Out West (1937) “must rank as the best of all the Laurel & Hardy features.  Not only is it pure, unadulterated Laurel & Hardy, with no time wasted on subsidiary plotting or romantic or musical ‘relief,’ but it is also a first-rate satire of the western genre…”  Way Out West is, hands down, my favorite Laurel & Hardy film.

It’s essentially a B-picture (though because it was released by MGM, it’s technically an A-minus picture) that pokes fun at B-pictures—in this case, the popular movie genre of the Western; the movie takes the hoariest of Western clichés—the gold mine falling into the hands of the villains—and simply goes to town with it.  Glenn Mitchell once observed: “…Way Out West differs from most comic westerns by actually parodying a genre rather than merely using a western setting.  Mel Brooks' more recent Blazing Saddles attempts the same but is over reliant on self-conscious dialogue references and suffers from a tendency to stray from the target.  The success of Way Out West may owe something to Stan Laurel's early experience in parody; similarly Oliver Hardy's earlier work in silent westerns would have contributed.”

The person responsible for conceiving what became Way Out West?  Well, that’s open to discussion.  Producer Hal Roach had planned a vehicle for his female comedy team of Patsy Kelly and Lyda Roberti entitled Girls Go West in March of 1936, but it never came to fruition (I would have paid to see that, to be honest).  Virginia Ruth Rogers, the second wife of Stan Laurel, also laid claim to initiating the project by insisting her husband and his partner tackle a “horse opera.”  None of this really matters in the long run: filming on Way Out West got underway on May 4, 1936 after writer Felix Adler turned in a script he prepared with star Stan Laurel…with veteran gag writers Charley Rogers, Arthur Vernon Jones and Jack Jevne making additional contributions as well.  James W. Horne, who had previously guided The Boys in the features Bonnie Scotland (1935) and The Bohemian Girl (1936), was all set to direct.

Way Out West was originally titled You’d Be Surprised—but that name had to be discarded because a 1926 Raymond Griffith comedy had already laid claim to it.  Then it became Tonight’s the Night, but 20th Century-Fox informed the Roach Studio “not so fast, podnuh.”  The name In the Money also had to be vetoed, because a small studio called Chesterfield had used it in 1933.  It was James Parrott, a former director at the studio whose problems with substance abuse found him toiling as a gag writer who came up with Way Out West—though Parrott (the brother of Roach star Charley Chase) apparently forgot that WOW was also the title of a comedy he himself had appeared in at the studio in 1920.  (In addition, it was used for a William Haines MGM feature in 1930…and a 1935 Educational two-reeler with The Cabin Kids.)  One title considered for the film that was discarded for unclear reasons was They Done It Wrong, a reference to Mae West’s 1933 comedy She Done Him Wrong—I kind of wish they had gone with that one.  But Way Out West is also a jokey title—originally inspired by the D.W. Griffith-directed Way Down East.

Way Out West may spotlight “pure, unadulterated Laurel & Hardy”…but it’s interesting to note that a full reel of the movie goes by before we’re introduced to The Boys; we then find them making their way to Brushwood Gulch by mule (the mule is Dinah, with whom they also worked in The Music Box; Dinah also plays “Algebra” in the classic Our Gang short Honkey Donkey), and the luckless Ollie finds the only sinkhole for miles as the two ford a steam (a wonderful gag that is repeated twice more in the film).  The duo is able to stop a stagecoach headed for their destination (Stan gets the stage to come to a screeching halt by “showing a little leg” in a sly It Happened One Night reference)…and once they arrive in town, they set about their Good Samaritan work by attempting to inform Mary Roberts of her inheritance.

Stan and Ollie’s arrival is supplemented by one of many reasons why I love Way Out West so dearly.  The Boys do a soft-shoe shuffle to the strains of At the Ball, That’s All performed by The Avalon Boys (an aggregation comprised of future Oscar nominee Chill Wills, Art Green, Walter Trask and Don Brookins).  The film’s original script makes no mention of the routine (the Avalon Boys were simply supposed to do their stuff), and it’s believed the dance was probably improvised between takes and then filmed for cinematic immortality.  The sequence is unquestionably one of Laurel & Hardy’s best-known (you can throw a piano at an Internet .gif of the dance and hit it) and the great thing about it is that its charm lies in how it looks so spontaneous and unrehearsed…yet you know both men worked so hard to perfect its utter unpretentious joy.  Movie musical fans are welcome to their elaborate MGM routines—I’ll take Stan and Ollie’s sublime hoofing any day of the week.

In attempting to make small talk with their fellow stagecoach passenger (Vivien Oakland), Hardy blurts out: "A lot of weather we've been having lately!"  (Yes, I use that all the time in real-life conversation.)
The Boys worked a second memorable musical number into the proceedings in a later sequence when Ollie joins in with Avalon Boys member Walter Trask (both L&H historians Dick Bann and Randy Skretvedt believe it’s Trask) on a rendition of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which then leads to glorious harmony with his friend Mr. Laurel.  In 1975, the soundtrack of this transcendent duet was released as a single that went all the way to #2 on the U.K. pop charts.  (“Duet” is technically not the right word here—it’s more like a quintet; in addition to Trask, Laurel and Hardy, Chill Wills can be heard [as Stan’s bass voice] as well as Rosina Lawrence [providing Stan’s soprano].)  Way Out West is quite a tuneful little picture, with additional musical numbers like Will You Be My Lovey-Dovey? (performed by Lynne in a Mae West-inspired saloon sequence) and the impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head I Want to Be in Dixie (“D-I-X…I know how to spell it!”).  Way Out West may have been a lowly B-picture, but its music (courtesy of longtime Roach Studios composer Marvin Hatley) scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Score—a rather prestigious accomplishment.  (“It certainly is!”)

But here’s the true test of Way Out West’s status as a classic comedy: it’s just so doggone funny.  So many unforgettable sequences: Lynne trapping Stan in her “boudoir” and trying to wrest the deed away from him (in a hilarious role reversal, Stan has put the valuable paper in his shirt and Lynne aggressively “molests” him to retrieve it, prompting the comedian’s infectious laughter as he’s tickled); Stan demonstrating to Ollie how he’s able to create a flame (like a cigarette lighter) by flicking his thumb (Oliver is both amazed and frightened when he’s able to duplicate this feat); Oliver forcing Stan to “eat his hat.”  The dialogue is also hilarious: my favorite is when Stan unthinkingly reveals to Finn the reason why they need to see Mary and Oliver indignantly responds as he gives his partner a shove: “Now that he's taken you into our confidence…”

I also get delighted during the sequence when Stan and Ollie are trying to break into the saloon and Stan gets the (not-at-all) bright idea to hoist Ollie up to the second floor roof with a rope.  Dangling in mid-air, Ollie watches helplessly as Stan innocently lets go (“Wait until I spit on me hands…”) and in crashing to Earth, his considerable girth makes an impression in the ground.  Stan attempts to tidy up his partner by brushing him off and at one point steps into the rut Ollie’s created to do so.  That sort of subtlety from Laurel & Hardy just cements my affection for the duo.

“The charm of that hilarious, marvelous film is simply unending,” wrote L&H biographer John McCabe.  I think McCabe hits upon the reason why so many fans revere Way Out West—the key word here is “charm.”  To be honest, that also sums up the universal appeal of the duo; you can make strong cases for any number of The Great Movie Comedians as to why their work may be superior to that of their peers, but the beauty of Laurel & Hardy is that they were unquestionably the most beloved comedy team in the history of cinema.  They radiated a timelessly charismatic appeal, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone who’s been able to do that since.  Sure, they squabbled and fought like children—punching and hitting and calling of names—but there was never any doubt that these two men were the best of friends, holding on to one another as they faced what life was determined to dish out.  I also can’t imagine a scenario where I would be limited to just one L&H movie for the rest of my life…but if such a tragedy were to occur, Way Out West would win in a walk.


Steve Bailey said...

Very, very nicely done, and an excellent tribute to my all-time favorite L&H feature film. Thanks for participating in the Blogathon!

policomic said...

Nice essay on what has to be one of the most lovable movies ever. (You hit the nail on the head with your description of L&H's appeal.)

Plus (as you also note), it's so freakin' funny. The first time I saw the mule/pulley gag may have been the biggest laugh I've ever gotten from a movie.