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Movie fans may remember Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as the greatest of all 1930s comedy duos, but theirs was hardly an equal partnership. Laurel's genius as a gag writer is what really drove the team; the pair's impeccable comic timing and a strangely abusive form of onscreen chemistry - brought his genius to fruition. Way Out West (1937), which the boys often cited as their most consistent picture, is a benchmark in Laurel's too often under-appreciated career. It's hysterical from beginning to end, and it's also the first time that studio overseer Hal Roach credited Laurel as a producer.
As the film opens, Stan and Ollie are riding a mule to the Old West town of Brushwood Gulch, where they plan to sign over a gold mine to the daughter (Rosina Lawrence) of their now-dead partner. After an uproarious gag in which they disappear into an apparently shallow puddle of water, they hitch a ride on a stagecoach. Unfortunately, they irritate one of the other passengers, who turns out to be the wife of the Sheriff of Brushwood Gulch. When she complains to her husband, he promptly kicks our heroes out of town.
This eventually leads to an assortment of shady characters trying to get their hands on the deed to the mine. But, more importantly, it gives Laurel and Hardy (who don't even don Western gear for their roles), the opportunity to dismantle the signifiers of movie Westerns. And they get to sing some songs and do a graceful soft-shoe in the process. It's all over in about an hour, although European prints were slightly longer in order for the picture to appear at the top of the bill (the duo were extremely popular overseas).
There's not much dialogue in Way Out West, a fact that Laurel explains in a telling, but humorously long-winded manner in the picture's press kit: "In preparing this original Western screenplay we determined on a plot to permit the elimination of as much talking as possible and at the same time not sacrifice story. In our characters we are dumber than usual and Hardy dominates to the point that every time I start to speak he stops me with one of those, 'That's all right, I know' sallies. It's not a question that 'I won't talk,' rather that we want to find out how the theater going public will take to our picture with less talk and more action."
Laurel and Hardy didn't receive the across-the-board respect they deserved for Way Out West. Though the reviews were positive for the most part, and a few were downright glowing, some critics simply refused to admit that the team's relatively lowbrow brand of humor worked like gangbusters.The showbiz journal, Variety, was particularly harsh, stating that the film "just about extinguishes the good results achieved in Our Relations (1936)." The review goes on to say that the "manner in which this comedy falters and stumbles along is probably due both to formula directing and scripting."
Well, it may have been a formula, but all great screen teams had their method. It was, in fact, expected of them. As the documentary filmmaker, Basil Wright, wrote of Way Out West, "there is no need to re-analyze (Laurel and Hardy's) particular characters, which every decent moviegoer knows as well as those of his own family." In this sort of comedy, it would seem, familiarity breeds laughs.
Laurel and Hardy, much like the Marx Brothers, would have to wait for their sometimes rickety pictures to withstand the test of time before they'd be truly accepted as comic geniuses. Though their movies often contained little banter, the fact that they still leave modern audiences in stitches speaks volumes about their gifts.
Producer: Stan Laurel, Hal Roach
Director: James W. Horne
Screenplay: Charles Rogers, James Parrott and Felix Adler (based on a story by Jack Jevne and Charles Rogers)
Cinematography: Art Lloyd and Walter Lundin
Editor: Bert Jordan
Music Composers: Marvin Hatley, Leroy Shield, Egbert Van Alstyne, J.L. Hill, Nathaniel Shilkret, Irving Berlin, Franz von Suppe
Art Design: Arthur I. Royce
Special Effects: Roy Seawright
Set Designer: William Stevens
Makeup: Jack Dawn
Cast: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Themselves), James Finlayson (Mickey Finn), Sharon Lynne (Lola Marcel), Stanley Fields (Sheriff), Rosina Lawrence (Mary Roberts), Jim Mason (Anxious Patron), James C. Morton (Bartender), Frank Mills (Bartender), Dave Pepper (Bartender), Vivien Oakland (Molly).
by Paul Tatara