powered by AFI
Stan has been guarding his WWI trench for 20 years because nobody ever told him the war was over. Finally discovered, he is proclaimed a hero and reunited with war buddy Ollie, who takes him home to live with him and the missus. Inevitable and hysterical hijinks ensue as Stan readjusts to civilian life. This is the basis for the 57-minute gagfest Block-Heads (1938), widely considered to be the last great Laurel and Hardy film (though A Chump at Oxford, 1939, has its fans).
Block-Heads was actually announced as Laurel and Hardy's last film. It turned out not to be, but it was the last one they and Hal Roach Studios made for release by MGM. The comedy duo would go on to make two more pictures for Hal Roach outside of MGM, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea (1940) - these despite a legal conflict between Laurel and Roach. After principal production of Block-Heads wrapped, Laurel went on vacation and the film's ending had to be re-shot with a double. An annoyed Roach terminated Laurel's contract, and Laurel sued Roach, calling the termination unlawful. They settled out of court several months later. After all, Roach had worked with Laurel with Hardy for a long time and he still recognized them as geniuses, saying of Laurel years later, "except for Chaplin, there was no better gagman in the business than Stan Laurel. He could always get the most out of every single gag."
The gags in Block-Heads are paced beautifully, the work of professionals who have honed their techniques over many years. Some gags are borrowed from Laurel and Hardy's earlier films, and the plot is largely a redo and extension of their two-reeler Unaccustomed As We Are (1929). Film historian William K. Everson likened Block-Heads to the work of seasoned "old vaudevillians before the final curtain. They trot out their old and proven routines, embellish others, and throw in a few new ones." (The presence of former comedy star Harry Langdon as a writer is why Block-Heads also contains elements of his classics The Strong Man and Soldier Man, both 1926.)
There are many reasons for the timeless appeal of Laurel and Hardy. Hal Roach said it was because "each was a perfect straight man for the other" and because "the Stan and Ollie characters were childlike, innocent. The best visual comedians imitate children, really." Laurel and Hardy scholar Richard Bann has attributed their success to "one simple concept. Love. These films were made with love, and they reflected love. Stan and Ollie are nice people. Lovable people. They comport themselves with dignity. Their innocence is fundamental to their appeal."
Block-Heads was director John G. Blystone's last film. He died of a heart attack at age 45, just two weeks before it was released. Blystone directed over 70 movies but was not much of a creative force, tending to work with actors and writers who dominated their productions, such as Buster Keaton on Our Hospitality (1923), and Laurel and Hardy. Look for some opening war footage taken from The Big Parade (1925) and for "Our Gang" actor Tommy Bond as a kid with a football. Block-Heads received one Academy Award nomination, for Marvin Hatley's score.
Producer: Hal Roach, Jr.
Director: John G. Blystone
Screenplay: Felix Adler, Arnold Belgard, Harry Langdon, James Parrott, Charley Rogers
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Film Editing: Bert Jordan
Music: Marvin Hatley
Cast: Stan Laurel (Stan), Oliver Hardy (Oliver), Patricia Ellis (Mrs. Gilbert), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Hardy), Billy Gilbert (Mr. Gilbert), James Finlayson (Man on stairs).
by Jeremy Arnold