Video Vault

The best (and worst) classic flicks and cult favorites

“Way Out West”
Hal Roach Studios/MGM, 1937
Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Rosina Lawrence, Sharon Lynne
Director: James W. Horne

The plot: Stan and Ollie have been entrusted to deliver the deed to a gold mine to Mary Roberts (Lawrence), a poor girl living in Brushwood Gulch who is mistreated by her ghastly guardians, saloon owner Mickey Finn (Finlayson) and his piece-of-work wife, Lola (Lynne). Traveling by stage, Stan and Ollie arrive at Finn’s saloon. When Finn learns why they’ve come, he has Lola pretend to be Mary in order to steal the deed. Stan and Ollie are duped, but before leaving town, they meet the real Mary Roberts and go to get the deed back. A major struggle ensues.

Why it’s good: I first discovered Laurel and Hardy’s films as a kid on the now-defunct Channel 27 out of Worcester, Mass., and thought I had discovered gold, which, of course, I had. “Way Out West” is a delight. As the economics of film distribution changed during the Depression, studios moved away from short films — the life’s blood of many acts — and toward features. Some of the pair’s shorts, like “Big Business,” “Tit for Tat,” and the Oscar-winning “The Music Box,” are mini-masterpieces. But Laurel and Hardy lensed 12 features, and this film is among the best. The comedy of Laurel and Hardy was nowhere near the intellectual high-absurdism of the Marx Brothers, nor the low-brow knock-about of the Three Stooges. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the duo had a singular look: the fat man with the toothbrush mustache, and the thin one with the thatch of hair, both in bowler hats. When the talkies swept through Hollywood, fear reigned as careers like Buster Keaton’s and John Gilbert’s foundered when the voice didn’t match the face. Not so with Hal Roach’s boys: Ollie’s light Southern drawl and Stanley’s Manchester, England, accent perfectly suited their personas, and they became even more popular. The enduring gift of these two was best described by writer Kurt Vonnegut, who said that no matter how disastrously inept the two friends were, they always tried their best and always bargained with life in good faith.

Should I Watch It? Absolutely. The production values, with Laurel and Hardy “owner” Hal Roach renting the MGM studios, couldn’t have been better. The locations look great, Horne’s direction works to the advantage of every scene, and the co-star here is the script, written by Jack Jevne, Charley Rogers, Felix Adler, and James Parrott, with plenty of business and dialogue contributed by Stan and Ollie. There are two magnificent musical highlights: first, when the boys sing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” which turns into a surreal undertaking, and second, during their inspired soft-shoe to the Avalon Boys’ number, “At the Ball, That’s All,” which has become something of a classic dance routine. Funny lines, a great deal of slapstick, and an infectiously hysterical “laughing” sequence, when Stan falls victim to Lola’s tickling, make this one of the comic duo’s best. There isn’t a single bad thing about it. The Hallmark DVD transfer is a mess, while the Universal L&H boxed set is acceptable. Beware of filthy colorized versions.