March 27, 2014
Way Out West – U.S., 1937
To say that Laurel & Hardy’s sixth film was a film without a plot would be an overstatement – but not much of one. In fact, after seeing the film, I find myself unable to shake the notion that Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and a group of studio executives gathered around a table and had a group brainstormed regarding what the two comedians would do in their next film. The fruits of their labor were a bunch of random gags involving among other things a mysterious hole and a whispering mule. Then, having completed this task, they attempted to build a story around these bits of comedy, and since the comic duo had not appeared in a western together, they figured it was time for them to do just that. I know there was probably a bit more to the creative process than that, but it seems to me that most of Laurel & Hardy films, much like other films starring former vaudeville and silent film comedians, are more interested in showcasing pratfalls, slow burns, innocuously shrugged shoulders, and tit-for-tat verbal exchanges than telling a truly narrative story – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
With a running time of just sixty-four minutes, the film is over before you know it. Suffice to say, in describing what little plot it has, I would be running the risk of revealing everything about the film and thereby robbing viewers of the opportunity to discover the film for themselves. Therefore, all I will reveal about the film is that it is a comedy-western in which Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy venture to a small town in the west to deliver something valuable to a young woman who works as a waitress at the local saloon. Stan accidentally lets the cat out of the bag, as he is wont to do, and a fair degree of hilarity ensues. James Finlayson, continuing his partnership with the comedic pair, plays the owner of the saloon, and Sharon Lynn plays his stunning wife, Lola Marcel. Lola is the kind of woman that can cause even the least-romantically inclined man to regress into a more juvenile state of infatuation and euphoria. As Lola struts her stuff to a song that includes the lyric, “Will you be my lovey dovey?” the men in the audience either turn a bright red and wiggle in their seat awkwardly or get overly excited and answer her loudly in the affirmative. Interestingly, the number is the first of four musical numbers in the film, and it is the only one that adds anything to the plot.
The film includes a plethora of tried-and-true Laure & Hardy bits, including Laurel’s attempts to get a family heirloom off Hardy, a rather adorable dance number outside the saloon, a humorous stab at getting into a locked building, and an almost required bit in which one of them tries to pull the other one up onto a roof. Fans of the pair’s films will recognize these moments instantly, yet likely still be tickled by what they see. There are also a few slightly more innovative gags. My favorite ones have to do with Laurel’s unique way of lighting a pipe and Stan and Laurel’s unsuccessful attempts to woo a married woman on a coach. It is also always a treat to watch James Finlayson’s double takes and the looks of incredulity that he gives straight into the camera.
The film was directed by Laurel and Hardy stalwart James W. Horne, and Mr. Horne clearly knew how to film his famous stars. Evidence of this can be seen in his filming of the boys’ big dance number outside the saloon. A less confident director might have been tempted to do take after take until Laurel and Hardy were in perfect sync. Horne likely realized how unrealistic this would seem, so he filmed an imperfect dance number, with the two of them periodically one step behind the beat. The number he films also includes dance steps that more closely resemble those seen in ballroom dancing and ballet, practically ensuring that the two dancers look like fish out of water. What makes the scene even more magical is that Laurel and Hardy perform the dance as if their characters have no idea how silly they might look to bystanders. They simply can’t help themselves; they have to dance. It really is a perfect scene.
It is said that Stan Laurel considered Way Out West his favorite Laurel & Hardy film, and in a way, it is not hard to see why. The film is great fun from start to finish, and Laurel shines in many of the film’s best moments. As for Hardy, he has his fair share of memorable scenes. In one particularly impressive one, he delivers a stirring rendition of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” that somehow became a monster hit in England in 1975. In other words, Way Out West is a pretty good use of an hour. It’s like a roller coaster ride and a day at the beach all rolled into one. And who doesn’t love that? (on DVD as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection)
3 and a half stars