Saturday, January 5, 2019

Stubs - Way Out West

Way Out West (1937) Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Sharon Lynne, James Finlayson, Rosina Lawrence, Stanley Fields. Directed by James W. Horne. Screenplay by Charles Rogers, Felix Adler, James Parrott. Producer: Hal Roach, Stan Laurel. Run Time: 64 minutes. USA Black and White. Comedy

From the March 13, 1927 release of Duck Soup until the November 21, 1951 release of Atoll K, there were few film comedy duos as dominant as the teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Brought together by Hal Roach, the duo enjoyed great success and are remembered for such films as the Academy Award-winning short The Music Box (1932), County Hospital (1932), Sons of the Desert (1933), Babes in Toyland (1934), and Way Out West (1937). In prep for the new Stan & Ollie (2018) biopic, we decided to take a look at one of these films, Way Out West.

The film was made between late August and early November 1936, originally called In the Money, Tonight's the Night, and They Done It Wrong before it received its final title. This bears the credit, A Stan Laurel Production, a testament to the actor’s prowess not just in front but behind the camera as well. Once the understudy for Charlie Chaplin in the Fred Karno troupe, he arrived in the U.S. on the same ship. While he made some early silent films, including Nuts in May (1917), and sometimes appeared in films as a Charlie Chaplin imitator, he joined the Hal Roach studios in 1925 as a writer and director.

The movie opens in Brushwood Gulch, a small Western town. There the main saloon is owned by Mickey Finn (James Finlayson). (Mickey Finn is an old expression referring to the practice of lacing a drink with chloral hydrate, a powerful and sometimes deadly sedative, in order to do mischief to an unsuspecting dupe.) The star attraction of the saloon is the musical prowess and sex appeal of his wife, Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne). Working for them as waitress/cleaning woman is the young and naïve Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence).

Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) is the waitress at the saloon.

Once we’ve established that relationship, Stan and Oliver are seen in transit to Brushwood Gulch. Stan is driving a mule (Dinah) which is pulling a slumbering Ollie behind him. But some rough road awakens the sleeping Ollie. While he manages to get back to sleep, it is crossing a stream that really wakes him from his slumbers.

When the raft carrying him gets detached from the donkey, Ollie starts to slowly sink into the water. Stan comes back to retrieve him, but on the way out, Ollie falls through a hole in the bottom of the river.

Stan helps Ollie after he's fallen into a hole in the riverbed.

Now soaked, Ollie continues wrapped in a blanket, while his clothes air dry. That is until they make it to a trail about two miles out of town. While Ollie dresses, Stan goes to see if he can thumb a drive.  Nothing seems to work until he shows a little leg, which gets the attention of a passing stagecoach.

Because of how they treated his wife, the Sheriff (Stanley Fields)
tells Stan and Ollie to be on the next stage out of town.

Once onboard, in tight quarters, the boys make the lone female passenger (Vivien Oakland) upset when Ollie makes a sort of veiled pass at her. When they reach the town, she is met by her husband, the Sheriff (Stanley Fields), who is not amused. He tells the boys to be on the next stage out of town, which doesn’t give them much time for the business that brought them there.

The Avalon Boys play outside the saloon.

Outside of Mickey Finn’s saloon, The Avalon Boys are performing J. Leubrie Hill's "At the Ball, That's All," which appears to catch the fancy of Stan and Ollie, and the two perform one of the more famous dance numbers to be captured on film, with apologies to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly.

Stan and Ollie dance to "At the Ball That's All."

Once inside, they explain their secret mission to Finn. They have been entrusted to deliver the deed to a gold mine the prospector discovered to the man's daughter, Mary Roberts. They assure Finn of the riches, even showing him the deed, which is a little worse for wear, having been used by Stan to cover a hole in his shoes.

Stan and Ollie get hoodwinked by Mickey Finn (James Finlayson)
and his wife, Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne).

Finn, no surprise, doesn’t do the right thing. Instead, he convinces Lola to pretend to be Mary and allow them to take the mine for themselves. Since the boys have never met Mary, they are easy to fool. There is also a locket, which Ollie has around his neck, that he’s supposed to give Mary as well. Ollie practically has to undress completely to find it, only to discover that it has fallen to the floor.

With their mission completed, the boys go downstairs to have a drink in the saloon. They end up singing a song, "Trail of the Lonesome Pine," with Chill Wills, one of The Avalon Boys playing. Stan not only sings in a deep bass (supplied by Wills), but also in a soprano (supplied by Rosina Lawrence) to the amazement of Ollie. Meanwhile, Lola tricks Mary into signing the deed over to her.

The Boys try to get the deed back from Lola and Mickey.

On their way out, the boys say goodbye to everyone, including Mary. When they ask her name and she tells them, they figure out the ruse and go back upstairs to confront Lola. Before they do, Stan promises to get the deed back or he'll eat Ollie’s hat. There is a bit of keep away that goes on with the deed, with Lola, Mickey, Stan, and Ollie all taking turns with the paper. Finally, Stan stuffs it in his shirt but Lola locks him in her bedroom and tickles him into submission, taking the deed away from him. There is a little bit more back and forth with the paper before Mickey locks it up in their vault.

Lola tickles Stan into submission and takes back the deed.

The Sheriff finally arrives but won’t listen to Stan and Ollie, since they should already be out of town. He chases after them, shooting as they flee. Once again, when they cross the river, Ollie falls into the small hole in the river bed.

In camp that night, Ollie is once again wrapped in a blanket while his clothes dry. While they discuss their plan to sneak back into town to steal the deed back, Ollie tries to light his pipe but his matches are understandably wet and won’t spark. Stan helps out, flicking his thumb like it’s a lighter and, again to Ollie’s amazement, his thumb catches fire.

Stan gives Ollie a light using his thumb.

Before they go, Ollie makes Stan eat his hat, as Stan did not fulfill his earlier promise of getting the deed back. After a few bites around the brim, Stan appears to like it. Ollie takes the hat back, even eating a little bit himself. To the film’s credit, from then on, Ollie’s hat has several bites out of it.

Stan has to eat Ollie's hat for failing in his promise to get the deed back.

The break-in does not go off without a hitch nor making a lot of noise. Ollie tries to climb up to a building but falls through the roof. The noise they’re making awakens Finn and Lola, who sleep in separate beds and rooms. After Ollie frees himself, they discuss plan B, however, Stan blows the candlelight they're using. Once again, he sparks his thumb and relights the candle.

The break-in doesn't go well, when Ollie falls through the roof.

Armed with a rifle, Finn comes outside but doesn’t see anything.

Meanwhile, Stan and Ollie hatch the idea to hoist Ollie up to the second story window. While Ollie is in mid-air, Stan decides to get a better grip and lets go of the rope. Ollie falls to the ground. During the argument that follows, Stan manages to flip Ollie back on to the ground. When Ollie tries to retaliate, Stan lets go of the rope and Ollie falls back again.

Using Dinah, they manage to hoist Ollie up to the window but when Stan goes back to give him the tools, Ollie’s weight lifts the mule up to the landing as he plummets through the doors of the cellar. This noise, of course, reawakens Finn and Lola.

Leaving the mule upstairs, they gain entrance through the cellar coming up through a trapdoor in the floor. Mary comes out of her room and screams, causing Stan to drop the door on Ollie’s head, which is now sticking up through it.

Ollie ends up with his head through a trapdoor.

Meanwhile, Lola has gotten Finn to get up again and he comes downstairs again with his rifle. They put a bucket over Ollie’s head and Mary hides Stan in a closet just before Finn arrives. He goes back to bed, but not before sending Mary to her room. On his way out, he kicks the bucket, hurting his foot in the process.

In an attempt to free Ollie, Stan stands on the trapdoor and pulls up on his neck, stretching it to many times its natural length before it snaps back and Ollie falls through the hole.

Meanwhile, Finn goes back to bed holding his rifle and Dinah starts to eat the furniture.

Now freed, Stan and Ollie continue their quest. But Stan can’t resist a slot machine, which makes a lot of noise when it pays off. It, of course, wakes Finn once again.

In their argument about the noise, the candle again goes out and Stan lights his thumb again. Ollie, who still can’t understand how he does that, tries it for himself and is surprised when his own thumb lights up.

At gunpoint, Ollie makes Finn open the safe and hand over the deed.

His scream brings Finn downstairs and the boys hide in a grand piano. Finn discovers them in there and plays the piano so that the keys are hitting them in the face. When they can’t take it any longer, they try to get out, but Finn pushes the cover back on top of them, pushing them all the way through the piano. In the confusion that follows, Ollie takes control of the rifle and forces Finn to open the safe and hand over the deed. Then, at gunpoint, they march him back to his bed, tying him up in his sheets. Ollie suspends him from the chandelier in the room. Stan retrieves Dinah and, with Mary, beat a hasty retreat.

After their escape, Stan, Ollie, and Mary walk along the river, and Ollie and Mary discover that they are both from the South. Stan adds that he is from the south of London, and as the group sings about returning to Dixie, Ollie falls into a hole in the riverbed.

James Finlayson, who plays Mickey Finn, should look familiar to anyone who has watched a Laurel and Hardy film. The Hal Roach studios once touted Finlayson alongside Laurel and Hardy as a "famous comedy trio", as part of their All-Star Comedy series. However, his star began to fall when Leo McCarey, a staff producer at the studio, recognized the comedic potential of the Laurel and Hardy pairing. Soon, they became the focus of their own series. By the fall of 1928, Laurel and Hardy had their own series and Finlayson was reduced to a supporting role.

James Finlayson played the foil to Laurel and Hardy in many of their films.

As in Way Out West, Finlayson became the Boys’ cinematic foil, appearing in 33 of their films, including Another Fine Mess (1930), Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Flying Deuces (1939), and Saps at Sea (1940) to name a few. Interestingly, his trademark mustache was actually fake, a prop.

The female support roles, played by Sharon Lynne and Rosina Lawrence, could have been played by anyone as their parts were not all that remarkable. Interestingly, both actresses would appear in Way Out West towards the end of their respective careers. Rosina would get married in 1939 and retire from entertainment. Lynn, who had begun acting in silent films, saw her career fading and she would be out of the movies by 1938.

There is not much you can say about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that hasn’t already been said. They are comedic geniuses. Even if the material isn’t always up to par, they can make you laugh. In many cases, they are as funny with the dialogue as they are with the physical humor. In Way Out West, it is the physicality that saves the day.

As Frank S. Nugent wrote in his contemporary review in the New York Times, “they would not be funny if both were fat or both skinny.” Chris Farley once commented something to the effect that everyone loves to watch the fat man fall down. In this case, it’s Ollie falling through the roof of a building or his pulling the mule off the street as he falls through the doors to the cellar. There is also the physical humor of Stan eating and enjoying Ollie’s hat, as well as his ability to light his thumb.

Let’s not forget the silly and adorable, though possibly extended, dance they do outside the saloon. That dance is worth the price of admission. If you have never seen the film before, I would recommend it for that dance sequence alone. The film has the thinnest of plots but still manages to provide a good time for the viewer.

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