It’s a cultural crime that the greatest comedy team of all time has been so forsaken on DVD…until now. Therefore, I’m happy to report that Laurel & Hardy The Essential Collection (Vivendi) fully lives up to its name. It includes all of the team’s talkie shorts—including the ones they made in foreign languages for the international market—and most of their feature films for producer Hal Roach. (A handful of these films were released several years ago, but in slipshod fashion, using syndicated TV masters with fade-outs for commercial breaks!)
I know many people who were so desperate to have this material that they purchased all-region DVD players just so they could play the British boxed set of L&H comedies some years ago. That nicely-packaged collection also included colorized editions, which most fans wouldn’t bother to watch.
Now, thanks to the untiring efforts of Richard Bann, the Roach library has been treated right on this 10-disc set. The original MGM logo and art-deco main titles, which were replaced decades ago, have been faithfully restored. Vivendi has used the best 35mm source material available and transferred the films in high-definition. (This in no way minimizes the need for this collection to undergo thorough modern-day preservation of the original sound and picture elements, as the UCLA Film and Television Archive is doing right now. Learn more HERE.)
I haven’t had time to watch every film in its entirety, but I’m very happy with what I’ve sampled, including the best-looking copy of the Oscar-winning short The Music Box I’ve ever seen. The packaging and menus are attractive and the liner notes by Dick Bann couldn’t be better. Dick has also recorded several commentary tracks which are jam-packed with background information no one else could provide. (Dick has devoted much of his life to researching the films of Hal Roach, and spent many years as Mr. Roach’s trusted confidant. He and I collaborated on a book, The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang years ago.) He is joined by comedy scholar and aficionado Rich Correll—they have so much to say about Hog Wild that it requires two separate audio tracks—and Hal Roach music expert Piet Schreuders. A separate commentary for Sons of the Desert features lifelong L&H enthusiasts Chuck McCann and Tim Conway, who know a thing or two about comedy.
A tribute to Stan and Ollie features McCann and Conway on camera along with such notable fans as Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Bob Einstein, and Penn and Teller. Dick Bann is joined by fellow experts Bob Satterfield, Jimmy Wiley II and Jimmy III for a lively tour of Laurel and Hardy locations, then and now.
But wait—there’s more. The short-subject Laughing Gravy features ten minutes of footage that was never released in the U.S. (but was adopted for the foreign-language versions). There are also complete versions of the three Hal Roach talkie shorts in which L&H made unbilled guest appearances: On the Loose with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, Wild Poses with Our Gang, and On the Wrong Trek with Charley Chase, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture short The Tree in a Test Tube (1942), the only time Laurel and Hardy were filmed in color. There are even rarely-seen original-issue preview trailers for Pack Up Your Troubles, A Chump at Oxford, and Saps at Sea.
I grew up watching these films every single day on local television; kids who came of age over the past thirty years haven’t seen so lucky, and neither have Laurel and Hardy, who have receded from their position of prominence in our culture. It’s high time they were reintroduced, and this DVD set will go a long way towards that goal. (Turner Classic Movies also makes good use of the Hal Roach library, but that doesn’t compare to the ubiquitous presence these movies had in the early days of television.)
To complete your library of Laurel & Hardy on DVD, you should also own the double-feature The Devil’s Brother and Bonnie Scotland, beautifully restored and released several years ago by Warner Home Video. (Dick Bann and I can be heard on their commentary tracks.)
And if you want to know the long, sad story of how the Roach library has been passed from hand to hand, and mistreated along the way, you should read Dick’s exhaustive essay on the subject at the official Laurel and Hardy website HERE.
Now all we have to do is get the Laurel and Hardy silent shorts to be released with the same loving care.
Leonard Maltin is a respected film critic and historian, perhaps best known for his annual paperback reference Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which was first published in 1969. It was joined by Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide in 2005—newly revised in 2010. His latest book is Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen. Since 1982 he has appeared on television’s Entertainment Tonight; he also hosts Maltin on Movies on ReelzChannel and introduces movies on DirecTV Cinema. His other books include Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia, The Great American Broadcast, The Great Movie Comedians, and The Disney Films. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles, where he publishes a newsletter for old-movie buffs, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy, and holds court at www.leonardmaltin.com.