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Senior Shackster
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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
If you're a Laurel and Hardy fan, tracking down good DVD copies is quite
a challenge. I had heard good things about the British 21 disc box set which contained most of their sound features and shorts although some important titles are not in the collection. I even spoke to a 'Sons of the Desert' member (fan club) who swore by this import.


The first thing you have to be aware of is that it's a Region 2 PAL release so
you'll need an all regions player to watch them. I recently purchased a
Toshiba SD-560SR unit for $74 on Amazon which works adequetely for this.
It doesnt' have a HDMI or DVI output, just component and S-Video but these
movies wouldn't look good if projected so I just play them on a standard
TV monitor through the S-Video port which works fine.


Here's the problem with anything produced by Hal Roach...


He was one of the great Hollywood producers in that he allowed a lot of
of creative freedom for his artists. Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy along with
the directors of the "Our Gang" series were given close to a free hand when
making their classic comedies. He had his own film studio which was tagged
"the Lot of Fun" because most of what they produced there were comedies.
Roach secured a distribution deal with Pathe and then MGM in the twenties and
thirties to distribute his product. Some of the funniest movies of all
times were produced by Roach and he even directed a number of the shorts
and features. Incredibly, he outlived most of his stars (and family) and
died at age 100.


But there was a downside of Roach as fans of his pictures are well aware
of. He was extremelly cheap and his movies often look it. His sound mixes
are primitive if not bad with sloppy music editing and room tone popping
in and out of the dialogue. The other problem was that once he had spent the
money to make a particular movie, he refused to spend another dime on it. He
had the old fashioned Hollywood attitude of trying to derive as much income
out of the negative as possible while refusing to spend a single penny to preserve them. In contrast, Harold Lloyd spent a small fortune purchasing the nitrate negatives of his Roach produced movies many years after they were made and transferred them to safety film at his own personal expense. Had he asked
Roach to contribute to their preservation, I have no doubt he would've laughed
at the comedian.


After the MGM contract expired, Roach re-packaged and sold the surviving Laurel and Hardy movies to Film Classics for re-issue and then Janus. 16mm and Super 8 sound copies were available through Blackhawk Films in the seventies. These movies were printed to death and some were re-edited with new music and new
title/credit sequences. They were a shambles but as long as there was 'something'
to sell to 'somebody' it's unlikely the producer cared. The concept was to make
money from the old plastic, not to save it as a work of art (and still make money
from it accordingly).


The rights eventually returned to his estate after his death which sold them to Hallmark (the Greeting Card company) and they own them with the exception of foreign
countries where Universal has the rights. Roach didn't make fine grain masters of the original negatives and then duplicate negatives for re-issue. He kept shipping out the camera negatives which got scratched, worn, damaged and re-copied over and over (losing generations and printing in the accumulated damage) from each company that marketed the movies. For the sound films that meant that different distributors had different quality duplicate negatives. Apparently, for the US releases of the Laurel and Hardy movies, the negatives they had were of very poor quality. Soft focus, grainy and extremelly worn. The negatives that Universal had access to for the British release are probably the best that exist on the sound titles. I read they were from German sources (intermediate materials derived directly from the nitrate originals). Now let me qualify that. Most of the sound features and shorts in this PAL collection are sharp, reasonably fine grain and have good contrast compared to the US copies of the same movies. At the end of each disc there is a menu that states they were preserved and restored from the best 35mm elements. They may well have found the best materials for the sound films overseas but certainly not for the silent pictures which look terrible here.


I guess it's time to start getting specific about the words 'preservation' and
'restoration'.

Preservation means re-copying the film onto a stable film stock that's not going
to deteriorate. For pre-1950 nitrate movies, that means transferring the films
from that highly volatile stock (flammable and subject to compete disintigration)
to either tri-acetate of estar base stock. Obviously, the closer you can get to
the source (original nitrate camera negative), the better the duplicate negative
is going to look. In the case of this PAL collection, it appears that for most
of the sound films they had duplicate materials close to the nitrate negative
although there are some titles that are clearly 'dupes' farther removed which
look poor (i.e. "Wrong Again"). But overall, it's the best contrast and
sharpness I've seen on their sound pictures.


Restoration is another issue completely. Restoration means to go through the
digital masters on a frame by frame basis and fix (clone out, paint out etc.) all
of the accumulated dust, dirt, scratches and other wear from decades of
printing. It can work miracles and make a movie look brand new (i.e.
Hitchcock's "Lady Vanishes", Chaplin's "Modern Times"). Now that's a major expense if the film is over fifty years old and was popular as the Laurel and Hardy films were. None of the sound movies in this collecion have been 'restored'. They have all of the wear still on the image. Depending on the title, it's barely noticeable to extremelly distracting. The
features appear to be in better shape than the shorts. Universal is a major
film company and they certainly could've afforded to digitally restore everything
in this collection but they didn't. All we can hope for is that some day they
will...perhaps a future blu ray release. The problem remains is that the same
materials used for these transfers might not be available in the US so that will
require an all regions blu ray machine to watch them in the future. I guess I'll
say that they don't look any worst in terms of damage than they did when
I screened them on broadcast television as a kid and these PAL versions are
certainly better than the US copies so it's better than nothing for the time
being.


I'm not sure how to review the team. Either you like this type of
classic slapstick/vaudeville humor or you don't. I don't subscribe to
those that claim that Laurel and Hardy were the 'best' comedy team.
They were unique unto themselves as were Abbott and Costello,
the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges and Hope and Crosby. It's somewhat
pointless to compare them and say one team was better than the
other since they were so different. That aside, there were some
similarities based on comedy formulas of the era. Laurel and Hardy
had funny haircuts and/or facial hair. Laurel looked like an eighties
punk rocker with his hair sticking out of his head as if he'd put his
finger in a socket. Hardy was balding and had a ratty looking postage stamp
size mustache, similar to Chaplins. After the forties, no one wore them
again because of their association with Hitler. Comic dancing was
also a staple in Vaudeville and there are a few films where Laurel and
Hardy do a little dance number which is quite amusing. However,
their pacing was much slower than the Stooges or Abbott and Costello.
Hardy had a nice tenor and every once in a while he'd break into
a song which was another nice touch.


Regarding slapstick, Laurel and Hardy were just as violent and sadistic as the Stooges but did their slapstick in a 'charming' way. That may seem like a strange comment but that's how they played for me. I find them hysterically funny at their best. The relationship between the two comedians worked perfectly. They were
older than most comedy teams and middle aged when they became famous
in the sound era. Stan wears heavy make up to hide his age. Stan plays
the clueless one and heavy Ollie the pompous one who is just as dumb but
doesn't know it. Like the Stooges, most of their shorts involve them attempting
to do something simple and screwing it up completely. In "Towed in a Hole"
they try to fix a boat and end up trashing it. Stan was the creative leader of
the team and was involved with the direction, staging and editing of the movies.
He preferred the shorts to the features. I guess one of their major contributions
to comedy technique (and one that no other comedian or team has attempted
to copy) is their 'tit for tat' humor. Either the two men or the team against
a third party will begin to do damage to the other or their property. The joke
is that while one of them is doing the damage, the other person doesn't interfere
until they've finished, then they react. It's a very amusing bit.


Stan had a fondness for British black humor along the lines of what Hitchcock
and the Monty Python gang incorporated into their work. So some of the
shorts have some grotesque elements like the ending of one where the villain
has broken their legs and tied them around their necks. There's even a
short where they get killed! It's not in every one but you'll be surprised
when it pops up now and again. Apparently Roach hated those bits but
Stan was allowed to include them.


The features are quite different in tone than the shorts but enabled them to
develop thier quirks and personalities more. You'll recognize most of the plots
which were vaudeville formulas used by other comedians. For example, in one
of the funniest films, "Sons of the Desert" they try to sneak away to a convention
without their wives knowledge. This devise was used for the "Racoons" convention
in The Honeymooners which was the most successful Laurel and Hardy clone.
The difference for L&H is that the wives are real shrews in these films who not
only nag their husbands but often pull out weapons like knives or shotguns to
threaten them with. Since many of these movies are Depression era comedies,
the boys are often unemployed or homeless and a great deal of humor comes
out of their status.


I happen to be fond of their operettas like "Babes in Toyland" and "Fra Diavolo"
(neither of which is in this collection) and "The Bohemian Girl" (which is). The
musical numbers often contained good singers and the team looks so ludicrous and
anachronistic in period clothing and wigs, you laugh at their appearance
and antics within this context.


If I were to pick some of my favorite shorts contained here I'd say they were
"The Music Box" (the Oscar winning film where they attempt to deliver a piano),
"Brats" (where they play their own children with some clever split screen effects),
"County Hospital" (wrecking havic in a ward), "Tit for Tat" (the title describes their
unique comedy technique), "The Fixer Uppers" (title tells all) and "Below Zero"
(they're street musicians). The amount of wear varies per film. A number of shorts
are very dated and you have to know some history to appreciate ones like "Blotto"
which deals with Prohibition which was still in effect at the time.

My favorite features in this box set are "Sons of the Desert", "Way Out West" (which
has their famous dance routine), "A Chump at Oxford" (Stan's best performance since he transforms into an upper class academic after a bump on the head) and "The Bohemian Girl". They are in above average condition compared to many
of the shorts.


Also contained in this set are some of the silents which range from passable
("Two Tars", "Big Business") to unwatchabe dupes which were grainy copies derived from worn prints instead of negatives ("Flying Elephants"). Don't waste time screening them since all of the silent shorts are available in another series released in the US entitled "The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy". Most of them look sensational (better than the sound films) since they were derived from duplicate elements that came directly from the original nitrate negatives. The story on them is that the silents were only released once in the twenties then Roach stuck the negatives in storage and forgot about them for decades. At one point in time he was going to junk them since he wasn't deriving income from them but the Museum of Modern Art persuaded him to donate them to that museum and they were saved. MOMA copies the nitrate negatives directly onto safety film and they look sensational. The Laurel and Hardy silent shorts are funnier than Chaplin, Lloyd
and Keaton in terms of the gags. Probably the wildest comedies made in the
era, in many cases better than the sound shorts. I still get enraged with
Roach whom I admire so much as a producer but am so angry at his complete
lack of commitment (depraved indifference?) for preserving his films. It's amazing
anything survived.



One thing I did find intriquing in this box set is that they even included some shorts
where Laurel and Hardy were only guest stars in the film. Charley Chase's "On the
Wrong Trek" shows them as hitchikers and the Max Davidson silent short "Call of the
Cukoos" has them as next door neighbors. The latter appears to be from the negative so it's one of the few silent shorts that looks good here. Davidson shorts are very rare and not shown too often since he plays a Hasidic man using ethnic stereotypes for laughs. He's best remembered as the crazy hermit in one of the Our Gang shorts who keeps saying "I Know...but I won't Tell Ya!".

Another suppliment which is a real curio are the Spanish versions of their
early shorts. I'm not talking about dubbed prints but separate movies filmed
in that language with Laurel and Hardy speaking their lines phonetically.
That's how they released the pictures in foreign countries before they
figured out how to dub or subtitle them. There's also a clip of the German
version of "Pardon Us". Some of the sound shorts were computer colorized
and are here but they look terrible. Stick with the black and white versions.
The final suppliment is a mediocre documentary about the team using awful colorized clips as samples. If you want to watch brilliant documentaries
about famous comedians (Chaplin, Keaton etc.), screen those made by Kevin Brownlow. He's the one of the best non-fiction producers of all time.
The one here is a puff piece of little merit.


In summary, if you're a fan of the team, it's worth purchasing this 21 disc PAL
box set for the sound shorts and features which are in better shape than the ones released in the States. It costs about $120 right now converting dollars into Euros although look up the exchange rate before ordering so you know what will be charged to your credit card. You can get it by logging onto Amazon.co.uk
You can find all regions players on Amazon but I advise purchasing one ready
to show PAL out of the box rather than one that you have to program to be
all regions.



Their remaining features are available in good quality transfers in the US including
"Babes in Toyland" (released by Goldwyn), and the "Fra Diavolo"/"Bonnie Scotland" disc (released by Warners/MGM). They have a two color Technicolor clip of their only 'lost' feature which is "The Rogue Song". Avoid the other domestic DVDs of the team since they look much worse than the PAL transfers.


"Flying Dueces" and "Utopia" are both public domain and I've never seen good DVDs
of these two titles which are among the team's weakest. "Utopia" was their swan
song and they look horrible in it. Very depressing to watch since Stan was so aged
and sick during the production.



The silent shorts are available in nine separate discs titled "The Lost Films of Laurel
and Hardy" and they look very good but are out of print and quite expensive to
purchase if you can find them at all.



Overall, it's a frustrating state of affairs for the classic comedy team of Laurel and Hardy. They certainly deserved better releases than what's available right now.
Look at how beautifully preserved most of the Abbott & Costello and Martin
& Lewis films are on DVD. No excuse not to make excellent restored versions
of L & H.
 

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Senior Shackster
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Discussion Starter · #2 · (Edited)
I did some more research into the status of the Laurel and Hardy negatives and
here's what I found out...

The German Kinowelt company apparently owns the rights to most of their sound
films (features, shorts) for Europe. They have the best quality duplicate negatives
(sharp, fine grain with good contrast). Universal owns the rights of these films
for England only and they just utilized the German video masters. So Universal
did not have the option to restore them from original elements. I can't blame
them for the problems in the 21 disc collection released in the UK.

In the US Hallmark owns the rights to most of the sound films. From what I gather
they don't have access to the German negatives and have their own American
duplicate negatives which are in very poor shape (grainy, dupey looking,
poor contrast and soft focus). Between Film Classics and Janus re-issues,
they've become very worn over the years.

The exceptions are "Fra Diavolo" and "Bonnie Scotland" which are owned by
MGM/Warner (good condition negatives but they could use a final digital
clean up of some dust and scratches) and "Babes in Toyland" which is owned
by Goldywn company and it's successors (very good quality uncut negative
fully restored in both B&W and colorized version although the sound track is
a bit shrill).

"Flying Deuces" and "Utopia" are both in the public domain and I've never seen
a good print of them nor do I know where negative elements are or who has them.

The silent films are owned by Hal Roach Studios (the remnants of his corporate
entity) and most are in excellent shape since they were preserved by the Museum
of Modern Art. None have been digitally restored to remove artifacts but the contrast,
sharpness and gray scale are better than most of the sound films which were duped
off and/or printed a lot more over the decades.

So it's basically up to the German Kinowelt company for any future high definition
blu ray release. If they choose to digitally restore their negatives to remove accumulated
dust, scratches and wear, they could look great in a future blu-ray release. However,
even if they do, it's unlikely that Hallmark will have access to them so that means buying
a region free blu-ray player which are available on Amazon but are very expensive.
I guess I'll have no choice but to get one some day in the future if Kinowelt does fully
restore them for that format. If not, I'll have to live with the standard DVD versions
of the films. As I mentioned above, most of the features are in good to very
good shape. Titles like "The Bohemian Girl" and "Our Relations" look almost
brand new. The shorts are mess though and all over the place ranging from
pretty good to a wreck with so much damage it looks like someone walked
on the negatives. Since their sound shorts represent some of the team's
funniest films, it's a pity that they probably will not be digitally cleaned
up or available in better shape in the near future. Features have always
been a lot more marketable than shorts then and now.

Hopefully MGM/Warner will re-issue their two films from their negatives on blu-ray
(and digitally clean them up a bit) and "Babes in Toyland" will also be released
in the format.


Since I'm in the film business, I can tell you that digital restoration or CGE
is astronomically expensive. Photochemcial optical effects (fades, dissolves,
f/x or duplicate negatives) are charged by the foot. Digital imagery is charged
by the frame (24 frames per second) and afterwards you still have
to output it back to film which is another charge. The other problem with
digital restoration is that it's unlikely it will be a one time effort. They keep
upgrading the machines in terms of pixel count. The older 2K restorations
are now obsolete and most studios are restoring films at 4K but they've developed
a 6K unit which will improve the quality even more some time in the future.
It's going to be very expensive to operate a film library and preserve and
restore motion pictures. That's why I wish the Hal Roach films were owned
by a large entity like Warner Brothers/MGM rather than a small one like
Hallmark which isn't going to fund this type of effort.
 

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Another suppliment which is a real curio are the Spanish versions of their early shorts. I'm not talking about dubbed prints but separate movies filmed
in that language with Laurel and Hardy speaking their lines phonetically.
That's how they released the pictures in foreign countries before they
figured out how to dub or subtitle them. There's also a clip of the German
version of "Pardon Us". Some of the sound shorts were computer colorized
and are here but they look terrible. Stick with the black and white versions.
The final suppliment is a mediocre documentary about the team using awful colorized clips as samples. If you want to watch brilliant documentaries
about famous comedians (Chaplin, Keaton etc.), screen those made by Kevin Brownlow. He's the one of the best non-fiction producers of all time.
The one here is a puff piece of little merit.

In summary, if you're a fan of the team, it's worth purchasing this 21 disc PAL
box set for the sound shorts and features which are in better shape than the ones released in the States. It costs about $120 right now converting dollars into Euros although look up the exchange rate before ordering so you know what will be charged to your credit card.
I wish they had excluded the colorized versions and included other films instead. If this was all they had I would have just released a set with fewer DVD's. However, I nailed this set for 30 pounds brand new, so I shouldn't complain.
 
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