I’ve been watching Laurel and Hardy since I was very young, when they were a daily presence on local television, but I’ve never seen their films look or sound as good as they do on the new four-disc set LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS (Kit Parker Films). The Hal Roach library has been neglected and mishandled for years. In recent years, UCLA Film and Television Archive embarked on a dedicated program of 35mm photochemical restorations, spurred on by Jeff Joseph, who then did a digital “pass” to add the finishing touch. (UCLA also established a Laurel & Hardy Preservation Fund, to which many devotees contributed.)
The results are simply glorious. Nineteen shorts and two features (Sons of the Desert and Way Out West) are spotlighted here, including the long-lost silent gem The Battle of the Century with its unforgettable pie fight. There are many people responsible for giving these films the attention they required, including the aforementioned Jeff Joseph, Scott MacQueen, Richard W. Bann, Randy Skretvedt, Jon Mirsalis, and Kit Parker, who has released this welcome collection.
The generous set includes commentary tracks and some 2,500 images: publicity stills, photos of deleted scenes, trailers, original posters, scripts, and contracts, along with vintage audio and video interviews with L&H colleagues and coworkers and the first good copies I’ve ever seen of the wartime short The Tree in a Test Tube and the Ship’s Reporter interview with Oliver Hardy. For Brats and Berth Marks you can listen to the original background music or the scores that accompanied their 1937 reissue.
I’ve seen great shorts like Helpmates, Hog Wild, Towed in a Hole, and The Music Box over and over again but once I dipped my toe into this collection I couldn’t stop. Even if you already own an L&H dvd set you owe it to yourself to add this to your library. It’ll knock your eyes out…and make you smile.
The same compliment I just paid Laurel & Hardy goes for Abbott and Costello and the new release of Africa Screams (1949), beautifully restored in 4K from original 35mm nitrate elements by the 3D Film Archive. Because the film has been so widely available the folks behind this endeavor have worked hard to find bonus material: outtakes and gag-reel highlights, an unedited Abbott and Costello radio show with Bela Lugosi (including Lou’s studio audience warmup) as well as the finished program that aired on ABC, a fascinating two-minute film of Lou Costello talking to Max Baer and Joe Louis from 1940, a restored A&C 3-D comic book (glasses included) and other entertaining odds and ends, including an introduction and commentary by A&C expert Ron Palumbo. But the main attraction is the film itself, looking better than anyone could possibly imagine. It’s not one of the duo’s best but it has its moments and a great supporting cast, including two very funny men: Shemp Howard and Joe Besser. It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray from ClassicFlix. (www.classicflix.com)
Just when you thought you’d seen (and purchased) all the Keaton you need, along comes The Criterion Collection with a gorgeous copy of The Cameraman, with a brand-new orchestral score composed by the estimable Timothy Brock—plus Buster’s final silent feature Spite Marriage as a “bonus feature.” (Incidentally, no one mentions that the synchronized score for Spite Marriage recorded when the film was new is full of musical jokes, using popular songs of the day like “Jealous” and “I Faw Down an Go Boom” to comment on the action. Audiences of the time would have recognized these songs immediately and enjoyed these cues.)
The company also commissioned filmmaker Daniel Raim to present Time Travelers, a breathtaking short piece about Keaton locations in L.A. featuring master sleuth John Bengtson and historian Marc Wanamaker. I’ve never seen a more meaningful or resonant presentation of then-and-now footage. Even Don Malkames’ 25-minute documentary about the first generation of movie cameras is surprisingly compelling. I saw Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird’s lovely TCM special So Funny It Hurt (about Keaton at MGM) when it first aired in 2004, but I enjoyed watching it again and spending quality time with its host (and my dear friend) James Karen. There’s a good reason Criterion maintains its status as the Gold Standard when it comes to classic cinema.
p.s. Criterion has also released a beautiful Blu-ray edition of Preston Sturges’s brilliantly funny The Lady Eve (1941). Sturges’s son Tom asked if I would participate in a round-robin discussion of the film with fellow critics Kenneth Turan and Susan King and filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich, James L. Brooks, and Ron Shelton. We all had the joy of revisiting this hilarious movie and sharing our joy (and observations) with a simpatico panel, moderated by Tom. I can’t be objective, of course, but we had great fun chatting about a movie we all love and I hope that comes across.