“Laurel and Hardy: Year One,” a definitive and essential two-disc Blu-ray set out now from Flicker Alley, collects “The Lucky Dog” along with the first 15 shorts in which they both appeared. The shorts, released primarily in 1927, witness the evolution and blossoming of their partnership.
In Leonard Maltin’s Movie Comedy Teams, Billy Gilbert, who appeared in nine Laurel and Hardy films, shares an anecdote I fear is too good to be true, in which Richard Burton informed wife Elizbeth Taylor that after having done several films together, he wanted to do his next one alone. “We don’t want to become another Laurel and Hardy,” he supposedly told her. Liz’s response: “What’s so bad about Laurel and Hardy?”
They charmed even the so-called “sick comedian” Lenny Bruce. “The relationship that Laurel and Hardy had was so delightful and such a hard thing to do,” he said in a 1959 radio broadcast included on the four-CD box set, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware. “You really feel a sincere love there.”
“Year One” was three years in the making. The accompanying booklet credits Blackhawk Films, archives around the world, “dozens of collectors,” and a group of “Laurel and Hardy specialists,” including Randy Skretvedt, author of Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, for compiling the materials, discovering long-lost treasures and meticulous restorations. That we now have the once long-lost Holy Grails in the Laurel and Hardy canon, “Duck Soup,” and the complete-ish “The Battle of the Century” with its epic pie-fight-to-end-all-pie-fights (3,000 pies were reportedly used in the skirmish), is testament to the miracles of film preservation, and a tantalizing tease at what other treasures are out there waiting to be unearthed.
Laurel and Hardy were Hal Roach contract players, and it is clear the legendary producer with his deep bench of comic players—the Our Gang kids, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chase—did not fully appreciate what he had in them. To be fair, neither, apparently, did Laurel and Hardy. According to Leonard Maltin’s indispensable Movie Comedy Teams, Laurel’s response to how he and his screen partner were teamed replied, “We just sort of came together—naturally.”
In the bulk of these shorts, Laurel and Hardy are just cast members. In “Call of the Cuckoo” and “Slipping Wives,” it is Max Davidson and Priscilla Dean, respectively, who receive top billing. In “45 Minutes from Hollywood,” Laurel and Hardy are never in the same shot. But watching them play characters counter to their familiar personae, the dithering man-child and his grandiosely self-appointed benefactor, is fun and fascinating. In “Sailors, Beware,” for example, they are adversaries.