This essay has appeared in The Laurel and Hardy Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 10.
Way Out West is an anomaly in Laurel & Hardy's film career. Laurel & Hardy shorts and features, like most of the work from their producer Hal Roach, were taken for granted by everyone but the public. Contemporary critics sniffed their noses at L&H, and the movie industry regarded them as modest time-killers between the big-studio productions.
But Way Out West had something beyond its modest pretensions at Western-spoofing. Its jaunty score, superbly done by L&H veteran Marvin Hatley, was nominated for an Oscar. And in the wake of L&H's success, Western spoofs suddenly became the rage, as W.C. Fields, Mae West, and The Marx Brothers followed suit.
But as with most Hollywood spin- or rip-offs, none of them managed the charm of the original. This is the one everyone remembers, mostly because of a softshoe number that goes beyond comedy to touchingly demonstrate Stan and Ollie's underlying affection for each other. If you don't laugh at it, it's probably because you're crying with joy from it.
The plot concerns the deed to a late miner's valuable property, which the miner was naive enough to entrust to Stan and Ollie for its delivery to the miner's daughter, named Mary Roberts. Stan inadvertently spills the beans to Mary's evil caretaker (famed L&H scowler James Finlayson), who enlists his wife to impersonate Mary so they can snag the deed for themselves.
As plots (particularly Laurel & Hardy's) go, this one is pretty sturdy, though it's light enough to encompass three musical numbers (all low-key and charming) and tons of physical comedy within the film's 70 minutes. Most Laurel & Hardy feature films were criticized for trying to shoehorn brief L&H routines in between the "straight" plots or romantic interests, but this movie is pure Laurel & Hardy in every sense.
Among the movie's highlights are a chase scene that culminates in Stan's nearly being tickled to death, and an endlessly inventive burglary scene involving nothing more than a block-and-tackle and a mule (who gets a cast credit, and deserves it). And of course, there are the wonderful musical numbers. (40 years after the movie's release, two of these songs were released on a record in Britain and went straight to #1.)
The best-loved comedians are inevitably the ones who make us think they're us. This movie has a running gag of Ollie confidently negotiating a stream, only to be continually sucked in by an unseen pothole. It's a perfect metaphor for Laurel & Hardy and their ongoing audience appeal.
(Click here to visit our webpage devoted exclusively to this movie.)
(C) 2002, Steven Bailey.