THE LAUREL & HARDY
Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations
MVD Visuals / Kit Parker / Sprocket Vault
Blu-ray $79.95, DVD $59.95
Finally here: the long awaited, much anticipated 4-disc collection of Laurel & Hardy – the screen’s most beloved comedy team – and some of their best work.
By now, I’m sure readers of this website are aware of poor preservation over the years on the Hal Roach catalog of L&H films (1926-1940). The originals were so popular that they were printed to death, and the studio’s financial woes in the ‘40s and ‘50s ensured that no effort was made to take care of original materials – or in some cases first and second generation copies. A few years ago, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Foundation embarked on a massive search-and-rescue mission to restore the existing films from the best surviving elements, partially funded by L&H fans themselves. The result wowed everyone lucky enough to see the restorations in their limited theatre engagements, and we were promised a collection on Blu-ray and DVD, and here it is, 17 short subjects and 2 feature films with more than 8 hours of bonus material. There is good news and bad news about the set, so let’s launch our overview, shall we?
No, make that…
Imagine everything you could possibly want as bonus material on a L&H set; that’s all here, plus more, much of it compiled and shared by Randy Skredvedt, probably the world’s leading expert on Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy and author of must-have books on the subject. Among the fascinating rarities are interviews Randy did with L&H co-workers like Anita Garvin, Billy Bletcher, and Hal Roach himself; vintage extra film footage; scripts and notes; commentary on each of the films by Richard Bann or Randy Skredtvedt; hundreds and hundreds of vintage stills and other promotional material; and three shorts of great interest, led by a restoration (for the first time ever) of the Boys’ 1927 classic Battle of the Century (the one with the colossal pie fight), including the “lost reel” discovered just a few years ago; the Technicolor WWII propaganda short Tree in a Test Tube; and the oddball That’s That, an outtake/blooper reel compiled in the late 1930s for Stan’s birthday.
If the set contained just the bonus material, I would find it worth the money and recommend it without reservation.
The set contains L&H’s two most popular features Way Out West (the one with the famous dance) and Sons of the Desert, plus a variety of fair to great short subjects, including The Music Box (the one with the piano and the impossibly high flight of stairs), County Hospital, Busy Bodies, Towed in a Hole, and Hog Wild, amongst many others. The sound has been cleaned up nicely on all of them; as part of this review, we compared the films with earlier DVD and Blu-ray releases, domestic and foreign, and the improved soundtracks struck us as the most impressive part of the upgrade.
The films have been meticulously restored, with flutter, scratches, and missing frames corrected beautifully. Some of the early talkies were reissued later with new musical soundtracks; in those cases, both soundtracks are included. The commentaries (some of which go on long after the film itself has ended) are wonderful. Which brings us to…
Somebody deserves a swift kick in the arse for a terrible, miserable, horrible decision to take the restorations they were handed and submit them to extra digital scrubbing to remove additional speckles or other minor issues. They overdid it (to say the least) and also removed the grain on many of the films (the thing that makes a film look look like a film and not like a video tape) and left us with a waxy sheen, a complete and total bastardization of the restorations that is both obvious and infuriating. We're currently enjoying the Blu-ray serial restorations VCI Entertainment has put out, including The Red Rider, and they look 100% better than these highly vaunted "restorations".
So, who is this “somebody” that's responsible? All I can tell you is what Kit Parker has said: “These Laurel & Hardy Films underwent photochemical restoration by UCLA. Unlike digital restoration, improvements in sound and picture are limited when working with celluloid. The digital technicians took the UCLA version and greatly improved on it, and the result was used in the collection.”
Ah. The “digital technicians.” And “greatly improved on it.” Uh-huh. I know one person who worked on the bonus material, who shall remain nameless, but who told me that they were aware that the films were, in their words, “over worked” but there was nothing they could do about that. For my part, I’m greatly disappointed at the heavy-handed digital scrubbing that was done, and thus withholding my support of a Vol. 2 (if there is one, after this) until I get some assurance that this abomination won’t be repeated.
Yeah, I'm pissed that I cannot recommend this set without reservations. But what great bonus material!
Page Two of the Laurel & Hardy Fun House