MOST of us who love Laurel and Hardy, I’ve found, came across them first as children. For my generation, that meant the extensive exposure their short films and features received on television in the ’50s and ’60s, when they were a staple of Saturday-morning and after-school programming. The two-reel shorts, with their 20-minute running times, fit nicely into half-hour slots, with time left over for introductions by the local kiddie host and plenty of commercials for toys and candy.
But television changed, and that exposure seemed to dwindle in the ’70s and ’80s, and fade out almost entirely in the ’90s. The films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, or at least that central group of sound shorts and several features that remained under the copyright control of the Hal Roach studios, largely dropped out of circulation, except for questionable bootleg videos that would surface here and there, or arrive as expensive European imports.
It’s been a long wait, but now the Roach films have returned in high style, as a 10-disc box set, “Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection,” produced by RHI Entertainment, the company that currently owns the Roach library, and distributed by Vivendi. This superbly assembled collection contains over 32 hours of material, including all of the sound shorts — 40, made between 1929 and 1935, as well as the feature-length “Pardon Us” (1931), “Pack Up Your Troubles” (1932), “Sons of the Desert” (1933), “The Bohemian Girl” (1936), “Our Relations” (1936), “Way Out West” (1937), “Swiss Miss” (1938), “Block-Heads” (1938), “A Chump at Oxford” (1940) and “Saps at Sea” (1940).
But wait, there’s more. The set also contains several foreign-language versions of the shorts, which were made in the days before dubbing was perfected and feature Stan and Ollie speaking phonetic Spanish and French. (There were a few German versions as well, though none are included here.) The alternate versions often include different gags and interpolated variety numbers to bring them up to feature length for foreign release. (For example, “Politiquerías,” the Spanish version of the 1931 “Chickens Come Home,” contains a complete performance by the Egyptian vaudeville star Hadji Ali, whose specialty — swallowing water, gasoline and small objects and regurgitating them in spectacular fashion — has sadly gone out of style.)
Most important, these are new transfers, scanned from restored copies of the original release versions — no small thing for these films, which were so often sliced, diced, rescored and retitled over the years, as they were reissued by various companies for various markets. If anything, these were movies that were loved too much, copied so frequently that the original negatives for many of the early shorts were worn out and either lost or junked. It’s a pleasure to see them with the original opening titles restored, the images unscratched and unspeckled, and the soundtracks cleaned up to the point where the delightful original scores by Leroy Shield and Marvin Hatley can be appreciated in all their chipper elegance.
That’s a pretty good deal for a list price of $99.98, but “The Essential Collection” remains a purchase for the committed fan, unlikely to attract many new converts. But perhaps those days have passed: it’s hard to imagine a child of the 21st century sitting still for these black-and-white images, so full of unfamiliar objects — from Stan and Ollie’s trademark derby hats to exotic items like radios the size of refrigerators, automobiles with exposed radiators and trolley cars running through the streets of Los Angeles.
And then there is the matter of pace. These are, for the most part, magisterially slow films, comedies in which an individual sight gag — Ollie falling into a water fountain, for example — is only the point of departure for a series of slow-burn reactions: Ollie’s baleful look directly into the camera, in which he seems to be soliciting the viewer’s sympathy, punctuated with a barely audible sigh of resignation; Stan’s gradations of surprise, incomprehension (was he really responsible for that?) and withdrawal into a state of blank-eyed obliviousness, as if the world and all its troubles had suddenly become too much for him, and he’s regressed into a perfectly serene, fetal state.
Their slapstick is inventive and comes with an almost encyclopedic exhaustiveness. It’s hard to imagine how one more gag could possibly be squeezed out of the basic situation — hauling a piano up a long flight of stairs — of their Oscar-winning 1932 short, “The Music Box.” But ultimately these are comedies of character, not of pratfalls and physical destruction.
During a spat in “Towed in a Hole” (1932) Ollie experiences a sudden (and well-known) moment of self-consciousness. “Isn’t this silly?” he says to Stan, who is about to douse him with a bucket of water, “Here we are, two grown-up men, acting like a couple of children.”
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But if at moments they are infants, they are equally likely to be rebellious adolescents (sneaking away from their domineering wives to go to a fraternity convention in their best feature, “Sons of the Desert”), dutiful employees (workers at a lumber yard in the elegantly improvised “Busy Bodies”) and even occasional authority figures (parents of look-alike children in the 1930 “Brats,” a pair of radio-patrol policemen in the 1933 “Midnight Patrol”).
In the brilliant film “Their First Mistake” (1932) the boys seem to pass through several major stages of human development in the space of 21 minutes, from a couple of bored kids lolling around on a lazy afternoon to the responsible custodians of an adopted child (passing through a wonderful scene in which Ollie assumes the role of a wronged woman and Stan becomes the caddish lover about to skip out).
Maturity remains a fluid and frequently elusive concept in Laurel and Hardy, which is certainly one of the reasons they appeal so much to children and remain a favorite of adults, who know how thin such facades can be. But what remains constant at every phase is the unbreakable bond of affection between the two friends, who seem at first so radically mismatched, both physically and temperamentally, but are ultimately inconceivable without each other. Among many other things “Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection” contains one of the most beautiful love stories the movies have ever told. (Vivendi Entertainment, $99.98, not rated)
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
CARS 2 The sequel to Pixar’s animated hit of 2006 finds the dashing racecar Lightning McQueen (with the voice of Owen Wilson) and his shambling pickup-truck pal (Daniel Whitney, or Larry the Cable Guy) chasing spies on the international racing circuit. With the voices of Bonnie Hunt, Eddie Izzard, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro and Joe Mantegna; John Lasseter and Brad Lewis directed. “The Tokyo sequences are especially gorgeous, a vibrant tribute to the anime aesthetic, streaked with neon and teeming with inventive pop cuteness,” A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times in June. (Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD combo $49.99; Blu-ray/DVD combo $39.99, DVD $29.99, G)
CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE When his wife of many years tells him she wants a divorce, a timid executive (Steve Carell) gets advice on living the single life from a swinging bachelor (Ryan Gosling). With Julianne Moore and Emma Stone; directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You Phillip Morris”). The movie “is a smooth blend of modern comic genres with a surprising undercurrent of dark, difficult emotion,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in July. (Warner Home Video, Blu-ray/DVD combo $35.99, DVD $28.98, PG-13)
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2 The final installment of the long-running franchise reaches apocalyptic proportions as the apprentice sorcerer (Daniel Radcliffe) confronts his noseless nemesis, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). David Yates directed; with Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and essentially every living British actor. “Childhood ends, this time forever, with tears and howls, swirls of smoke, the shock of mortality and bittersweet smiles,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The Times in July. (Warner Home Video, Blu-ray/DVD combo $35.99, Blu-ray $29.98, DVD $28.98, PG-13)
THE CHANGE-UP Jason Bateman as a family man who envies the freedom of his bachelor best friend (Ryan Reynolds) until an ancient Hollywood plot device causes them to switch bodies. David Dobkin directed; with Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde and Alan Arkin. “Mr. Bateman and Mr. Reynolds play together reasonably well, although their age difference (Mr. Reynolds is several years younger) is glaring,” Stephen Holden wrote in The Times in August. (Universal, Blu-ray/DVD combo $34.98, DVD $29.98, contains R and unrated editions)
BLUE VELVET A Blu-ray upgrade for David Lynch’s most resonant film (1986), the story of a small-town boy (Kyle McLachlan) who finds a severed human ear and goes in search of its former proprietor — a journey that leads him to an abused nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) and a gangster (Dennis Hopper). The movie “confirms Mr. Lynch’s stature as an innovator, a superb technician and someone best not encountered in a dark alley,” Janet Maslin wrote in The Times in 1986. (MGM, $24.99, R)