Retro Review: Way Out West (1937).
One of Laurel and Hardy’s most iconic comedies, Way Out West exemplifies the transition from silent to sound films. Not always for the best.
After being charmed by Jon S. Baird’s love letter to Laurel and Hardy, I wanted to dive deeper into the iconic comedic duo. As Way Out West was the film featured through most of Stan & Ollie, I decided to start there. Way Out West is an interesting film. It’s funny, but I wouldn’t class it with contemporary comedy classics like Chaplin‘s Modern Times. It feels like a short film or two reeler blown up to fit a full length run time. The way its elements are welded together, it more resembles a variety show than a comedy western.
Ultimately, Way Out West feels like an artifact. It is easy to pick out which elements come from which traditions that came before it. It is also easy to see which elements went on to become staples of the genre. It’s not hard to see where Abbott and Costello got their shtick, and where variety show funnymen like Benny Hill took inspiration from. Way Out West may not be the best Laurel and Hardy “talkie”, but it is a fascinating transitional fossil from a dynamic period of film history.
Way Out West (1937)
Two hapless tramps (Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy) are headed out west to Brushwood Gulch. An acquaintance of theirs passed away, leaving his loaded goldmine to an estranged daughter (Rosina Lawrence). The duo are to locate her and give her the deed to the mine, but are intercepted by a greedy saloon owner and his imperious daughter (Sharon Lynn). The owner passes his daughter off as the missing daughter and secures the deed. When Laurel and Hardy find the real heir slaving away in the saloon’s kitchen, they come up with a scheme to steal the deed back and save the day.
To understand Way Out West’s structure, you have to get a feeling for the era it grew out of. Laurel and Hardy started their career making short comedy films. The movie going experience during the time would see patrons pay a fee to view several 20 minute “two reelers”. Most of these were comedies and cartoons, but you also got musicals, westerns, and war films. When the industry transitioned to longer features, many studios adapted their stories to fit established audience tastes. Variety films like The Show of Shows (1929) were popular as they found narrative gimmicks to have comedy skits, musical numbers, and dramatic adventure stories. This built off the popularity of vaudeville, another entertainment medium that featured multiple acts and was popular up until the late 1930’s. From this perspective, it’s easy to see why Laurel (who began in vaudeville) and Hardy would make their film like several short films cobbled together with a larger narrative arc.
That doesn’t mean it’s not distracting to modern audiences, though! We open with a can-can dance, then a stereotypical western saloon burlesque, before even meeting Stan and Ollie. As soon as they get into town after an unrelated sequence of pratfalls, we’re treated to the prairie crooning of the Avalon Boys, to which Laurel and Hardy do their iconic pantomime dance. As soon as they’re inside, we get another comedy skit, followed by a song. The first 20 minutes of the film feels like four separate reels, with only the thinnest threads connecting them.
The second half of the film does settle into a stable narrative, with the revelation of the will, the plotting of the villains and the heroic rescue of the deed. I was apprehensive about the dialogue being subpar, “Talkie Terror” -where you hear a silent film star talk and it’s dreadful – being a real thing. Laurel and Hardy were natural verbal comedians, and had fine voices for singing, especially Oliver. Their banter was so natural and engaging, you can see how their routines set the stage for other comedy film duos. While the patter wasn’t as sharp as it would become under Abbott and Costello, it was good.
Unfortunately, much of Way Out West is dated, even by 1937 standards. The slapstick is persistent and a throwback to older, silent comedies. The camera work is lousy in places, with lots of jump cuts and poorly timed wipes. Some scenes just cut to black once the joke is over, making the pacing herky-jerky. There are some surprising special effects, such as time-lapse to show Stan and Ollie high-tailing it out of town or wire work to make it look like Hardy is shaking the villain incredibly hard. Sadly, man of the effects are cheapo, like a dummy being dropped instead of Hardy: it looks nothing like him (or a real person) and the awkward angle used to hide its face is a dead give-away. There’s also a cartoon-esque moment where Laurel pulls on Hardy’s trapped head and his neck stretches out for feet. It looks ghastly instead of funny.
Hard Living on the Frontier.
Way Out West has a few charming moments and funny bits, but they’re isolated islands. Most of the best stuff was recreated in Stan & Ollie…and was funnier out of context. For fans of classic comedy, either watch Laurel and Hardy’s earlier movie shorts or their more competently crafted films like Sons of the Desert. Film buffs will likely get a kick out of seeing such a pristine example of the medium in change. If you wanted to sketch the evolution of film, you could easily pencil in Way Out West right between vaudeville and comedies of the 40’s and 50’s. Besides as a film artifact, I can’t really say Way Out West stands out against the larger body of work of these two icons.