Way Out West - Production Sidelights

According to Ruth Laurel, as reported in STAN by Fred Lawrence Guiles, in the night scene where the boys try to break into a second story window, the first mule used as a counterweight to hoist Hardy broke its neck in an accident which sent the animal flying. Engineers believed to be competent advise that the stunt, as depicted, was physically impossible anyway. If true, presumably the mishap involving a stunt double for Dinah occurred after the incident recounted by Roy Seawright with respect to Laurel's stand-in, Ham Kinsey.

Even in Brushwood Gulch, the team wore bowler derby hats. In l962, Stan Laurel told producer Sam Sherman that the derby he was obliged to eat, like Spencer Tracy's pistol in ADAM'S RIB (l949), was actually made of licorice. Stan seemed to find the hat so tasty that Ollie had to deter him from finishing it.

Mr. Laurel was also asked about the scene where Ollie's neck is trapped between floorboards. Stan seizes Ollie's head, twists it around, the head snaps back, then Stan pulls Ollie up until his neck is about four feet long. Babe was standing on a turntable underneath. The head was made to spin around when the footage was optically printed backwards, and the head Stan lifted was made of rubber.

In one of the film's many running gags, when Stan turns his hand into a flaming lighter by flicking his thumb, Laurel explained he used a false hand made of asbestos. At Hal Roach Studios, following Harold Lloyd's accident, they knew all about false hands. Laurel got this idea on the set one day watching a gag man struggle with a cigarette lighter which wouldn't work.

All these surrealistic gags work for Stan, as opposed to Ollie, because we know Stan is not acquainted with the physical laws of nature, which therefore cannot retract him in any way. As a point of philosophy, all of us would be better off if we were unaware of reasons why we should not accomplish something!

One visual gag was staged previously for a l929 Our Gang comedy, ELECTION DAY. It's the very effective travelling shot of a huge cloud of dust, supposedly kicked up by Stan, Ollie, and their burro Dinah as they scurry to beat a retreat out of town. The shot is made by moving a powerful wind machine toward the camera. There are blowers and trays of loose dirt mounted on a dolly, all of which are hidden by the cyclone of dust created in the machine's own path while advancing toward the camera. Then the action is reversed to create a startling illusion on film. In the words of Jimmie Finlayson, "You can't see 'em for dust!"

Which feature film was Stan Laurel's personal favorite? Probably this one. "People asked him that question many times," explains Stan's daughter, Lois Laurel-Hawes. "He really didn't have one particular favorite film. There were individual scenes he favored in certain films, and he would pick those out and mention scenes that played well. Lucille (Hardy-Price) always said that if they had to pick just one film, that from start to finish the one that worked the best and they enjoyed making the most was WAY OUT WEST. Whether or not it was also the finished product they were most proud of, she could never quite figure out. And over the years, what my dad would say to friends, and in letters, well, he would contradict himself a little. Sometimes he did pick WAY OUT WEST. Other times he might prefer other titles. But then all of us feel differently about certain things at different times."

John McCabe, their authorized biographer, also understood WAY OUT WEST to have been Laurel & Hardy's favorite film.

v Spotting cutting continuity errors is always fun, especially for those with too much time on their hands. We are therefore reliably informed that when Ollie has vanished beneath the water trying to cross the creek the first time, Stan helps him up to reveal that Ollie's jacket is buttoned, then unbuttoned in two successive shots.

There's been some controversy over a line allegedly spoken by Jimmie Finlayson. In the climax and retribution where Mr. Finn is trussed up and fastened hanging from the light fixture on the ceiling, it sounds as though he says angrily to Hardy, "You son of a biscuit," or worse, "You son of a bitch!" Of course the strict Production Code Office regulating movies at the time would have objected -- if they caught it. Profane language was prohibited. The film's dialogue cutting continuity, an official transcript of what we see and hear on screen, contains the answer. What Finlayson actually says is, "You'll suffer for this!" Or was that what the studio claimed he said, when in fact our first impression may have been correct?

Stan does some very inside name-calling of his own. "You toad in the hole," he tells Finlayson. Stan also offers some frequently quoted philosophy. He explains to Mr. Finn and wife Lola, "Any bird can build a nest, but it isn't everyone that can lay an egg. Is it, Ollie?"

"That's right," answers Finlayson, agreeing with this aphorism, if only for an instant.

WAY OUT WEST was reissued theatrically on several occasions. The re-launching in l97l featured an interesting venue. On behalf of The Motion Picture and Television Fund, Gregory Peck booked a new 35mm print as a special attraction 50th anniversary fund-raiser staged at the Los Angeles Music Center. The high-profile screening was attended by Princess Grace (Kelly), Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, Bob Hope, Warren Beatty, Sonny and Cher, Danny Kaye, Julie Andrews, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Frank Sinatra, and Lucille Ball. That's all. Some ball. Some others -- mainly unknowns -- also attended. Hal Roach was on the original board of directors that established The Fund. Many Roach alumni (Tiny Sandford, as mentioned) spent their last days at The Motion Picture Country Home.

Those of us who have seen WAY OUT WEST scores of times (that we admit to) tend to take it for granted, until we have an opportunity to screen a 35mm print with a live audience. Then it becomes a totally different experience, a film we hardly know at all! Try this, and see. Any audience laughs at everything in WAY OUT WEST, from the subtlest gesture to the most obvious slapstick. Something intangible happens in a theatrical situation that is positively absent in front of a television set. That particular fund-raising exhibition must have been an emotional experience for the Laurel & Hardy fans who knew all along what magnificent comedy craftsmen Laurel & Hardy truly were.

WAY OUT WEST was computer-colored in l985 by the new Hal Roach Studios. The results were pleasing technically, if not aesthetically. A color video was sent to The White House for Hal Roach's friend, President Ronald Reagan, to view. Nancy Reagan responded with a letter that read, "WAY OUT WEST had us way out amused! As always, the naive good humor of Laurel & Hardy is a joy to see and we had many a good laugh."

Hal Roach no longer owned an interest in the company which bore his name, but several years later when this colorized video was launched overseas in London, he agreed to fly there on behalf of Beta-Taurus for promotional purposes. Speaking with the press at the London Hilton on Park Lane after a demonstration, it was apparent Roach was searching his mind desperately trying to find something positive to state about colorizing WAY OUT WEST. Privately he would say, "The color does not make it any funnier, all the color does is open up black and white movies for a new audience raised with color that doesn't already know old black and white pictures are probably better than anything they're likely to see today made in color."

But he couldn't say that. So the first thing he said to the press assembled in his suite, after giving me a curious glance, was this: "What I like about the color is it looks so much like black and white."

That kind of typically oblique Hal Roach observation recalls the l957 postcard written by Stan Laurel, recently sold at auction (for more money than many of the people in the film earned making it) where Stan modestly answered a fan with this understatement, "Yes, we made one film with a western background, but wasn't the usual cowboy story. It was called WAY OUT WEST. Maybe you missed that one."

-- by Richard W. Bann --