When I first heard that most of the missing parts of The Battle of the Century had been found, I couldn’t wait to see it. On hearing of the planned restorations of a cross section of the boys’ classic work a few years back, I thought that’s wonderful – proper preservation of the films can only be a good thing. However, in February 2020 when it was announced that these would be released in DVD and Blu-Ray form, I was very excited indeed. Mike Jones
The wait was indeed worth it and appropriately, the release date was June 16th; the 130th Anniversary of Stan’s birth. I can very concisely describe my thoughts on the set in two words …. Re…Markable.
I make no apologies for how long it has taken me to put this review of the six-DVD set together: I had decided early on that I would ration my viewing in order to make the experience last as long as possible. After all, there is nothing like seeing Laurel and Hardy for the first time, and while this is certainly true (for me anyway) of Battle of the Century, every movie featured really is almost like seeing it for the first time. The quality of the content really is that good! I bought the DVD version from the US as the Beau Chumps meeting venue only has a DVD player, and I really want to introduce these versions to the tent, but I understand from others that the Blu-Ray content is the same, though over four, rather than six discs. Note that both the DVD and Blu-ray versions are ‘all region’ and will play in the UK.
There are other reviews that will go into the minutiae of which restoration is the best, which one isn’t so good, which one isn’t pin sharp, has too much contrast, isn’t light enough etc etc. All of these are, I am sure, quite valid, but all you need to know is that every single entry in this set is better than any version you have seen before: Miles better.
I’m also not going to go into the plot detail etc. of each individual film either, on the supposition, dear reader, that you already know them. After all, why would you be looking to spend your hard earned on new versions of the films you already have by importing them from the good old US of A, unless of course you are a proper fully paid up, card carrying, Laurel and Hardy buff.
The selection is from 2K and 4K digital restorations taken from the original 35mm nitrate stock. They have been meticulously restored by Jeff Joseph/SabuCat in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress. (Sorry, but whenever I see or hear that word, I think of Ollie in Sons of the Desert: “Meticulous. Hmmm!”)
There is still no sign of a UK release, but several stockists in the US are happy to ship them over the pond and all are ‘region free’ so there are no issues playing them on UK category DVD and Blu-Ray players. I’m happy to share my source with you if you drop me an email at email@example.com or get in touch through the ‘contact us’ section on the main menu of the website.
Anyway, on we go, but trust me, this set is a ‘must have’ for any self-respecting Laurel and Hardy aficionado. You will not be disappointed.
DVD Set Content
Disc One: Sons of the Desert; The Battle of the Century; Anita Garvin interview; Galleries
Disc Two: Berth Marks; Brats (both with original and re-release soundtrack versions) Hog Wild; Photo Galleries
Disc Three: One Good Turn; Helpmates; The Music Box; Come Clean; Photo Galleries; Trailers for: Beau Hunks and Pack Up Your Troubles
Disc Four: The Chimp; County Hospital; Scram!; Their First Mistake; Joe Rock interview; Roy Seawright interview; Babe Hardy 1950 interview; Photo Galleries
Disc Five: Towed in a Hole; Twice Two; Me and My Pal; The Midnight Patrol; Busy Bodies; Photo Galleries; Trailers for: Babes in Toyland, The Flying Deuces, A Chump at Oxford, Saps at Sea
Disc Six: Way Our West; That’s That; Tree in a Test Tube; Photo Galleries; Marvin Hatley music tracks: Original trailer for Way Out West
I’ve already mentioned that the standard of the prints are streets ahead of anything seen before, but the biggest difference – for me – is the framing. There is usually a good percentage of extra screen visible and rather than the image moving around and being unsteady. Well, these restored versions just don’t move. At all. On the framing, Randy Skretvedt says of Hog Wild: “Notice how much more image area there is. We’ve been looking at a severely cropped version for our whole lives! The source used for the new video is a “full aperture” frame size, used in prints for theaters which employed the sound-on-disc method. Prints with sound on the film would have lopped off much of the image at the left of the frame.”
I’m not going to consider each film individually and compare and contrast the quality of the prints. There are others out there with far more expertise in this area, but the absence of travelling scratches, flickering and generally different quality prints edited together to make a full film (a frustrating but understandable tactic employed on several occasions in the 21-disc box-set) is so very pleasing to see. I did however notice a hair in the titles frame for The Music Box, but I point that out purely to prove I noticed it (!) and a little less indulgently, to show that you have to look really hard to find any significant fault with these prints.
You might also notice how ‘clean’ the sound is. One of the main issues with second, third and older generation prints is that each time a copy is made, ‘noise’, a persistent hiss and sometimes crackle, is amplified each time. Visual noise is also evident in many original prints, but here, both are minimal and, in some cases, non-existent.
It does occur to me though, that in watching these on a standalone basis, while one can appreciate that the images on the screen are sharp, clean, well contrasted and nicely balanced, the real difference can be better seen when comparing a prior release and these new ones side by side. This, I recognise, is not an easy thing to set up, though I feel sure that some can and will. Happily though, in order to whet our appetites, several ‘like-for-like’ clips were released to YouTube earlier in the year. Here you can see what I am rambling on about. Look at the framing; see how solid the image is; The contrast; the sound. I could go on…
Click on each of the film titles below and you will begin to see what I mean.
The above are screengrabs of what we are used to seeing against the ‘new’ versions. While useful though, these absolutely do not do the restorations justice.
I should perhaps add that the restored versions are not absolutely perfect, so don’t expect them to be so. However, in most cases they are so near to perfect that you really could think that they were just made last week! When you consider the youngest nitrate print used is over 80 years old this really is some accomplishment, and the various parties involved in the restoration to this standard deserve our sincere and eternal gratitude.
All of the films (including The Tree in a Test Tube and That’s That) have optional commentaries (accessed through the ‘set-up’ menus, by Randy Skretvedt, though Richard W. Bann takes over the mic for The Battle of the Century and The Music Box.
Incidentally, if you can’t wait to see That’s That (which is utterly fascinating for an anorak like me) you can access a blog item on it here https://beauchumps.wordpress.com/2019/05/07/thats-that-a-curiosity/, which includes a link to the UCLA Film and Television Archive version on YouTube.
Note however, Randy’s commentary of That’s That helps it massively; turning it from a jumble of unconnected clips to what it is; confirmation of source; who is in it and many more things I wouldn’t have thought of looking for. Oh, if you look carefully, there’s a topless lady in there too….
These vary from disc to disc, but variously include publicity portraits: press sheet articles: scene stills: deleted and candid stills: call sheets: movie posters and publicity cards.
While Randy’s ‘Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies’ has over 1,000 rare photographs therein, I’m really pleased to note that many more appear in this release, being accompanied by many from the collection of historian Richard W Bann. I like to think I have seen most of the various behind the scenes images that have emerged over the years, but there are many more here. These are on the same disc as the relevant film, so it is very easy to watch the film and then move pretty seamlessly to the gallery while you are still ‘in the zone’. All of the images are of excellent quality, though I can’t show any examples here as the discs have copy protection on them and therefore won’t play on my computer, so a screengrab isn’t an option.
I particularly like the selection on disc four which includes many images from the 1932 ‘holiday’ visit to the UK. Some holiday that turned out to be! Once the MGM publicity department got a hold of it an ’leaked’ a schedule to the UK press, Stan and Babe had no chance of any real vacation time.
Also in the galleries, there are many scripts, call sheets, shooting schedules and other preserved ephemera used by a busy studio in the 30’s. You really will need to have your thumb on the pause button here: there is just so much to take in.
There are a large number of extras across the set; particularly notable highlights are:
- A look at the early careers of Stan and Babe
- Several original trailers for the movies
- Numerous audio interviews
- ‘That’s That’ – a gag reel of bloopers and out-takes, compiled by Hal Roach Studios editor Bert Jordan, to celebrate Stan’s 47th birthday.
The first things I looked for though were Randy Skretvedt’s filmed interviews:
Roy Seawright Interview: The Roach Studios ‘special effects wizard’. His creativity led him to the position of head of his studio’s “Optical Department” in 1934. During that time Seawright mastered all the tricks of the special effects trade, even with the low budgets the studio gave him: he always had to find what he called “the best and most economical solution” to a problem.
Filmed in colour in October 1981, Roy tells some fascinating tales of working practices and how some of the effects were accomplished.
Joe Rock Interview: The American movie producer, director, actor, and screenwriter who produced a series of 12 two-reel short comedies starring Stan in the 1920s.
Filmed in colour in October 1981; Amongst other tales, Rock tells of how Stan’s ‘partner’ Mae Dahlberg was hampering his career and how he put up the cash to ‘get rid of her!’
Anita Garvin Interview: Stan’s ‘go-to girl’ who worked with Laurel and Hardy in both the silent and sound eras. Before her retirement in 1942, she reportedly appeared in over 350 shorts and features for various Hollywood studios.
This was a real pleasure. To see and hear this wonderful lady give first-hand accounts, again in October 1981, of her experiences with Stan and Babe and how much she enjoyed working with them was a real thrill. What a wonderful lady Anita clearly was.
All of the interviews were filmed on 8mm by Randy and have been cleaned up for this release. The sound is not so good in parts and there are a few cuts mid-sentence, but interviews like these, recollections of folk ‘who were there’, are extremely rare and are therefore both unmissable and thoroughly fascinating. (Our thanks to Randy for the images)
Here’s a link to a fascinating three-minute segment of Scott MacQueen of UCLA talking about preserving Sons of the Desert: Sons of the Desert (1933) | Scott MacQueen. And here, an equally interesting Laurel and Hardy Preservation Interview with Scott MacQueen
In order to hear the commentaries by Randy (there are two by Dick Bann as well) you will need to enter the setup menu. On the commentaries, we have my only minor whinge with this otherwise wonderful release. So minor though, the issue only stopped my rating being a straight 10, reducing it to 9.9!
My gripe is that when accessing the commentaries, the sound of the film in the background is off, rather than the norm of it being there but at a variable or even low volume. This means that, for example, when he identifies the incidental music, you can’t hear it. On this, Randy told me “That was not my preference, when I recorded and submitted my first commentary, it had the film soundtrack playing at a low level underneath my voice. I was told to do it over without any soundtrack at all. I thought this was odd, as do many people now hearing those tracks, but it was not my choice to make.”
I did think that would be the case, but when I juxtapose the loss of what would be a low volume soundtrack anyway against what we are gaining with the commentaries and this wonderful set as a whole, it really is nothing in the overall scheme of things.
Tracy Tolzmann, Grand Sheik of the Block-Heads tent of Minnesota got his discs about a week before me. Well he would wouldn’t he. He lives about 5,000 miles closer to the distributor! Anyway, he gave me a great tip: “If you are familiar with the film (which you probably are), go straight to the version with the commentary”. You can still see the quality of the print, but the details that you can pick up by listening are very worthwhile indeed. There’s nothing to stop us watching the sound version at our leisure anyway.
From Randy’s commentaries, here is a small cross-section of some of the stuff I learned:
- Laughing Gravy is one of the dogs in Way Out West
- Scram: Perennial drunk Arthur Houseman’s home is the same set as used in Pack Up Your Troubles for Billy Gilbert’s house façade – Billy being ‘wrong Eddie’s’ father.
- Charlie Hall was on the Roach Payroll more often as a carpenter than as an actor
- Way Out West cost the 2020 equivalent of $6,573,743 to produce!
- In 1941, Stan had his teeth replaced with dentures. This is clear when you see his wider smile in the Fox publicity shots.
- Randy tells of his acquisition of so many Roach original stills in the 70’s for just $2-$3 each! His main focus and interest was in those showing the making of the films rather than stills from the films. This is an area I am particularly interested in myself. Good to know I’m in such esteemed company!
There are so many other little tit-bits he drops in, Tracy Tolzmann’s suggestion to watch the films with the commentaries on is good advice indeed!
I also noted that Dick Bann has so much to say on The Music Box, his commentary overran the film! Great stuff.
We should consider ourselves very lucky at the amount of Laurel and Hardy that is available to us in so many different mediums these days; DVD, Blu-Ray; NetFlix; YouTube et al. When I first became a real Stan and Ollie enthusiast, one could occasionally see them on TV, at a rare projected screening or at a meeting, after the Sons of the Desert took off in the UK. When the VHS videos were released, I went out and bought everything I could get my hands on and then the DVD box-set came out… well, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Over the years with these, we’ve perhaps become immune and learned to overlook jumps, splices, cuts, scratches, crackly soundtracks etc etc. This is just not the case here. The opportunity to see so many of the films I love so well in such remarkable quality is something I never expected to be fortunate to experience and I hope that you enjoy the release as much as I do.
However, my appetite is severely whetted now; I just hope there are moves afoot to source and rescue the rest of the Laurel and Hardy output. I’ll be first in the queue to buy them if / when that happens!
We hope that you you enjoyed reading Mike’s views on this brilliant release, and should you have any thoughts, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the reply / comments section below. You will receive a response.