Way Out West is ranked as one of Laurel & Hardy’s finest feature films and one of the best comedy-Westerns of all-time. They weren’t the first to combine laughs in a Western setting—silent comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton had already explored that territory—but Laurel & Hardy were the first of the great comedy teams to make an undisputed masterpiece in the genre—a perfect film that is a great example of their style. In the ensuing years, the Marx Brothers would Go West, Abbott & Costello would ride the range in Ride ‘Em Cowboy, and Martin & Lewis became Pardners, but Way Out West is a film that does more than repackage Western clichés. The film reveals the charm and magic that made Laurel & Hardy unique.
In Way Out West, Laurel & Hardy travel to the town of Brushwood Gulch in order to deliver a deed for a gold mine to Mary Roberts, the daughter of an acquaintance. When it falls into the hands of an unscrupulous saloon keeper, Mickey Finn, the boys endeavor to retrieve it… with the help of their mule. I’m not sure if Laurel & Hardy would be the two people you’d entrust a valuable piece of paper to, but that is the premise of the movie!
In the role of Mickey Finn is the squinty-eyed Jimmy Finlayson, the great Scottish character actor who was usually the foil in the Laurel & Hardy pictures. Playing the innocent daughter of the deceased prospector is Rosina Lawrence. Rosina was also known as Miss Jones, the schoolteacher in the Our Gang comedies being made at the time. Sharon Lynn is the saloon-singer Lola Marcel. One of her most memorable scenes has her tickling Stan in an effort to get the deed out of him. Of course, any scene with Stan laughing is almost always a comedy highlight.
Besides the great verbal and visual gags, the film offers some surrealistic humor—those magical, offbeat moments that can only be found in a Laurel & Hardy film. In this one, Stan Laurel ignites his thumb as though it were a match! In Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, author Randy Skretvedt writes that is was devised on the set. “The editor of the film, Bert Jordan, recalled, ‘One of the gag men on the set was trying to light a cigarette one day, and it wouldn’t light. It gave Stan an idea, and that’s how they got that gag.’”
The film features some of their most memorable routines, including the soft shoe shuffle to the tune of “At the Ball, That’s All”—performed to the accompaniment of The Avalon Brothers. It’s a scene that was so famous that it inspired comedian Billy Crystal to insert himself into it during an Oscar telecast montage in 1992. The film also has the boys singing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” In 1975, the song was lifted from the soundtrack and released as a single in England. It made it to Number 2 on the Pop Charts!
Another great attribute is the musical score, which was composed by Marvin Hatley. He would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Though he didn’t win, the nomination itself was quite an honor considering the Academy voters didn’t usually recognize comedies, much less ones spoofing another genre equally unloved by the Academy—the B-movie Western.
For those interested in the detailed production history of the film– and all the things that didn’t make it into the final release– there is a wonderful audio commentary on the dvd for Way Out West by Laurel & Hardy historians Richard Bann and Randy Skretvedt. In fact, they do two commentaries because they couldn’t get everything in the first time since the movie is only 65 minutes.
But in the commentary, they talk about seeing these films with a respectful audience because you can appreciate all the nuances and gestures even more. I think that’s what makes our Legends of Laughter series so unique from past programs. You really need to be here in our meeting room to see how laughter feeds on laughter. It’s only then that you can appreciate the magic of films like Way Out West.
At this point in their careers, both Stan and Ollie were dealing with marital turmoil in their private lives, yet you’d never know it watching the film. Beyond the laughter we all appreciate, there is a warmth and nostalgia to Way Out West that just leaves you feeling good by the final curtain—or rather, the last river crossing.