Historian to screen and dissect classic comedy duo’s rare Westside film shoots at Venice Historical Society meeting
By Michael Aushenker
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s classic short “Way Out West” is considered by some Laurel & Hardy scholars as their very best. Yet the 1937 film, like most of the comedy duo’s output between their heyday [the 1920s-40s] was not shot around the Westside.
On Tuesday, July 23, at 7 p.m., visiting film historian and documentary filmmaker Elaina Archer will return to the Venice Historical Society to present clips from Laurel & Hardy’s career and discuss the few ventures into Venice where those classic short films were shot.
“Way Out West” is also the inspiration for the moniker of the Los Angeles chapter of the famed Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel & Hardy appreciation society, which meets every few months at Burbank’s Mayflower Club. James Wiley, Jr., grand sheik of the Way Out West Tent, spoke to The Argonaut about Laurel & Hardy’s rare romps beachside.
“They didn’t film much on the Westside,” he said.
Hal Roach Studios, which produced the Laurel & Hardy films (as well as the “Our Gang”/“Little Rascals” series), was based at MGM’s lot (today, Sony Pictures). So naturally, most of the shorts were filmed in Culver City.
“That’s where the studio was,” Wiley explained. “They did a lot of stuff on the back lot. They didn’t have the lighting, and the cameras were not sophisticated.”
If they did location shots, such as in one of their masterpieces, “Big Business,” shot in Cheviot Hills, “they had to wait for a perfect day to film.”
Laurel & Hardy were, in essence, cinema’s original slackers. Long before Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges and Martin & Lewis hammed it up for screen audiences, the duo, a Brit and an American respectively, pioneered the kind of idiot comedy tradition that can be found in spiritual descendants such as Cheech & Chong, Bill & Ted, Wayne & Garth, Beavis & Butthead, “Dumb & Dumber’s” Lloyd and Harry, and Harold & Kumar.
Less than a handful of shorts were shot on Venice Beach and at Santa Monica’s now-gone Pacific Ocean Park Pier.
In Fred L. Guiol’s “Sugar Daddies” (1927), scenes were shot on the Venice Amusement Pier. Hardy plays a butler to a millionaire, played by frequent Laurel & Hardy foil James Finlayson, while Laurel plays Finlayson’s lawyer. Laurel & Hardy and Finelay’s character, who had married a woman while drunk the previous night, are chased down the pier by the woman’s family and into the Venice Funhouse. The duo comically encounters slides, rotating barrels, moving sidewalks and air jets.
In Malcolm St. Clair’s 1943 film “The Dancing Masters,” Laurel & Hardy now pose as dance teachers at the Arthur Hurry School of Dancing, where Laurel teaches the Dance of the Pelican (“My own original creation!”). The one-hour film’s cast notably includes a young Robert Mitchum as a hard-boiled representative of Last Mile Insurance Company.
Hardy enlists Laurel to fake an injury on a roller coaster in order to claim some insurance money. Unfortunately, it’s Hardy who winds up riding the rails when a runaway bus he’s stuck on makes the leap onto the Ocean Park rollercoaster. (In actuality, Hardy was nowhere near Venice, as his scenes atop the bus were filmed in a studio while long shots of the bus on the rollercoaster were shot independently.)
(Roach had also used the amusement park as the setting for “Fish Hookie,” a 1933 “Our Gang” short).
While technically not a Laurel & Hardy short, “On The Loose” (1931), a Roach film starring Thelma Todd and Zazu Pitts, was also shot at the now-defunct Venice Funhouse (substituting for Coney Island), according to a recent interview with child actor Bud McDonald. Laurel & Hardy make a punchline-ending cameo as the ladies’ new boyfriends.
If the comic actors did not have much professional ties to the Westside, Laurel definitely favored the coastal communities in his personal life.
“Stan had a lot of big houses and had a lot of parties,” Wiley said. “Babe (Hardy) was more of a homebody.”
In 1956, Laurel lived at 1111 Franklin St. in Santa Monica. He moved to Malibu for a couple of years, returning to Santa Monica with his fourth wife, Ida, at what is now the Oceana, a boutique hotel at 849 Ocean Ave. He lived in suite 203, at the time a sea-view apartment, from 1958 until his death in 1965.
Venice Historical Society president Jill Prestup looks forward to Archer’s return to her club.
“Last year she gave a talk about Charlie Chaplin and filled the house,” said Prestup. “She is very knowledgeable about her subjects and always puts a twist on her topics.” Prestup also promised a look at silent film star Buster Keaton’s Venice for next month’s meeting.
The Venice Historical Society will hold its meeting at SPARC, 685 Venice Blvd., Venice. Free admission for historical society members; $5 for non-members. Light refreshments will be served. Free parking is available east of the building or street parking. Information, (310) 967-5170 or venicehistoricalsociety.org.