Laurel and Hardy: Their Lives and Magic is a loving, often moving documentary on the famous comedy duo. Its title is obviously meant to evoke comparison with Randy Skretvedt's written history Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, and for the most part, it is quite worthy of comparison with that excellent book.
German filmmaker Andreas Baum has painstakingly brought L&H's personal and paired history to life. The movie features much rare footage from L&H's music-hall period, as well as the last known footage of Stan Laurel shortly before his death. Much of this footage seems almost predestined to move L&H buffs to tears. Also, scenes from many L&H/Hal Roach movies are used to "punctuate" much of the doc's facts, and while that could have been too cutesy a method for linking scenes, here it is done most tastefully.
Baum's interviews are beyond reproach. He gets great insights from contemporary L&H buffs such as Richard Bann, Tyler St. Mark, and Rene Riva, as well as a rare interview with Stan's daughter Lois. He also interviews an astonishing number of L&H's peers. When notables from L&H's period are not available, Baum nicely weaves in chats from previous film work (much of it from the British documentary Cuckoo, where film clips with Jerry Lewis and Babe Hardy's widow Lucille are intercut nicely).
My only quibble with the movie is that there are a few strange gaps here and there, factual and otherwise. (Editorial gripe: Why does every attempt at documenting L&H on film including so many factual bloopers? The otherwise wonderful Cuckoo suffers from the same defect. These documentaries always seem to have blunders that any average member of Sons of the Desert could detect and correct instantly.) L&H's war-related short The Tree in a Test Tube is discussed as though it was made before L&H's Fox films, where film history tells us it was actually shot on the Fox lot. (Strangely, too, clips from that film are presented silently, minus Pete Smith's narration.) Also, a few of the mentioned dates are off by about a year, as when the Sons of the Desert is referenced as having begun in 1964, when it could have easily been verified that the group began in 1965.
The strangest of all omissions occurs with footage of Stan Laurel's funeral. Throughout the documentary, interviewees are identified every time they appear on the screen. Yet with the footage of Stan's funeral, entertainment legends including Buster Keaton and Dick Van Dyke go unheralded. Listing their names would surely have been helpful to viewers who are just beginning on their "journey" with Laurel & Hardy.
However, these relatively minor defects are not enough to spoil any viewer's enjoyment of this fine documentary. In addition, a 70-minute bonus disc includes some lovely extras, such as rare footage of Stan in his later years. The documentary is a superb introduction to L&H for those unfamiliar with them, and a touching trip down Memory Lane for hard-core L&H buffs.
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