One of the great unsung dance teams from classic-era Hollywood was Laurel and Hardy. Their Terpsichorean skills were on display in several of their films, including the sequence in the above clip, from their 1937 film Way Out West. Other film comedy teams also danced, such as Burns and Allen and Wheeler and Woolsey; even Hope and Crosby could bust a move when called for. But Laurel and Hardy’s dancing seemed to arise, as did their comedy, out of a privately shared artlessness; it sprang from a mental plane that still breathed the air of Eden. In Way Out West they’re, as usual, two naïfs, here in the old Western town of Brushwood Gulch, where they encounter the Avalon Boys singing “At the Ball, That’s All” on the steps of a saloon. “Commence advancin’,” say the lyrics, and that’s what Stan and Ollie do (commencing at the 1:00 mark).
The choreography is based on a few plain steps and movement patterns, yet its rhythmic variety keeps our attention. Stan and Ollie begin by tapping their feet, as if tentatively trying out the rhythm, not yet committing themselves. But as the rhythmic impulse takes hold, the dance expands, both upwards and outwards, into their bodies and into space. The pair step side to side, in a “slide and glide entrancin’,” adding some leg kicks and swings and gentle upper-body thrusts. They turn and skip in unison, moving with a butterfly lightness, with Ollie throwing in a hummingbird twirl of his fingers before placing them on his knee. Then they partner each other, crouch-stepping like Groucho Marx as they solemnly march up and down. Breaking apart, they momentarily pose, hands held up, as if awaiting applause. But then the music quickens, and they begin a series of alternating hops and bouncy kicks, their arms stretched out like airplane wings, preparatory to flight. The routine ends with their exiting through a pair of swinging doors as if through a stage curtain.
The beauty of the sequence is how simple, yet elegant it is. And how sweetly grave these two are; lifting up their coat tails, they could be courtiers dancing for a king. When first listening to the music, the boys (it’s hard to think of Stan and Ollie as conventional adults) smile with innocent pleasure, obviously delighted at what they’re hearing. They’re still smiling as they start the number, but gradually their expressions turn serious; they’re children absorbed in a task, intent on getting it right. And though they add some of their characteristic comedy touches, such as tipping their hats, they’re not consciously clowning. They’re focused on the dance itself, on the joy and effort of moving to music. It’s a small, lovely grace note to their comic performing, bringing smiles of innocent pleasure to our own faces while we watch; for a moment we, too, can prance in Eden. Some ball, as the song says. No wonder these guys were so loved.