Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy hadn't made a film for three years when they arrived in Britain for the stage tour that is commemorated with bittersweet fondness in Jon S. Baird's Stan & Ollie. It's become commonplace to dismiss the duo's final features at 20th Century-Fox and MGM, with the lazier critics castigating them for cobbling plotlines and rehashing old gags. Admittedly, they often worked with writers and directors who didn't quite understand their comic style, but it's high time that the dozen pictures Laurel and Hardy made between 1939-51 are reappraised.  

Hollywood comedy dramatically changed direction in the early 1940s. Charlie Chaplin abandoned the Little Tramp, while Mae West, WC Fields and the Marx Brothers went the way of silent icons Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In their place came antic vaudevillians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the Road movies. Yet, Laurel and Hardy kept plugging away and it's tempting to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), as while they remained big, their pictures got small. 

By leaving their long-time home at Hal Roach's studios, Laurel and Hardy were forced to sacrifice creative control for steady employment. As both men had mortgages and alimony payments to meet, they were in no position to dictate terms at either 20th Century-Fox or MGM, which operated like film factories and refused to indulge Stan's penchant for shooting in sequence, ad-libbing and handcrafting gags. Instead, they regarded the duo are contract players who did their stuff in front of the camera and left the writing and directing to staffers who often seemed to know nothing about their back catalogue, let alone their working methods. Rather than customise scenarios, the studios imposed them and crammed them with recycled gags, young lovers, gangsters, inventors and boy kings. 

None of this was new, however, as there had been romantic subplots in some of Laurel and Hardy's best features. What was different was the shift in emphasis away from slapstick towards prop and situational comedy and wordplay. After all, Stan and Ollie weren't getting any younger. Yet, while they were often let down by their off-camera collaborators, they remained consummate professionals, who continued to perform their patter and pratfalls with impeccable precision.  

Originally conceived as a four-reeler, A Chump At Oxford (1940) was converted to feature length by the addition of the opening reworking of the 1928 silent, From Soup to Nuts, which sees Stan dragging up as Agnes to serve supper with Ollie's pompous butler. While this sequence pleasingly descends into chaos, the film's highlight comes when a blow to the head transforms Laurel into sporty scholar Lord Paddington, whose dismissive treatment of `Fatty' Hardy turns the duo's dynamic on its head. They would continue to explore untapped facets of their established personas, although devotees have lamented that unsuitable scripts forced them occasionally to act out of character. 

Post-production delays meant that Chump was beaten into cinemas by The Flying Deuces (1939), which was made under a loan deal with maverick producer Boris Morros, who wished to adapt the 1934 French farce, Les Aviateurs. Instead, he got a rejigging of the 1931 Foreign Legion romp, Beau Hunks, with Charles Middleton returning to play the menacing camp commandant. The plot's rather perfunctory. But Ollie's crush on innkeeper's daughter Jean Parker is affectingly sweet, as is the dance he does with Stan following his crooning of `Shine On, Harvest Moon'. The latter's Harpo Marx-like bedspring rendition of `The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise' is also nicely judged, along with a finale that has Hardy reincarnated as a talking horse. 

The team's swan song at Roach's Lot of Fun was similarly scattershot, after Saps At Sea (1940) opens with Ollie developing hornophobia verging on hornomania while working in a horn factory. Parping noises would become a running gag, as Laurel revelled in what would prove to be a final opportunity to hone material on set. He created cameos for stalwarts James Finlayson and Charlie Hall as Ollie's doctor and the concierge at the apartment block where cross-eyed janitor Ben Turpin has amusingly muddled up the appliances. Moreover, Laurel retooled bits from County Hospital (1932) to dangle Hardy out of a window from a telephone cord. But the string and sponge supper that stowaway jailbird Richard Cramer forces them to eat leaves rather a bad taste.

Any hopes Laurel might have harboured of continuing on his merry way at Fox were quickly dashed when it became apparent that the front office wanted Great Guns to resemble Abbott and Costello's army smash, Buck Privates (both 1941). Screenwriter Lou Breslow was clearly more familiar with that formulaic farce than he was with Stan and Ollie's second feature, Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), with the result that they wound up becoming secondary characters spouting tin-eared dialogue in a hackneyed romantic triangle scenario. There are some nice moments involving Stan and a light bulb, a crow named Penelope and various planks, while the boys pose as Wall Street toffs to dissuade photo clerk Sheila Ryan from overtaxing their hypochondriac buddy, Dick Nelson. But they were no longer their own masters. 

Indeed, they had no input whatsoever into A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), which was written while Laurel and Hardy were entertaining troops on the Flying Showboat Tour. Once again, Breslow concocted a situation that required a couple of comics rather than tailoring it to Stan and Ollie's strengths. Many consider this the twosome's feeblest feature, as they agree to accompany a coffin across country without knowing that it contains an escaped convict who is hoping to claim an inheritance. Even when the casket gets mixed up with a prop belonging to Dante the Magician, director Alfred Werker seems incapable of seeing the set-up's comic possibilities. Yet, even though this is often grim fare, there are still reasons to smile, as the pals are duped by the Inflato money-making machine and Stan attempts the Hindu rope trick. 

Clearly clueless as how best to exploit Stan and Ollie's distinctive gifts, Fox allowed them to decamp to MGM, where they had guested in a couple of all-star galas, including The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which had been nominated for Best Picture at the nascent Oscars. However, Louis B. Mayer had squeezed the fun out of the Marx Brothers and Air Raid Wardens (1943) did little to resuscitate L&H's flagging fortunes. Inspired by Laurel's duties as a civilian plane spotter, the picture reunited Buster Keaton (who had been hired as a gag man) with Edward Sedgwick, who has co-directed The Cameraman (1928). But, despite a spirited bandaging scene with banker Howard Freeman and a knockabout house call on cranky neighbour Edgar Kennedy, the Civil Defence authorities proved spoilsports when it came to approving satirical joshing and this joust with a nest of Nazi spies did little to raise anyone's wartime spirits. 

Returning to Fox, the pair had more luck with Jitterbugs (1943), which introduced them to Mal St Clair, a graduate of Mack Sennett's Keystone studio, who would direct their final four Fox features. Although he never quite struck the right note with their repartee, scribe Scott Darling would also become a fixture of this slow fade-out. But there's much to enjoy in this caper, including the ingenious two-man band rig that brings Laurel and Hardy into the orbit of soft-hearted con man Bob Bailey and a gang of chisellers. Posing as Texan tycoon, Colonel Watterson Bixby, Ollie has a delightul terpsichorean duet with gangster's moll Lee Patrick and he returns to the dance floor in the show boat finale to swing around a dragged-up Stan to biff the villains. 

The duo also prove splendidly light on their feet in the opening scenes of The Dancing Masters (1943), as Ollie flits around in a flamboyant costume with his class, while Stan performs `The Dance of the Pelican' in a tutu. Bits are borrowed from several earlier outings, with the notion of Hardy trying to cash in on Laurel's insurance policy coming from The Battle of the Century (1927), the auction hailing from Thicker Than Water (1935) and the plastered leg finale deriving from County Hospital. Trudy Marshall joins the boys in a slick hat and plate swapping routine and looks on incredulously at their ill-fated vacuum cleaner demonstration. Stan also gets to sport a soup-strainer moustache in playing inventor Professor Fendash Gorp before Ollie rides a rollercoaster on the top deck of a runaway bus. It's hardly vintage, but it's highly enjoyable and there's the bonus of cameos from Robert Mitchum and Groucho's peerless stooge, Margaret Dumont.

Another inventor crosses Stan and Ollie's path in The Big Noise (1944), which followed its predecessor in padding the action with hand-me-downs from earlier pictures. The wet paint on the street sign came from Habeas Corpus (1928), the hand twist from Wrong Again, the train bunk muddle from Berth Marks (both 1929) and the flirtatious widow from Oliver the Eighth (1934). The meal in a pill gag had been trailed in Great Guns, while the aerial antics were parachuted in from The Flying Deuces. But how many other ageing acts trade on their greatest hits? Moreover, the sequence in which Stan uses exaggerated arm movements to play an discordant version of `Maizy Doats' on a concertina is hilarious. 

There was little to laugh about during a second sojourn at MGM, however. Despite Keaton's return behind the scenes and the appointment of Harold Lloyd's best director, Sam Taylor, Nothing But Trouble (1944) was a calamitous miscalculation that required the duo to protect a boy king from a usurpatious uncle. Stan and Ollie come across as clots rather than clowns, as they try to referee a football game and steal a steak from a zoo lion's cage. Only Utopia (1951) induces a greater sense of sadness, although this ill-starred Franco-Italian co-production - which was originally to have co-starred Fernandel and Totò and was hamstring by on-set linguistic difficulties and Stan and Ollie's debilitating health issues - does have a nice joke for our Trumpist times, as they outlaw immigration control under the Crusoeland constitution. 

But there was one last hurrah from these two funny, gentle men. As the shooting script for The Bullfighters (1945) has been lost, it's impossible to determine whether Laurel was allowed to rework the script and even supervise the odd scene. His involvement seems likely, however, as this is by far the best of the Fox sextet, even though the finale, in which Stan is mistaken for a famous matador, relies heavily on intercut footage from Rouben Mamoulian's Blood and Sand (1941). 

The pursuit of Larceny Nell might be a MacGuffinesque excuse to get private detectives Laurel and Hardy down Mexico way. Yet, from the moment they have a tit-for-tat splashing match with Edward Gargan beside the hotel lobby fountain, it's clear we've got the old Stan and Ollie back. The revenge subplot is imported from Going Bye-Bye!, while the egg-smashing sequence featured in Hollywood Party (both 1934). The wobbly haystack gag is also deftly done. By having Richard Muldoon reduce the boys to skeletons, however, Laurel and Hardy were literally down to the bare bones. This turned out to be their last American picture, but they left us with plenty to smile about.