The Comic Art of Laurel and Hardy

 

This article is part of  the Classic Movie Blog Association's fall blogathon, Laughter Is the Best Medicine. Click here to read more articles from some of the best bloggers in the business.

Perhaps no one has brought more laughter to more people than Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. During their three-decade film career, the old Hollywood duo were global superstars. Even today, they have a passionate following of devoted fans, and the images of "the fat one and the thin one" are instantly recognizable to those who have never seen their films.


The fact that Laurel and Hardy met, let alone formed classic movies' most enduring and beloved partnership, is one of those miracles of fate that only seemed to happen in old Hollywood. Despite his childlike appearance, Stanley was the oldest of the two by about 1 1/2 years. He was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson on June, 16, 1890, in the Northern English town of Ulverston to a prominent theatrical family (Stanley was always proud that his father, another Arthur Jefferson, listed his occupation as "comedian" on Stanley's birth certificate). Jefferson senior owned a string of theaters in Northern England and Scotland, and he was also something of impresario who wrote and produced plays and music hall sketches. 

The Jefferson's sent the young Stanley to prestigious schools; however, from a young age, he preferred to escape to the world of the theater by acting out plays in the family basement and by watching his father's shows for hours on end (one of the more appealing things to me about Laurel and Hardy's films is that they are a visual link to the legendary 19th century music hall and pantomime performers who never appeared on film). 

A cute kitten visits Stan and Ollie on the set.

Stanley made his theatrical debut at the tender age of 16 in one of his father's theaters -- he was billed as "Stan Jefferson, he of the funny ways" -- and soon thereafter he was touring the U.S. with a theatrical company that included Charlie Chaplin. When the company disbanded, Stanley continued touring with Mae Dahlberg with whom he was romantically involved (Stanley changed his last name at the behest of the numerology-obsessed Dahlberg, who apparently thought there was bad mojo in Jefferson). Stanley eventually landed in Hollywood, where in 1926 he signed a contract to direct comedy shorts and write gags for producer Hal Roach.

While Stanley was trodding the boards in Merry Old England, a young Oliver Hardy, or Babe as he would later become known in Hollywood, was making his own circuitous route through show business. Hardy was born Norvell Hardy on January 18, 1892,  in Harlem, Ga., to a prominent lawyer and local politician named Oliver Hardy and his wife, Emily (Babe would later adopt his father's name as his own). Hardy senior unfortunately died shortly after Babe was born, and Mrs. Hardy was forced to get a job running a hotel and to send her son out on tour as a boy soprano with a group of local singers.

Stan and Ollie get ready for Thanksgiving in this Pilgrim-themed portrait

 Babe was a dreamy child who liked to spend hours on end people-watching in his mother's hotel lobby, but he did have a lovely singing voice and his mother tried to capitalize on his talent by sending him to music school. It didn't take -- neither did a stint at military school -- so young Babe found himself in a profession that was open to almost anyone in the early aughts: The movies. Babe began working at a movie theater, and he decided that he could do at least as well as the actors he saw on the screen, so he packed his bags and headed to Jacksonville, Fla., which was an early center of filmmaking. By 1926, Babe was in Hollywood and was under contract to Roach when Stan Laurel began working for the studio.

Laurel and Hardy did not immediately become a duo after Stanley's arrival at the studio. They did work together frequently in the mid-1920s, sometimes with Stanley as the  director and Babe as the actor while sometimes they both appeared in short films. Academy Award-winning director Leo McCarey, who was under contract to Roach at the time, notice the comedic chemistry between Stanley and Babe, and it appears that he was the first person to suggest that they be paired as a comedy team. "They seemed to have this instinct that only top-flight comedians have of the reality underlying a gag," McCarey later remembered. "They were both great actors and could have played serious stuff quite easily." (For his part, Stanley always said simply, "we came together naturally").

Laurel and Hardy have a menacing moment in their early short, Do Detectives Think? (1927)

Roach took McCarey's advice, but it took several films in which the two men tried on various comic personas -- a Scottish lord and his valet (Putting Pants on Philip), detectives (Do Detectives Think?), tramps (Duck Soup) -- before they emerged as more or less their familiar screen personas in the 1927 short, The Battle of the Century. Laurel and Hardy quickly became Roach's top box-office attraction and the arrival of sound films only enhanced their appeal. Stanley's lilting Lancashire accent and Babe's Southern drawl matched beautifully with their screen personas of a childlike naïf and a pompous blowhard.

Laurel and Hardy continued working in films until 1951, when a whole new generation of fans discovered their comic genius on Saturday morning TV. Almost a century later, their films possess a unique charm. The secret of their success, of course, started with their talent; both in their own way were comedic geniuses, especially Stanley whose ever-inventive mind was able to churn out slapstick gag after slapstick gag with surprising ease. However, the real reason for the enduring partnership is more innate; as L&H scholar Randy Skretvedt put it, "the special magic of Laurel and Hardy isn't in their gags, but simply in them."

  Despite the fact that Laurel and Hardy's comedy could be violent and destructive, their onscreen relationship was based on love (not the romantic kind), enduring friendship, and an optimistic persistence in the face of almost impossible odds. No matter how catastrophic their failures, no matter how furious their wives, no matter how much they squabbled, at the end of the day, they always had each other. And, in a world of chaos and uncertainty -- audiences in the 1930s and 1940s would have been facing as many upheavals as those of us in 2021 --  that's not an insignificant thing. 

Here's five Laurel and Hardy films -- two silent shorts, two sound shorts, and one feature -- that I highly recommend. You can catch most of the shorts on YouTube 

Liberty (1927)


Thrill comedies were a staple of silent films, and this short about a couple of escaped convicts who end up dangling precariously off of a skyscraper under construction is one of the most heart-pounding experiences in movies (cardiologists should just replace stress tests with watching Liberty). 
The physical feats both men pull off are amazing. Although, they weren't quite as high off the ground as it appears, Babe did fall several feet during filming. In a very Ollie moment, Babe supposedly dived off the scaffolding to show Stanley how safe they were. He crashed through some boards, but landed relatively unscathed in a safety net.

Big Business (1927)


In this silent short, Stan and Ollie are door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen who try and fail to sell their wares to skeptical Southern California residents, including their frequent onscreen foil, Scottish actor James Finlayson. Their increasingly desperate attempts to get Finlayson to buy a tree leads to a comic battle of mutual destruction in which Finlayson destroys their car while they quite literally tear apart his home. 
The home used in the film was real. It was owned by a Roach employee who supposedly volunteered to have his home destroyed and was compensated for the damage (since we're talking about Roach here, I tend to take "volunteered" and "compensated" with a grain of salt).

Blotto (1930)


Many Laurel and Hardy fans regard Helpmates (1932) as their best short sound film, but my heart belongs to Blotto in which Stan sneaks away from his overbearing wife (Anita Garvin) for a night at the speakeasy with Ollie. 
Blotto is a masterpiece of comic acting by Stanley who alternates bouts of hysterical weeping and hysterical laughter in one of the most convulsively funny moments in classic movies.

The Music Box (1932)


Movers Stan and Ollie try and fail and try again to get a piano up a steep set of stairs in this sound film that deservedly won a best live-action short Oscar. According to what I read, there was a real piano in that box (at least, at times).

Sons of the Desert (1933)


Laurel and Hardy made many delightful feature films, but the best of the best is this punchy pre-code favorite that whizzes by at a zippy 64 minutes. This film features Stan and Ollie sneaking off to their lodge's annual convention under the noses of their disapproving wives (Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy) only to have all of their best-laid plans go awry. Hilarious moments include Stan and Ollie yucking it up with fellow lodge member Charley Chase and Ollie trying to correct Stan's pronunciation of peas in a pod ("it's pod-duh"). Also, you can't really be a L&H fan unless you know the Sons of the Desert theme by heart (bonus points for "Honolulu Baby").

'Tis the season, so I'll leave you with Stan and Ollie's charming version of "Shine On, Harvest Moon" from Flying Deuces (1939). Go read some more blog articles and watch some Laurel and Hardy films; laughter really is the best medicine. BTW, sources for this article are Laurel & Hardy by Annie McGarry, Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies by Randy Skretvedt, and Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy: The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy by Simon Louvish.






Comments

  1. What I love about these boys is that you can always see the love between them. Great post about 2 of the greatest that combined to make the greatest comedy team ever.

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  2. I admit I haven't had much luck appreciating this duo's comedy (I know, sacrilege!), but I do feel I got to know them better through your post - a lot to summarize and you did it well. I liked the recent biopic Stan & Ollie - a gem of a modern film that captured well what I believe to have been the deep friendship between the men.

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    1. I haven't watched Stan and Ollie, but I'll have to check it out.

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  3. Thank you for the informative article and the lovely memories.

    Our daughter would explain to her friends that the framed photo of Stan and Ollie in our living room were "uncles." Indeed, even into the 21st century Laurel and Hardy have a unique hold on their fans.

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    1. Aww, that's sweet. Laurel and Hardy really are like family to their fans.

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  4. For my money, their best feature film was WAY OUT WEST (1937). Their soft shoe dance scene alone is worth the price of admission:

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    1. That's a good one too. Thanks for mentioning it.

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  5. Laurel and Hardy were my "gateway" classic film movies. A local television station played their shorts early Sunday morning, and I would sneak downstairs to watch them. Your tribute has brought back some lovely memories, watching L&H on mute in the family room. Thanks for that. :)

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    1. I'm so glad. I remember watching Laurel and Hardy as a child too. I related to Stan's crying jags a lot.

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  6. I loved your post! I've never seen a Laurel and Hardy short or film -- just clips -- but you've made me want to see more of them, especially Blotto and The Music Box.

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  7. Laurel & Hardy on Saturday morning TV was part of my early life. This is a lovely tribute to a duo that truly deserves it. The Music Box is an unforgettable short (didn't know it won an Oscar) that always makes me laugh. Recently I came across the County Hospital short again and couldn't help laughing out loud. The great ones always bring laughter, no many how times you watch their films.. Knew none of their backstory, so thanks for that, too.

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    1. I find it amazing that they even met based on their respective backgrounds and birthplaces. It's a story that could have only happened in old Hollywood.

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  8. As The Lady Eve perfectly put it above, I was also lucky to experience Stan and Ollie on Australian TV as a kid, although it in the afternoons on ABC-TV where we got to see their silent shorts. They remain beloved and deservedly so - and you've beautifully paid tribute to not only comedy legends but film legends, period. Thanks so much for a fantastic article!

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    1. Thanks for your comment and taking the time to read.

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