Laurel And Hardy – Tag Team
They are perhaps the two most easily identifiable faces and figures in movies around the world. As writer and critic Alan Dent said, “They were like hot coffee and hot milk one pours to make the perfect breakfast cup of café au lait …like duck and peas …oil and vinegar …oysters and stout. Their combination attained rare, sublime comical, common place perfection.”
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, next only to Chaplin in evoking instant laughter, ruled the world of screen comedy for decades like a modern-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, spreading sunshine even in modest homes in remote parts of the world.
PS: Please click on the highlighted name links of films to see the complete films on YouTube.
Even world shakers, who had enough on their hands to kill all the fun juices in them, sought the films of Laurel and Hardy, and went into endless rounds of belly laughter. The high priest of modern China, Mao Tse Tsung and Marshall Tito had a private library of the L& H films to neutralize their political tensions. And man of iron who seldom laughed, Stalin was an ardent fan. Even the Vatican has the comedies in its archives.
Yet, for a long time, nuts-and-bolts-chewing critics had ignored Laurel and Hardy, dismissing their work with a casual wave of their vitriol-filled pens. Maybe the two were not comical geniuses à la Chaplin, but nobody, not even those critics can ever deny that the two were good screen comedians who knew the secret of making millions laugh! And how the dickens did the two, one a gentlemanly Britisher and the other, an over-portly courteous American come together to achieve such perfection in screen comedy?
Laurel or Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born in Bristol, England on June 16, 1890 into a theatrical family. With actor parents, young Laurel grew up with the smell of grease paint in his nostrils and the gleam of footlights in his eyes, taking to the stage as a cuckoo takes to cooing. A mere lean lad of fifteen, going on sixteen, he took his bow as a music-hall comedian in a tiny Glasgow playhouse. He wore his dad’s expensive pants, suitably mutilated at the turn-ups, rather ruthlessly, without the parent’s knowledge. And he made a mess of the act for when he was about to go onstage he saw father, dear father staring at him or was it at the poor pants, from the wings! The audience roared with rich laughter at the lad’s nervous helplessness. Even papa beamed and almost clapped at his son’s performance. That was the way it all began that eventful day in 1906.
Soon Laurel found his way as a music-hall comedian into Fred Karno’s troupe. Here he became an understudy to a budding comedian soon destined to create film history – Charles Chaplin. Laurel toured the United States with Fred Karno and did well enough to attract attention. Then back in England, he created a sketch of his own ‘The Rum ’Uns from Rome’, as healthy mixture of traditional knock-about comedy, music hall humour and slapstick.
Later Laurel joined another troupe and toured Europe. Rain caused havoc cancelling shows and Laurel faced misery, poverty and depression. And in Rotterdam, the poverty line sunk so low that he was chosen to go out and steal bread from bakers. Returning to America, he soon organised his own show ‘The Three Comiques’ later named as ‘The Keystone Trio’. He mostly imitated Chaplin in all his comical sketches but he did it successfully for he knew more about Chaplin than other imitators.
In 1917 while performing at the famous Los Angeles Hippodrome, its wealthy, impressed owner Adolph Ramish approached Laurel with a proposal for a movie. Laurel faced a movie camera for his maiden celluloid caper, ‘Nuts in May’, a one reeler tale of a man escaping out of a lunatic asylum wearing a conventional business suit topped with a Napolean hat was funny and successful. Chaplin and Hollywood movie moghul Carl Laemmle saw it and were immensely impressed. Chaplin invited Laurel to join him but luckily for Laurel nothing ever came out of the offer! And Laemmle gave Laurel a one-year contract to make movies at his Universal Studios. Somehow Laurel did not last long at Universal and before long he was out.
His reputation was now spreading and Hal Roach approached him to join his ‘laughter unlimited’ comedies. The coming together of Roach and Laurel was to prove a turning point in the career of Laurel and also a significant milestone in the history of screen comedy.
Rather surprisingly, Laurel left Roach after a few films for he did not wish to play second fiddle to Harold Llyod, the top comedian on the Roach lot during that period.
For a while he made films for indy producers like Broncho Billy. Most of his films were parodies – ‘Mud and Sand’ (a spoof on Blood and Sand), ‘Rob ‘Em Good’ (Robinhood), ‘Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde‘ (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
All these films were hits and Roach, spurred by such success persuaded Laurel to return to his fold after Harold Lloyd had left and there was room at the top. In ‘Slipping Wives’ (1926) there were two characters; one a cardboard lover and the other a comical butler – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Appearing together for the first time but not yet a team, movie history was all set for a fresh chapter to unfold!
Oliver Norwell Hardy was born in Georgia, USA on 18 Jan, 1892. His pop was a small town lawyer who died early. Widowed mum ran a hotel to keep home fires burning and young Hardy, fondly called Babe watched guests, studying their mannerisms and learning to imitate them. He did not care for bookish learning as a lad; something he regretted later but he sang well at musical shows. Obesity was his companion even from childhood and his girth helped him to break into movies, rather surprisingly not as a comedian but as a villain, or ‘heavy’ as they called them in their silent days!
After playing the heavy and throwing his weight around in some movies made by Lubin, Hardy landed In Hollywood and soon joined Hal Roach. Roach who had a keen eye for talent scouting could well see the comedian in Hardy.
Though Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were under the Roach roof and played roles in the same movies, it was only in 1926 Roach cast the Britisher and the American as a team in a comedy short called ‘Putting Pants on Philip’, Laurel is a typical Scot who loves to wear the traditional kilt even in New York where he arrives to visit a relative, Hardy. Hardy is shocked by the odd costume which he feels is just as bad as being naked!
He talks Laurel into a pair of pants. And when the tailor in the process of taking the measurements let his hand go inside the kilt, Laurel keeps hitting and pushing the hairy hand away, convinced that the tailor is pawing him.
‘Putting Pants on Philip’ saw the beginnings of the comical style of Laurel. The next film ‘Why Girls Love Sailors’ is of some historic significance for it was in this that Hardy does his ‘tie-twiddle’ – fingering the necktie to cover his embarrassment.
This bit of business later brought Hardy many laughs and over the years came to be known as the ‘Hardy Touch’. And in 1927 came a Laurel and Hardy movie which solidly established their reputation as laugh—raisers.
Indeed many film historians and critics consider it as the greatest work of the team. Henry Miller, the controversial American writer wrote of this classic comedy, “… the greatest comic film ever made because it brought pie-throwing to apotheosis.”
A comedy of pies flying in all directions, people slipping on banana peels, cops falling into open manholes, ‘The Battle Of The Century’ (1927) is indeed a memorable comedy classic and pure vintage visual humor.
‘Leave ‘Em Laughing’ (1928) was another comedy which enhanced the fame of the funsters, built around the antics of a man in a dentist’s chair reacting to pain and laughing gas, the film is even undated and fresh even today. Then movies began to talk. As a result many promising acting careers fell on the wayside, especially those of silent film comedians. But Laurel and Hardy, with pleasant voices, made a smooth transition and the new giant – the Sound Track – held no fears for them.
Indeed in their very first talkie ‘Unaccustomed as We Are’ (1929), Laurel made a brightly creative use of sound, something novel indeed for the times. He falls down a flight of stairs but the camera does not show the fall. Instead the sound of falling and crashing off the screen creates a smacking impact! This creative touch has since, been copied by many a comedian and became a regular tool in a director’s creative bag!
In ‘Perfect Day’ (1929), they came up with another creative use of sound, an effect copied my many afterwards. In one Hardy hits Laurel on the head with an automotive jack and the resulting noise sounds like the ringing on an anvil when someone very muscular strikes it with a twelve – pound hammer!
During the 1930’s on top of their game and fame, even critics, who treated them as a pair of perhaps successful buffoons, now took notice of them as artistes of merit. The famous British documentary filmmaker and film critic Basil Wright wrote while discussing a film ‘Hog Wild’ (1930) which is all about the pair putting up an aerial, “. . . to fix an aerial Hardy falls off into a fish pond at least five times. Each time a different variation . . . the final fall was but a flight of birds and the sound of a mighty splash. Even Eisenstein would have been proud to do it.”
Two years later Laurel and Hardy won an Oscar their only Academy award, for their film ‘Music Box’ (1932). Battling with a piano which had to be moved from one place to another, Laurel rated it as their best short film.
With their fame at its peak it is not surprising that the pair were led into making feature films. While it was to some extent unavoidable for somebody so successful, it proved unwise in the long run. ‘Pardon Us’ (1932) was the first feature-length comedy and predictably it was a success even though Laurel called it, “…a three storey building on a one storey base!” Laurel and Hardy land in prison on a prohibition charge and their scenes in prison are indeed a scream, especially the prison class room scene.
‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ (1932) was again a success but it showed up the strain of a thin idea being stretched too far. Followed mixed bag of features: ‘Fra Diavolo’ (1933) , ‘Babes In Toyland’ (1934), ‘Our Relations’ (1936) and ‘Way Out West’ (1937), the only Laurel and Hardy western.
‘Blockheads’ (1938), one of the team’s best features contains a superb scene. Laurel stands guard in a trench for twenty years after the world war has ended. Nobody told him about Armistice! His pacing has hollowed out another trench. Some yards away we see a mountain of empty cans of beans he has been living on during those twenty years!
And although their careers lasted nearly a quarter century 1926-50, their range became limited. After their contract expired with Roach, they did ‘Great Guns’ (1941) for 20th Century Fox, feeling the strangle-hold of the Hollywood studio system. In sheer despair, they moved on to MGM ‘Air Raid Wardens’ (1943) and ‘Nothing But Trouble (1944) only caused more trouble.
Ironically during the Fifties and afterwards while Laurel and Hardy languished in forced retirement, TV helped to create a fresh surge of popularity for the pair thanks to the living-room revival of Laurel and Hardy movies but they derived no benefit from the TV reruns. Health problems ultimately consumed them. Hardy died on 07 Aug, 1957 and Laurel followed his friend to the yonder blue in 23 Feb, 1965 but mankind still laughs as soon as their images flicker on the screen anywhere.
At Laurel’s funeral, silent screen comedian Buster Keaton was overheard talking about Laurel’s talent: “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.”
Here’s another of their classic: The Flying Deuces (1939)