Laurel and Hardy
Laurel and Hardy
The first and, arguably, the best of filmdom's famous two-man comedy teams, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were also, along with Charlie Chaplin, the only great silent-era clowns to survive and thrive well into the talkie era. The two thrilled audiences with their carefully crafted style of comedy. Their short films, ranging from the pie-throwing apotheosis, The Battle of the Century to the Oscar-winning The Music Box, in which the boys strain to lug a piano up a steep hill, established their endearing characterizations as loyal friends—often hen-pecked husbands—who keep going from one "swell predicament" to "another fine mess."
Stan Laurel (real name: Stan Jefferson) was born in 1890 in Ulverston, England; Oliver Norvell Hardy in 1892 in Harlem, Georgia. The fates and their respective theatrical abilities brought them to Hal Roach's comedy factory in Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties. There, ace comedy director Leo McCarey had the inspiration to pair them as a team. Unlike such latter-day comedy partners as Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis, who would hone their comedy personae onstage before live audiences before making it big in the movies, Laurel and Hardy grew into a team from film to film. During their series of short films in the 1920s, the derby-wearing duo quickly established their now famous identities as the skinny one and the fat one: "Two minds," as Laurel described them, "without a single thought."
In the 1930s, Laurel and Hardy graduated to feature-length films which continued to spread their worldwide popularity. Although the films eventually suffered a decline in quality when comic genius Laurel was no longer allowed by studios to carefully plan and develop their vehicles, the stars themselves never wore out their welcome. Long after their deaths, the characters created by Laurel and Hardy are continually being recreated by actors and animators. The original Laurel and Hardy films still have the power to get an audience laughing at the pitfalls and pratfalls of twentieth-century urban living.
Stan Laurel began his show business career when he was only sixteen. By 1910, he was touring America with Fred Karno's London Comedians, not only performing but understudying another young up-and-comer named Charles Chaplin. When Chaplin "went Hollywood," the troupe disbanded. Stan continued to kick around vaudeville until the early 1920s, although he started making films under the Stan Laurel name in 1917 with Nuts in May. In all, he made some 60 movies before being partnered with Hardy. In a business in which a young stand-up can rise from obscurity to sitcom stardom in a couple of years, (and return to anonymity just as quickly), Stan Laurel took two decades searching for his most apt comedy persona.
Oliver Hardy grew up with a love of music, and as a young man found employment singing accompaniment to slides in a theater. By 1910, the eighteen-year-old was running a movie theater, and thinking to himself that he could probably act as well as the professionals he was watching onscreen. A few years later, he had a chance to prove his abilities by working for the Lubin and Vim companies in Jacksonville, Florida. Although he made a hundred short films, Hardy's weight typecast him as "the heavy," giving support to the comedians but never taking the lead himself.
Hollywood pioneer Hal Roach ran a studio where the specialty was comedy, the budgets were small, and the talent was big. Stan Laurel signed on with Roach in 1923; three years later, the studio hired Hardy. One year after that, in 1927, the men made their first movie together, Putting Pants on Phillip. Phillip was uncharacteristic of what was to come, but the team hit their stride with their next film, The Battle of the Century. "Reciprocal destruction" became the phrase used to describe how, in a Laurel/Hardy film, a deceptively simple tit-for-tat escalates into a donnybrook. In Battle, one little banana peel pratfall leads eventually to the biggest pie-fight in movie history, encompassing an entire city block of citizens. But Laurel and Hardy didn't need spectacle to be just as hilarious in their subsequent shorts. The situation could be as simple as Stan trying to help Ollie put a radio antenna up on a roof, or the two trying to make their dry-docked boat seaworthy, or—as in their Oscar-winning talkie, The Music Box, Laurel and Hardy simply attempting to deliver a piano—to a house way up there on top of the hill, with the only access via a narrow set of steps.
For all the brilliance of their slapstick, the comedy of Laurel and Hardy was personality-driven, not situational. The characters they developed were of two well-meaning but naive child-men—Stan, not too bright, and Ollie, who only thinks he's smarter than his pal—trying to cope with the vicissitudes of employment, matrimony, warfare, society, and technology, with the one constant being their friendship. Audiences laughed at the antics of Laurel and Hardy, but more than that, they fell in love with the boys. (No less loveable was a veritable stock company of brilliant supporting players, including James Finlayson and Mae Busch.) So endearing and enduring were the Laurel and Hardy characters that their appeal was only strengthened, not dissipated, by the coming of sound film. (The early Laurel and Hardy talkies benefitted enormously from the delightful underscoring of T. Marvin Hatley, composer of the "Cuckoo" theme which became the boys' signature tune.) Roach put his star team in feature-length movies, and still they prospered. Perhaps their best such film was Way Out West, 1937.
Of the two actors, behind the scenes, Laurel was the prime creator, working with the hand-picked Roach production team on the story, gags, production, and even the editing of their films. Stan actually thought of himself more as a gag-writer than a performer. (Not unlike Gene Kelly, another multiple talent, who once claimed that choreographing and filming his numbers was much more interesting than actually dancing.) Laurel and Roach did not always see eye to eye, but by and large the studio chief respected his star's talent and allowed it free reign. It is thanks to the work they did at Roach that Laurel and Hardy, the skinny guy and the fatso in their two derbies, became comedy icons recognized and adored wherever in the world movies were shown. And it is a tribute to Laurel and Hardy's appeal that they remained universally loved, even when the films themselves stopped being loveable.
Like other clowns from the golden age of screen comedy, Laurel and Hardy ran into trouble when they found themselves working for a production company that had no understanding of their working methods nor an appreciation of how crucial those methods were to the art of their comedy. By the 1940s, Laurel and Hardy had left Roach and ended up at Twentieth Century-Fox. Seeking to cash in on the new, brash brand of comedy popularized by Abbott and Costello, Fox basically disallowed Laurel's input into the creative process. Gone were the carefully worked out scenarios and the opportunities to improvise on the central gag situations. For fans of the team, the 1940s films represented a mishandling of talent. For the most part, Laurel and Hardy called it quits with the movies after The Bullfighters in 1945, and spent the next decade delighting audiences overseas with personal appearances onstage. (In 1952, there was one disastrous comeback film, an international co-production called Atoll K, which is even harder to watch than the 1940s Fox films.) Over the years, Hardy would occasionally put in a solo appearance as a character actor in a movie, but these were few and far between. Eventually, his health started to fail, and he died in 1957.
In their heyday, for all their international success, Laurel and Hardy were not treated very kindly by most critics. The much-married Laurel spent his last years living quietly in his Santa Monica apartment, corresponding with his many fans, and occasionally receiving visits from them. Thanks chiefly to the lobbying efforts of one such fan, comedian Dick Van Dyke, a campaign began which led to a special honorary Oscar for Laurel in 1961. Laurel was appreciative, but wistful that the honor had not come in time to be shared with Hardy. Probably more gratifying to Laurel was the formation of an international Laurel and Hardy fan club, dubbed The Sons of the Desert, (after the fraternal order in their 1934 film of the same name). Into the 1990s, local chapters of this organization gather around the globe to watch the films of the screen's first great comedy duo. When Laurel died in 1965, he was eulogized as a great artist. It probably would have been nice if Laurel and Hardy had heard such praise in their heyday, but in the final analysis, it couldn't possibly have meant as much to them as the sound of one good belly-laugh.
—Preston Neal Jones
Maltin, Leonard. The Laurel and Hardy Book. New York, Curtis Books, 1973.
McCabe, John. Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1966.
Mitchell, Glenn. The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia. London, B.T.Batsford, 1995.
Scagnetti, Jack. The Laurel and Hardy Scrapbook. Middle Village, New York, Jonathan David Publishers, 1976.
Skretvedt, Randy. Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies. Beverly Hills, California, Moonstone Press, 1987.
Laurel and Hardy
Laurel and Hardy
Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and Oliver Norvell Hardy (1892–1957) formed the greatest comedy duo in the history of Hollywood (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2). Englishman Laurel (real name: Stan Jefferson) understudied for Charlie Chaplin (see entry under 1910s—Film and Theater in volume 1) on tour with Karno's London Comedians. American Hardy came from Harlem, Georgia, and began his show business career working in a movie theater. Beginning in the silent era, they became masters of pie-throwing and furniture-breaking. They even won an Oscar for smashing a piano in The Music Box (1932).
Like Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy prospered with the arrival of sound in the movies and began to make feature-length films. They play well-meaning fools forever caught up in "another fine mess." Over their careers, they appeared in more than one hundred movies together from the late 1920s through the late 1940s. Laurel's childish squeaky voice and Hardy's useless fatherly advice made them perfect partners. Some sixty years after their prime years, their "Cuckoo" theme tune and loveable derby-wearing characters are instantly recognizable.
For More Information
Laurel and Hardy: The Official Website.http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/index1.html (accessed February 7, 2002).
Mitchell, Glenn. The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia. London: B. T. Batsford, 1995.
Nollen, Scott Allen. The Boys: The Cinematic World of Laurel and Hardy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989.
Laurel and Hardy
Har·dy 1 / ˈhärdē/ , Oliver, see Laurel and Hardy.