Nothing amuses and amazes me more than one of the best comic couples of all times, Laurel & Hardy. These great kind souls brought me so much joy and laughter and inspiration over the years, and still do. For me they are the ultimate and perfect yin and yang of comedy.
Laurel and Hardy were a comedy duo act during the early Classical Hollywood era of American cinema. The team was composed of Englishman Stan Laurel and American Oliver Hardy. They became well known during the late 1920s to the mid-1940s for their slapstick comedy, with Laurel playing the clumsy and childlike friend of the pompous bully Hardy.
Prior to emerging as a team, both actors had well-established film careers. Laurel had appeared in over 50 films as an actor (while also working as a writer and director), while Hardy had been in more than 250 productions. The two comedians had previously worked together as cast members on the film The Lucky Dog in 1921. However, they were not a comedy team at that time and it was not until 1926 that they appeared in a short movie together, when both separately signed contracts with the Hal Roach film studio. Laurel and Hardy officially became a team in 1927 when they appeared together in the silent short film Putting Pants on Philip. They remained with the Roach studio until 1940 and then appeared in eight comedies for 20th Century Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1941 to 1945. After finishing their movie commitments at the end of 1944, they concentrated on performing in stage shows and embarked on a music hall tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland. They made their last film in 1950, a French-Italian co-production called Atoll K. They appeared as a team in 107 films, starring in 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films, and 23 full-length feature films.
Stan Laurel (June 16, 1890 – February 23, 1965) was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Lancashire, England into a theatrical family. His father was a theatrical entrepreneur and theatre owner in northern England and Scotland who, with his wife, was a major force in the industry. In 1905, the Jefferson family moved to Glasgow to be closer to their business mainstay of the Metropole Theatre, and Laurel made his stage debut in a Glasgow hall called the Britannia Panopticon one month short of his 16th birthday. His father secured Laurel his first acting job with the juvenile theatrical company of Levy and Cardwell, which specialized in Christmas pantomimes. In 1909, Laurel was employed by Britain’s leading comedy impresario Fred Karno as a supporting actor, and as an understudy for Charlie Chaplin. Laurel said of Karno, “There was no one like him. He had no equal. His name was box-office.”
In 1912, Laurel left England with the Fred Karno Troupe to tour the United States. Laurel had expected the tour to be merely a pleasant interval before returning to London; however, he decided to remain in the U.S. In 1917, Laurel was teamed with Mae Dahlberg as a double act for stage and film; they were living as common law husband and wife. The same year, Laurel made his film debut with Dahlberg in Nuts in May. While working with Mae, he began using the name “Stan Laurel” and changed his name legally in 1931. Dahlberg demanded roles in his films, and her tempestuous nature made her difficult to work with. Dressing room arguments were common between the two; it was reported that producer Joe Rock paid her to leave Laurel and to return to her native Australia. In 1925, Laurel joined the Hal Roach film studio as a director and writer. From May 1925 until September 1926, he received credit in at least 22 films. Laurel appeared in over 50 films for various producers before teaming up with Hardy. Prior to that, he experienced only modest success. It was difficult for producers, writers, and directors to write for his character, with American audiences knowing him either as a “nutty burglar” or as a Charlie Chaplin imitator.
Oliver Hardy (January 18, 1892 – August 7, 1957) was born Norvell Hardy in Harlem, Georgia. By his late teens, Hardy was a popular stage singer and he operated a movie house in Milledgeville, Georgia, the Palace Theater, financed in part by his mother. For his stage name he took his father’s first name, calling himself “Oliver Norvell Hardy”, while offscreen his nicknames were “Ollie” and “Babe”. The nickname “Babe” originated from an Italian barber near the Lubin Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, who would rub Hardy’s face with talcum powder and say “That’s nice-a baby!” Other actors in the Lubin company mimicked this, and Hardy was billed as “Babe Hardy” in his early films.
Seeing film comedies inspired him to take up comedy himself and, in 1913, he began working with Lubin Motion Pictures in Jacksonville. He started by helping around the studio with lights, props, and other duties, gradually learning the craft as a script-clerk for the company. It was around this time that Hardy married his first wife, Madelyn Salosihn. In 1914, Hardy was billed as “Babe Hardy” in his first film, Outwitting Dad. Between 1914 and 1916 Hardy made 177 shorts as Babe with the Vim Comedy Company, which were released up to the end of 1917. Exhibiting versatility in playing heroes, villains and even female characters, Hardy was in demand for roles as a supporting actor, comic villain or second banana. For 10 years he memorably assisted star comic and Charlie Chaplin imitator Billy West, Jimmy Aubrey, Larry Semon, and Charley Chase. In total, Hardy starred or co-starred in more than 250 silent shorts, of which roughly 150 have been lost. He was rejected for enlistment by the Army during World War I due to his size. In 1917, after the collapse of the Florida film industry, Hardy and his wife Madelyn moved to California to seek new opportunities.
Laurel and Hardy
Hal Roach has described how the two actors came together as a team. First, Hardy had already been working for Roach when Roach hired Laurel, whom he had seen in vaudeville. Laurel had very light blue eyes, and Roach discovered that, due to the technology of film at that time, Laurel’s eyes wouldn’t photograph properly — blue photographed as white. This problem is apparent in their first silent film together, The Lucky Dog, in which an attempt was made to compensate for the problem by making-up Laurel’s eyes very heavily. For about a year, Roach had Laurel work at the studio as a writer. Then panchromatic film was developed, they did a test for Laurel, and found that the problem was solved. Laurel and Hardy were then put together in a film, and the two seemed to complement each other. Usually comedy teams were composed of a straight man and a funny man, but these two were both comedians; however, they both knew how to play the straight man when the script needed it. Roach said, “You could always cut to a close-up of either one, and their reaction was good for another laugh.”
The humor of Laurel and Hardy was highly visual, with slapstick used for emphasis. They often had physical arguments with each other (in character), which were quite complex and involved cartoon violence, and their characters precluded them from making any real progress in the simplest endeavors. Much of their comedy involves milking a joke, where a simple idea provides a basis from which to build multiple gags without following a defined narrative.
Stan Laurel was of average height and weight, but appeared small and slight next to Oliver Hardy, who was 6 ft 1 in (185 cm) tall and weighed about 280 lb (127 kg) in his prime. Details of their hair and clothing were used to enhance this natural contrast. Laurel kept his hair short on the sides and back, growing it long on top to create a natural “fright wig”. At times of shock, he would simultaneously cry while pulling up his hair. In contrast, Hardy’s thinning hair was pasted on his forehead in spit curls and he sported a toothbrush moustache. To achieve a flat-footed walk, Laurel removed the heels from his shoes. Both wore bowler hats, with Laurel’s being narrower than Hardy’s, and with a flattened brim. The characters’ normal attire called for wing collar shirts, with Hardy wearing a neck tie which he would twiddle and Laurel a bow tie. Hardy’s sports jacket was a tad small and done up with one straining button, whereas Laurel’s double-breasted jacket was loose fitting.
A popular routine the team performed was a “tit-for-tat” fight with an adversary. This could be with their wives—often played by Mae Busch, Anita Garvin, or Daphne Pollard—or with a neighbor, often played by Charlie Hall or James Finlayson. Laurel and Hardy would accidentally damage someone’s property, and the injured party would retaliate by ruining something belonging to Laurel or Hardy. After calmly surveying the damage, they would find something else to vandalize, and the conflict would escalate until both sides were simultaneously destroying items in front of each other. An early example of the routine occurs in their classic short Big Business (1929), which was added to the National Film Registry in 1992. Another short film which revolves around such an altercation was titled Tit for Tat (1935).
One of their best-remembered dialogues was the “Tell me that again” routine. Laurel would tell Hardy a genuinely smart idea he came up with, and Hardy would reply, “Tell me that again.” Laurel would attempt to repeat the idea, but, having forgotten it, babble utter nonsense. Hardy, who had difficulty understanding Laurel’s idea when expressed clearly, would understand the jumbled version perfectly. While much of their comedy remained visual, various lines of humorous dialogue appeared in Laurel and Hardy’s talking films. Some examples include:
“You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be led.”
“I was dreaming I was awake but I woke up and found meself asleep.”
“A lot of weather we’ve been having lately.”
In some cases, their comedy bordered on the surreal, in a style that Stan Laurel called “white magic”. For example, in the 1937 film Way Out West, Laurel clenches his fist and pours tobacco into it as if it were a pipe. He then flicks his thumb upward as if working a lighter. His thumb ignites and he matter-of-factly lights his “pipe”. Amazed at seeing this, Hardy unsuccessfully attempts to duplicate it throughout the film. Much later he finally succeeds, only to be terrified when his thumb catches fire. Laurel repeats the pipe joke in the 1938 film Block-Heads, again to Hardy’s bemusement. This time, the joke ends when a match Laurel was using relights itself, Hardy throws it into the fireplace, and it explodes with a loud bang.
Rather than showing Hardy suffering the pain of misfortunes, such as falling down stairs or being beaten by a thug, banging and crashing sound effects were often used so the audience could visualize the scene themselves. The 1927 film Sailors Beware was a significant film for Hardy because two of his enduring trademarks were developed. The first was his “tie twiddle” to demonstrate embarrassment. Hardy, while acting, had received a pail of water in the face. He said, “I had been expecting it, but I didn’t expect it at that particular moment. It threw me mentally and I couldn’t think what to do next, so I waved the tie in a kind of tiddly-widdly fashion to show embarrassment while trying to look friendly.” His second trademark was the “camera look”, in which he breaks the fourth wall. Hardy said: “I had to become exasperated so I just stared right into the camera and registered my disgust.” Offscreen, Laurel and Hardy were quite the opposite of their movie characters: Laurel was the industrious “idea man”, while Hardy was more easygoing.
The catchphrase most used by Laurel and Hardy on film is: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” In popular culture the catchphrase is often misquoted as “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” The misquoted version of the phrase was never used by Hardy and the misunderstanding stems from the title of their film Another Fine Mess. Numerous variations of the quote appeared on film. For example, in Chickens Come Home Ollie says impatiently to Stan “Well. … ” with Stan replying, “Here’s another nice mess I’ve gotten you into.” The films Thicker than Water and The Fixer-Uppers use the phrase “Well, here’s another nice kettle of fish you pickled me in!” In Saps at Sea the phrase becomes “Well, here’s another nice bucket of suds you’ve gotten me into!” The catchphrase is used in its original form in the duo’s 1951 film Atoll K, where it fittingly serves as the final line of dialogue in what is the final Laurel and Hardy film. Most times, after Hardy said that phrase, Laurel would start to cry, exclaiming “Well, I couldn’t help it…” and begin to whimper while speaking gibberish. Another regular catchphrase, cried out by Ollie in moments of distress or frustration, as Stan stands helplessly by, is “Why don’t you do something to help me?”
The first feature film starring Laurel and Hardy was Pardon Us from 1931. The following year The Music Box, whose plot revolved around the pair pushing a piano up a long flight of steps,won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject. While many enthusiasts claim the superiority of The Music Box, their 1929 silent film Big Business is by far the most consistently acclaimed. The plot of this film sees Laurel and Hardy as Christmas tree salesmen involved in a classic tit-for-tat battle with a character played by James Finlayson that eventually destroys his house and their car. Big Business was added to the National Film Registry in the United States as a national treasure in 1992. The film Sons of the Desert from 1933 is often claimed to be Laurel and Hardy’s best feature-length film. The 1934 film Babes in Toyland remains a perennial on American television during the Christmas season. When interviewed Hal Roach spoke scathingly about the film and Laurel’s behavior during the production. Laurel was unhappy with the plot, and after an argument was allowed to make the film his way. The rift damaged Roach-Laurel relations to the point that Roach said that after Toyland, he no longer wished to produce Laurel and Hardy films. Nevertheless, their association continued for another six years. Hoping for greater artistic freedom, Laurel and Hardy split with Roach. Laurel and Hardy signed with 20th Century-Fox in 1941 and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1942. However, the working conditions were now completely different as they were simply hired actors, relegated to both studios’ B-film units, and were initially not allowed to contribute to the scripts or improvise, as they had always done. In 1950–51, Laurel and Hardy made their final feature-length film together, Atoll K.
Following the making of Atoll K, Laurel and Hardy took some months off to deal with health issues. Upon their return to the European stage in 1952, they undertook a well-received series of public appearances, performing a short sketch Laurel had written called “A Spot of Trouble”. Hoping to repeat the success the following year Laurel wrote a routine entitled “Birds of a Feather”. On September 9, 1953, their boat arrived in Cobh in the Republic of Ireland. Laurel recounted their reception:
The love and affection we found that day at Cobh was simply unbelievable. There were hundreds of boats blowing whistles and mobs and mobs of people screaming on the docks. We just couldn’t understand what it was all about. And then something happened that I can never forget. All the church bells in Cobh started to ring out our theme song “Dance of the Cuckoos” and Babe (Oliver Hardy) looked at me and we cried. I’ll never forget that day. Never.
In 1956, while following his doctor’s orders to improve his health due to a heart condition, Hardy lost over 100 pounds (45 kg; 7.1 st), nonetheless suffering several strokes resulting in reduced mobility and speech. Despite his long and successful career, Hardy’s home was sold to help cover the cost of his medical expenses. He died of a stroke on August 7, 1957, and longtime friend Bob Chatterton said Hardy weighed just 138 pounds (63 kg; 9.9 st) at the time of his death.
For the remaining eight years of his life, Stan Laurel refused to perform and even turned down Stanley Kramer’s offer of a cameo in his landmark 1963 movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1960, Laurel was given a special Academy Award for his contributions to film comedy but was unable to attend the ceremony, due to poor health, and actor Danny Kaye accepted the award for him. Despite not appearing on screen after Hardy’s death, Laurel did contribute gags to several comedy filmmakers. During this period most of his communication was in the form of written correspondence and he insisted on personally answering every fan letter.
Laurel lived until 1965 and survived to see the duo’s work rediscovered through television and classic film revivals. He died on February 23 in Santa Monica and is buried at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, California.
As for music the duo’s famous signature tune, known variously as “The Cuckoo Song”, “Ku-Ku” or “The Dance of the Cuckoos”, was composed by Roach musical director Marvin Hatley as the on-the-hour chime for the Roach studio radio station. Laurel heard the tune on the station and asked Hatley if they could use it as the Laurel and Hardy theme song. The original theme, recorded by two clarinets in 1930, was recorded again with a full orchestra in 1935. Leroy Shield composed the majority of the music used in the Laurel and Hardy short sound films. A compilation of songs from their films, titled Trail of the Lonesome Pine, was released in 1975. The title track was released as a single in the UK and reached #2 in the charts.
Laurel and Hardy’s influence over a very broad range of comedy and other genres has been considerable. Lou Costello of the famed duo of Abbott and Costello, stated “They were the funniest comedy duo of all time”, adding “Most critics and film scholars throughout the years have agreed with this assessment.” Writers, artists and performers as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, John Cleese,and Kurt Vonnegut amongst many others, have acknowledged an artistic debt. Starting in the 1960s, the exposure on television of (especially) their short films has ensured a continued influence on generations of comedians.
Since the 1930s, the works of Laurel and Hardy have been released again in numerous theatrical reissues, television revivals (broadcast, especially public television and cable), 16 mm and 8 mm home movies, feature-film compilations and home video. Numerous colorized versions of copyright-free Laurel and Hardy features and shorts have been reproduced by a multitude of production studios. Although the results of adding color were often in dispute, many popular titles are currently only available in the colorized version. The color process often affects the sharpness of the image, with some scenes being altered or deleted, depending on the source material used. Their film Helpmates was the first film to undergo the process and was released by Colorization Inc., a subsidiary of Hal Roach Studios, in 1983. Colorization was a success for the studio and Helpmates was released on home video with the colorized version of The Music Box in 1986.
There are three Laurel and Hardy museums. One is in Laurel’s birthplace, Ulverston, United Kingdom, where I have been and another one is in Hardy’s birthplace, Harlem, Georgia.The third one is located in Solingen, Germany.
In 2018 a film was made about their lives called Stan & Ollie, a biographical comedy-drama based on the later years of their lives. The film stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The film focuses on details of the comedy duo’s personal relationship while relating how they embarked on a grueling music hall tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland during 1953 and struggled to get another film made.
I often watch Laurel & Hardy on dvd as they’re not much on tv anymore. Sadly, broadcasters seem to think now everything has to be fast and flashy…
I am glad I grew up with their revival in the seventies and eighties and gladly look back to the times after school watching them tv, laughing my head off.
Check them out (or not):
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, interweb, poetpas