Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts

USA, 1928–29 • Produced by Hal Roach

Directed by
James Parrott, 1928 Supporting Cast Edgar Kennedy, Edna Marian, and Viola Richard Production Hal Roach Studios Supervising Director Leo McCarey Photography George Stevens Editor Richard Currier Titles H.M. Walker Print Source UCLA Film and Television Archive

Directed by James Parrott, 1928 Supporting Cast Edgar Kennedy, Thelma Hill, and Ruby Blaine Production Hal Roach Studios Supervising Director Leo McCarey Photography George Stevens Editor Richard Currier Titles H.M. Walker Print Source Library of Congress

Directed by J. Wesley Horne, 1929 Supporting Cast James Finlayson and Tiny Sandford Production Hal Roach Studios Supervising Director Leo McCarey Photography George Stevens Editor Richard Currier Titles H.M. Walker Print Source Library of Congress

Presented at SFSFF Silent Autumn 2014
Shorts program courtesy of Sonar Entertainment

Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

Essay by David Kiehn

Before they became the comedy team known as “Laurel and Hardy,” Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy each had worked in different capacities in vaudeville and the fledgling film industry for more than a decade. It took the freedom offered by producer Hal Roach to foster their collaborative genius.

In 1910, at the age of 17, Oliver Hardy became the operator of a movie theater in Milledgeville, Georgia. He was not impressed by the quality of the performances he saw on the screen and thought he could do better, and certainly no worse. In 1913 he traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, which hosted a number of film studios, and broke into the business the next year. Any fans trying to follow his early career would have had difficulty keeping up with his roles as a character actor. Hardy was often the sidekick to the lead comedian—if he wasn’t the villain—and he was usually disguised by bushy eyebrows, a variety of comical mustaches or beards, made up in blackface, or dressed as a woman. He worked steadily but, over the course of his career, moved to an assortment of film companies, including Edison, Lubin, Vitagraph, King Bee, and Arrow, to name a few. By the time Hardy signed a contract with Hal Roach Studios in 1926, he had worked in more than 200 films.

Stan Laurel, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, first came to the United States from his native England in 1910 as understudy to Charles Chaplin in the Fred Karno Company. The Karno troupe toured the country on the vaudeville circuit for three years. When Chaplin left for the Keystone Film Company at the end of 1913, Stanley Jefferson, as he was then professionally known, went on the vaudeville circuit in his own song and dance company briefly, then he toured in an act called “Raffles the Dentist” with his common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg. Billed as Stan and May Laurel, the couple appeared on the opening bill at San Francisco’s brand new Casino Theater on April 8, 1917.

The Casino, with 3,000 seats, was the largest of more than 100 theaters in town at the time and was owned by Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the first movie star cowboy. Anderson had left his Essanay studio in Niles, California, the year before but maintained an interest in producing films. After Laurel had tried several times to make the transition to movies, with little success, Anderson hired him in 1921 to star in the pilot for a series. This film, The Lucky Dog, is notable as the first time Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel appear together in a movie.

By 1922 Laurel was starring in his first successful films. In the next three years, he specialized in parodies of popular hits of the day, with titles like Mud and Sand, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, The Soilers, Rupert of Hee Haw, and Monsieur Don’t Care. Then all of a sudden he disappeared from the screen. A contract dispute with independent producer Joe Rock in 1925 forced Laurel to abandon his acting career temporarily. Instead, he worked as a film director and writer at Hal Roach Studios.

Laurel had already been involved in shaping the content of his movies, but the Roach studio offered more. His talent became recognized and respected as he worked for every production unit on the lot. The boss knew comedy and was also wise enough to let the talented people he hired do their jobs, including directors Leo McCarey, James Parrott (brother to Charley Chase), George Marshall, Keaton collaborator Clyde Bruckman, scenario writers Frank Butler and Carl Harbough, brilliant title writer H.M. Walker, as well as teenaged camera operators Art Lloyd and George Stevens, who left the studio in 1931 and advanced to directing.

Hal Roach himself was only 19 when he started in the movie business in 1913, as an extra for a dollar a day plus bus fare and lunch. On his first day, he was on a western set in a gambling hall scene in which the hero was supposed to win a lot of money at roulette. No one knew the correct way to spin the roulette wheel, except Roach, who was immediately raised to five dollars a day. The next year, Roach was directing movies on a shoestring budget with fellow extra Harold Lloyd as his comedian. By 1919, Roach had built a new 17-acre studio in Culver City. He slowly developed a number of units, producing films with Charley Chase, Will Rogers, and a group of youngsters he called Our Gang.

Roy Seawright, who began his career as an office boy for Hal Roach and later became the head of the optical effects department, recalled in a 1980 interview: “MGM, Fox, Universal—they were nothing but machines. The Roach lot was very individual. And the people there had talent with a wonderful sense of humor. The Roach lot was named ‘The Lot of Fun,’ because it was a comedy studio—and it was a lot of fun.” By the mid-1920s the Hal Roach Studio was the equal, if not the better of Mack Sennett’s “Fun Factory.”

The first time Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy both appear in a Roach-produced film was in 45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926), a Glenn Tryon short subject. Laurel and Hardy share no scenes together and the film is otherwise unremarkable, but the next film is a different story. Duck Soup (no relation to the Marx Brothers film), released in 1927, features Laurel and Hardy as two hobos on the run from the law who come upon a mansion that is temporarily unoccupied. They settle in and there are complications. The story was good enough to be reworked as a talkie, Another Fine Mess, in 1930, but the earlier film provides hints of the genius to come. The chemistry between the two men on the screen was not lost on the production personnel at the studio, but it took awhile for the wheels to turn. The next five films with Laurel and Hardy were a regression as far as teamwork was concerned, with some humorous individual bits by each of them, but no collaboration.

The spark returned with Do Detectives Think?—the attire was in place, the vacant stares, Oliver nominally in charge, Stan bursting into tears, the two mixing up their hats. Their rapport increased, and the set pieces became polished. Most notable were the scenes in which an innocent slight escalates into a battle royal. It happens in a focused way in Big Business, with a private battle between “The Boys” and homeowner Jimmy Finlayson ending in near total destruction. In Two Tars, the battle becomes widespread, with everyone in sight involved in the mayhem.

When talking pictures came in, Laurel and Hardy embraced the medium, making sound a part of the humor. Their first talkie, The Last Word, (later retitled Unaccustomed As We Are) features a final gag of Stan falling, off-camera, and you just hear the noise. They used the idea more than once, most effectively in The Music Box, their Oscar-winning short, another silent film story brilliantly reworked as a talkie by replacing a washing machine with a player piano carried up a long flight of steps.

They made another transition, to feature films, in 1930, with Pardon Us. Although the team felt it was difficult to be successful in the longer format, the film was good enough for them to tackle it again when they felt they had a solid story. Of the 106 films Laurel and Hardy made together, 25 were features. They made eight of these at 20th Century-Fox after they left Hal Roach in 1941.

When Oliver Hardy died of a stroke in 1957, Stan Laurel retired from performing and lived quietly with his second wife in Santa Monica. He received an honorary Oscar in 1961. He died in 1965, but Laurel and Hardy live on through their fans, many of them in the “Sons of the Desert” appreciation societies in more than 100 cities throughout the world, each “tent” named after one of their films. There are two tents in the Bay Area, the “Call of the Cuckoos” in San Francisco and “The Midnight Patrol,” which meets once a month at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum’s Edison Theater to see them once again on the big screen, and laugh.
—David Kiehn