My father, who worked as an usher in a Detroit movie theater in the 1930s, loved Laurel and Hardy. And, perhaps, so did your father or grandfather, or even your brother, who may have had their poster hanging in his college dorm. Famous or not, mostly male but some female, Laurel and Hardy fans are legion.
The two comedians are pictured on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album—and a few years later, Paul McCartney gave Oliver Hardy a shout-out on his hit single, “Junior’s Farm.” Maurice Sendak also gave Hardy a shout-out, modeling a key character from his classic children’s book In the Night Kitchen on the actor. Another literary fan, sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, penned three stories evoking the team, among them “The Laurel and Hardy Alpha Centauri Farewell Tour.”
Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Peter Sellers, and Lenny Bruce also loved them—each at one time or another expressed profound admiration for the legendary duo. And so have celebrated contemporaries like Ricky Gervais, Stephen Fry, and Peter Bogdanovich. Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, a passionate Laurel and Hardy devotee, once tweeted, “I loved #Laurel AndHardy all my life—Hilarious & unique—they are very much underrated as wonderfully great actors!”
Their legend is a long way from their humble origins. Born into a theatrical family, Stan Laurel began his career in the British music hall, where he polished his skills at pantomime and developed the bits of business that became his trademark. In 1910, he joined a troupe of actors headed by Fred Karno. That company included Charlie Chaplin, with Laurel acting as his understudy. The time with Karno, a pioneer of slapstick, was formative. In later years, Laurel said, “Karno didn’t teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it.”
When the Karno Company toured the United States, Laurel and Chaplin went along. The two became good friends and shared lodgings. One story tells of their breaking the rule against cooking in their rooms, with Laurel acting as chef while Chaplin played his violin to obscure the sound of frying food. Laurel eventually left the troupe and continued working in vaudeville, sometimes even as a Chaplin imitator. At a chance meeting in 1917, a then-famous Chaplin urged Laurel to try the movies, and he soon made his debut. Laurel went on to appear in numerous one- and two-reelers and came to work alongside an outgoing, rotund actor with the nickname “Babe.” They were opposites in many respects.
Oliver Hardy, as he became known, was born in the American South. In 1910, after a movie theater opened in his Georgia hometown, Hardy became its projectionist, ticket-taker, janitor, and manager. Soon obsessed with motion pictures, Hardy was convinced he could do better than the actors he saw on the screen.
He made his first films in 1914. By 1915, he had appeared in fifty one-reel movies at Siegmund Lubin’s film company. He went on to work for Edison, Pathé, King Bee (paired with Chaplin imitator Billy West), and Vitagraph (playing alongside Larry Semon). In 1921, Hardy was given a supporting role as the “heavy” in The Lucky Dog, produced by Broncho Billy Anderson and starring a thin, somewhat demure comedian named Stan Laurel. It was a chance encounter, and the two did not work together again until a few years later when they found themselves at Hal Roach Studios.
By the time Stan and Ollie were formally teamed in 1927, each was in his late thirties and each seasoned actors. Each had also developed a set of idiosyncratic characteristics that soon led to screen immortality.
Stan was elastic, and emotional. He often broke out sobbing at the first sign of trouble and was child-like and clumsy. His signature bit was a top-of-the-head scratch, accentuated by a haircut that was short on the sides and long on top. Ollie was pompous and overbearing and wore thinning hair slicked down on his forehead. He sported a toothbrush mustache to affect a degree of sophistication, but twiddled his tie boyishly when nervous. Ollie was often the victim of Stan’s dim wit. One effective bit in many of their films is Ollie’s stare, a direct appeal to the audience. He never breaks the fourth wall, but his pathetic look into the camera acts as an invitation to share his indignation.
Their plots were simple and built up through the repetition of jokes and the milking of every gag. Like a piece of music, they often escalated, sometimes reaching a crescendo of destructive resolve. Despite the contrast in their characters, and despite the turmoil they so often encounter, Stan and Ollie always remained on-screen friends. That devotion, in all likelihood, earned them generations of fans.
Many credit Laurel more than Hardy for the sparkling comedy found in their early films. Though he played not-so-bright on screen, Laurel was in fact the patient brains behind the partnership, working to improve each production. Credit for Laurel and Hardy’s success should also go to a few other key individuals. Chief among them is the three-time Academy Award-winner Leo McCarey, who is known mostly for his screwball comedies. Early on, McCarey honed his skills at the Hal Roach Studios where he worked as supervising director and was the first to team Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. With Laurel, McCarey devised their format and received story credit on films through 1930. Additionally, he is responsible for some of their best bits, including the escalating tit-for-tat exchange that drives Big Business and other films.
Also key to Laurel and Hardy’s early success is George Stevens, another future Oscar-winning director. The Oakland-born Stevens found early success as a cameraman at the Roach Studios, where he worked on numerous Laurel and Hardy films in the silent era. All told, Stevens is credited with shooting thirty-five Laurel and Hardy pictures, from Slipping Wives (1927) to The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930), adding to each a visual finesse.
Another indispensible member of the team surrounding Laurel and Hardy is James Finlayson, who continued in the pair’s sound films through 1940. Early on, studio publicity referred to Finlayson, Hardy, and Laurel as a “famous comedy trio.” A Scottish-born actor, Finlayson is best known as Laurel and Hardy’s comic foil. Bald, popeyed, and with a pickle-shaped nose and fake mustache, Finlayson played a frustrated everyman famous for his squinting, outraged double takes. (The Homer Simpson catchphrase “D’oh!” was taken from the actor.) Though often violent, their many interactions were silken. Finlayson appeared in thirty-three Laurel and Hardy films.
As their comedy was largely visual, Laurel and Hardy were at the height of their creativity in the silent era. With the coming of sound, however, it wasn’t necessary to alter the basic formula of their films. In fact, a number of their talkies were largely a reworking of their silent routines. They kept doing what they did so well and achieved even greater popularity in the 1930s.
As a team, Laurel and Hardy appeared in 107 films (thirty-two silent shorts, forty sound shorts, twenty-three feature films, and twelve cameo appearances). Most were made at the Hal Roach studios, where the pair worked until 1940. Following the Second World War, they returned to their roots—performing onstage and embarking on a music hall tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland. That tour is central to the upcoming biopic, Stan & Ollie, as well as to the revival of their legend.
Laurel and Hardy, a.k.a. “The Boys” (1927–1951)
Two guys, one skinny, one plump, both derby-topped, get into all kinds of fixes that inevitably escalate into absurdity and hilarity. Through it all they remain loyal to one another. Produced at Hal Roach’s “Lot of Fun” these three short comedies were made during Leo McCarey’s tenure as supervising director.
THE FINISHING TOUCH, 1928
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
With Dorothy Coburn, Edgar Kennedy, and Sam Lufkin Print Source Library of Congress
Laurel and Hardy get a job remodeling Sam Lufkin’s house, a scenario that can only end one way—in total destruction. Its director, Clyde Bruckman, was a Buster Keaton veteran who had codirected the Great Stone Face’s masterpiece, The General. He helped to write L&H scenarios as well as directed several of their films, including that pie-fighting tour-de-force, The Battle of the Century. Sound was unkind to Bruckman and after much trouble finding work in the industry, the distraught sixty-year-old borrowed a gun from Keaton and committed suicide in a phone booth. Famous for his slow-burn to anger, Edgar Kennedy plays the cop in The Finishing Touch. In addition to appearing as an L&H nemesis in several of their films, Kennedy directed Laurel and Hardy’s From Soup to Nuts and You’re Darn Tootin’ as E. Livingston Kennedy. Dorothy Coburn plays Finishing Touch’s concerned nurse and, as described by Mitchell, “was pursued by Laurel” in Putting Pants on Philip, had her “posterior painted” in Second Hundred Years, and was the first cream-pie recipient in Battle of the Century, among other L&H appearances. She vanished from their films after 1928, perhaps fleeing further punishment.
Directed by Leo McCarey
With James Finlayson, Tom Kennedy, Jean Harlow, and Jack Hill Print Source Lobster Films
Leo McCarey is credited with putting the legendary duo together in their own series and officially became supervising director on their films starting with The Second Hundred Years. According to Laurel and Hardy historian Randy Skretvedt, Liberty was built from an extended sequence of L&H trying to exchange pants that had been cut from their previous film, We Faw Down, also directed by McCarey. They shot Liberty’s skyscraper scene on the roof of the Western Costume Company on South Broadway in Los Angeles and the shenanigans on the girder were filmed on a platform three stories above that. The studio’s construction expert feared the safety platform was built from too fragile a wood, so he placed a safety net beneath it. He turned out to be right when Hardy, in an attempt to assure a nervous Laurel that the setup was secure, broke through. Tom Kennedy, brother to L&H regular Edgar Kennedy, plays the prison guard who chases Laurel and Hardy at the beginning of the film. Jean Harlow, then under contract to Roach, plays the female half of the couple that interrupt L&H trying to switch pants in the back of a taxicab. Before getting cast in Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels and then turned into MGM’s blonde bombshell, Harlow appeared in three other Laurel and Hardy films, once via a photograph. By the time Laurel and Hardy made Liberty, they were eighteen months into their partnership, and, Skretvedt writes, had “developed their characters and techniques to the point of mastery.”
BIG BUSINESS, 1929
Directed by J. Wesley Horne
With James Finlayson, Tiny Sanford, and Lyle Tayo Print Source Lobster Films
Laurel and Hardy are locked in tit-for-tat combat with regular supporting player James Finlayson over his refusal to buy a Christmas tree, until, as Glenn Mitchell describes in his Encyclopedia of Laurel and Hardy, the “tension escalates from indignity into uninhibited warfare.” Finlayson was already a prominent member of Hal Roach’s All-Stars series before becoming a key player in Laurel and Hardy films. Known for his exaggerated double-take routine, he performed it so enthusiastically in Big Business that he knocked his head against the door and blacked out. Another frequent L&H player, Tiny Sanford had roles in twenty-three of their titles ending with Our Relations and appears here as the cop with seemingly endless patience. Shot during Christmas week, Big Business was the last silent L&H made at the studio. The film needed to wrap quickly for the installation of sound equipment over the holiday. A Hal Roach employee owned the house in Cheviot Hills where much of the shooting took place and, contrary to rumor, he was well aware of what they were doing there. Big Business was Leo McCarey’s last film as supervising director at Roach; he resigned two days after filming ended but received writing credit through 1930’s Hog Wild. McCarey went on to direct a slew of classics, from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) and the screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937) through the tearjerker Love Affair (1939) and its remake, An Affair to Remember (1957).
All facts taken from Randy Skretvedt’s Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies and Glenn Mitchell’s Encyclopedia of Laurel and Hardy.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2018 with live music by Jon Mirsalis