J.D. Salinger called them "two Heaven-sent artists and men." Compliments don't get much better than that.
I have no idea when I first became aware of Laurel and Hardy. When did you first become aware of music? Or chocolate? Or
the color orange? Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were always there, always on TV, always turning up on posters and in ads and wherever the icons
of Americana are depicted. Like any good force of nature, they just were. The sun is in the sky, the stars are in the heavens, and
Mr. Laurel is alongside Mr. Hardy. It's just that simple.
In 1926, when Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy began appearing in films together, neither was what you'd call star material. Stan Laurel
had come to America years earlier with the Fred Karno Troupe, a band of British thespians who toured the states with a show called "A Night in an
English Music Hall."
Mr. Laurel was not even the star of that show. He was the understudy — the guy who went on only when the star was
ill. (The star was some guy named Charlie Chaplin.) When the Karno folks returned home, Stan elected to stay and try his luck on the
American vaudeville circuit. Eventually, he started making a few comedy shorts with mixed success.
One, intended as a pilot to sell a distributor on a whole series of Stan Laurel comedies, was called Lucky Dog. The film
is remembered today only because, when they needed someone to play a crook, they hired a ubiquitous supporting actor named Oliver Norvell Hardy,
sometimes known as "Babe" Hardy. It was their first time together on a screen but magic did not happen, and the distributors just barely agreed
to accept future Stan Laurel comedies. Perhaps, if Laurel had hired Hardy again, things would have been different.
Mr. Laurel headlined in dozens of short comedies but audiences never quite started demanding his two-reelers. In hindsight, it's
easy to see why: He hadn't found his ultimate screen character. He wasn't yet that vague little man who scratched his brush-like hair-do, cried
when things went wrong, and stumbled through life with eyelids forever at half-mast.
Instead, he was playing the same guy that everyone was playing — a brash young man who eventually triumphed over adversity and
got the girl — and he wasn't all that convincing in the role. He tried other characters, other approaches, other studios, all to lukewarm
response. Eventually, he drifted from performing to a writing/directing post at the Hal Roach Studio.
Mr. Hardy had been in the moving pictures for years, usually a supporting player, often the villain. He'd entered the business at
the retail end, running a theater in his native Georgia. The films he showed were amateurish, even for 1913 and one day, he decided that he
could be as good — or as bad — as anyone in them. He migrated to Florida, where many a silent comedy was then made.
Very round but very nimble on his feet, Norvell Hardy (his name then) could look pretty funny. He was also a tireless worker,
extremely dependable and uncommonly nice. Because of these traits, he worked all the time. Just how many films he made is still an open
question; every year or so, some film historian happens upon yet another.
Eventually, as the movie business moved to Hollywood, so did Hardy. Often, he worked in support of lead comics who were not his
equal. You can see him stealing picture after picture, often with the teeniest of gestures...the quintessential mime, his every movement
perfectly attuned to the scene and situation. Even an insignificant action — ringing a doorbell or signing his name — was always
done precisely in character.
And he had the critical skill: He could make you laugh. Some other silent comics were the sum of the gags their writers
conceived. Called upon to walk across a room, Harold Lloyd would ask, "What do I do to be funny?" This was a question Hardy never had to
ask. He could be funny exhaling.
Mr. Laurel was the better gagman but Mr. Hardy was the better actor. Ollie's rhythms were so infectious that they would eventually
spread — first to Laurel, then across the Roach lot, then throughout all of silent comedy. The early pictures had been frenetic farce
— lots of running around, racing Model-T fords, people falling into omnipresent muddy lakes. The Keystone Kops were all interchangeable,
their faces nowhere near as important as their gags. Camera operators deliberately undercranked when they filmed it all.
Silent movie projectors ran at variable speeds but most of them clocked in around 24 frames per second. The movies were filmed at
18-20 f.p.s. so that, when projected at 24, the action was sped slightly and given that extra bit of surreal energy.
Others — most notably Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon — started the trend towards normal speed, but no one belonged there
more than Mr. Hardy. He and Mr. Laurel brought it all down to near the pace of reality, valuing personality over pies. Most of their
films were lensed at 22 f.p.s..
It was then entirely appropriate that Stan and Ollie would be the last great silent comedy stars, and among the few to make it to sound
films, wholly unscathed. The advent of sound required that movies be made at normal speed, which didn't bother them at all. They were
already at normal speed.
But first they had to team up — a monumental event that took longer than it should have. In 1926, Hal Roach was looking for
new comedy stars. He had a roster of wonderful supporting players — folks like Jimmy Finlayson, Mae Busch, Frank Brownlee and that Hardy fellow
— but none who quite made it as featured performers. His biggest success at the time was a series of kid comedies that went under the
title of Our Gang (later, the Little Rascals).
The franchise was much-envied by other producers who, like Roach, had to cope with actors who became stars and then would demand raises
and/or leave for greener pastures. Roach never had this problem with Our Gang. If a kid got out of line, there was a long line of child
performers out there, eager to step into the job. Harold Lloyd could go somewhere else and make Harold Lloyd Comedies — and did —
but Roach owned the name "Our Gang."
(This is the reason that Laurel and Hardy always went by their legal names on screen. Laurel had made a few shorts as "Hickory
Hiram," only to find later that the distributor retained ownership of the handle. Thereafter, Stan Laurel remained Stan Laurel — the one
name they couldn't take away from him.)
With "Our Gang" going strong, Roach decided to see if the principle would work with adults. He bundled all those wonderful
supporting actors together into a series called the Hal Roach Comedy All-Stars. Hardy was among the players; Laurel was a writer and occasional
As the late critic Walter Kerr noted, "all-stars" meant then just what it means now: "No stars." But the films did well enough
and, in 1926, Laurel began prepping a comedy called Get 'em Young, which was to feature Hardy as a funny butler. All was in readiness
when, a day or two before shooting was to start, Hardy had an accident. He was cooking a leg of lamb when some scalding gravy splashed on his
arm, taking him out of commission.
Stan was persuaded to switch from directing the film to playing the butler, which he did quite well. Before, he'd been concerned
with being a leading man and in shouldering the entire burden of carrying the film. Now, in a supporting role, he concentrated on just being
funny and so began to home in on the screen character that would soon make him famous.
A man named Richard Jones, now unjustly forgotten in comedy history, ran creative matters for Roach. He saw now in Laurel, a
quality of performance that had not been evident in all those Stan Laurel Comedies. Stan just wanted to return to writing and directing, but
Jones bribed him with a raise, keeping him on the other side of the camera forever after. By the time of the next film for the Hal Roach Comedy
All-Stars, Mr. Hardy returned to the cast list. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were appearing regularly together in films.
But they still were not a team. They often appeared in roles that had nothing to do with each other. For about a dozen
"All-Stars" films, they flirted with an on-again/off-again partnership. If you watched them all in sequence today, it would drive you mad:
You'd see the filmmakers figure out what to do with The Boys in one film, then forget it all in the next few.
In 45 Minutes From Hollywood, they have no scenes together. Then, in the recently-rediscovered Duck Soup (long
thought to be a lost film), they are a functioning team, well on their way to becoming the Stan and Ollie we all know and love. Then they made
five more films where they weren't partners. They were just two actors who happened to be in the same movie.
Then came Do Detectives Think? which actually looks like a Laurel and Hardy movie: They're the stars, they're teamed, they're
even wearing derbies and starting to act like themselves. Laurel is a little too pushy but you see this film today and you think, "Aha! They
finally got it!" But then the next two films, they were back to being strangers in the same two-reeler.
Finally, commencing with The Second Hundred Years, Laurel and Hardy became inseparable, irrevocably developing the characters
for which we now know them. Everyone who was working on the Roach lot at the time later took credit for suggesting the marriage, but historians
generally accord Leo McCarey that achievement. McCarey was then writing and directing short comedies and would later become an important
director of talking pictures, including Going My Way and the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (no relation to Stan and Ollie's film of the same
Roach, however, felt that McCarey's role has been overstated. One time when I had the honor of meeting Hal, he said that really,
when you got down to it, it was the public that made Laurel and Hardy a team. The films that put the two of them together drew big response
from exhibitors and distributors, Roach told me. "You didn't have to be a genius to see that the fat guy and the skinny guy were funny
together." No, you sure didn't.
In 1927, Laurel and Hardy were making silent comedies, blissfully unaware that the form had but a few years to live. These films
are still among the funniest ever made. In them, you can see their characters being refined. You can watch as Mr. Laurel, his pace
tempered to match that of Mr. Hardy, becomes increasingly less aggressive, increasingly more the sluggish, amiable follower of his rotund pal.
Hardy is Hardy almost from the start of their partnership. The role he would play for the rest of his career was basically a
self-caricature; he had only to exaggerate his mannerisms and lower his I.Q. a few points before he was ready to step before the camera.
Laurel though was playing his opposite. On-screen, it was Mr. Hardy who provided what little brains there were in the team.
When Mr. Laurel starts to go first through a doorway, it is Mr. Hardy who taps him on the shoulder and gestures, "Me before you." And it is, of
course, Mr. Hardy who goes ahead through the door, only to have some heavy object fall on his head.
Off-screen, Laurel was the brains of the operation. He was not only an actor, he was head writer and unofficial film
editor. He usually collected 50% more salary than his partner because he put in that many more hours.
In 1929, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy segued to sound films with the appropriately-named, Unaccustomed As We Are. Talking on
screen was traumatic for most stars. Keaton and Lloyd were never the same...Chaplin continued making (mostly) silent films...other careers
ended quickly and irrevocably. Stan and Ollie seemed to barely notice the change; it was the most natural thing in the world for them to speak
on-screen, and it solidified their characters. They'd already been doing stupid things; now, they could say stupid things, as well.
They made "talkie" shorts for a time, my favorites including Come Clean, Me and My Pal, The Music Box, Thicker Than Water, Busy
Bodies, Towed in a Hole, Helpmates and Them Thar Hills. Then, as shorts became decreasingly lucrative, they started making
features. Most L&H buffs today will argue between Sons of the Desert and Way Out West as their best. I might opt for
Our Relations, but I could watch any of them over and over and over. And have.
All of their best films were made for Hal Roach. In 1941, they moved on to larger studios, very much to their own
detriment. The Boys' last nine features were not grand, owing to some combination of age, changing cinema tastes, studio mismanagement and the
absence of their old crew of writers and supporting players. Their poorest movie, in my opinion, was their penultimate: When The
Bullfighters is on, I am torn between wanting to see my favorite performers, and not wanting to see them at their worst.
Their next film, Atoll K, was not much better and, following its release/escape, they never made another movie. Our
They left behind an incredible body of work — timeless comedies that will continue to amuse future generations. Their
comedy was based on basic human frailties, and that never dates. I have no doubt that, a hundred years from today, someone will snap a filmcard
into a viewing module and will view a computer-restored print of Blockheads.
And they'll laugh. Oh, how they'll laugh.
I have written in columns past about many famous people I've had the privilege of meeting. Under the equal time provisions, I
must divulge to you that I once had the opportunity to meet Stan Laurel and, in one of the dumbest moves in a lifetime of dumb moves, I chickened
out. Next week, I will tell you the sad story about how Idiot Evanier didn't meet Stan Laurel. And I'll try to put into words just what
he and Mr. Hardy have meant to me.
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