Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Or should we just call them- Stan and Ollie - the thin and fat funny men in the derby hats? Considering the fact that their best cinematic years were in the 1920s and 30s, it is strange that Laurel and Hardy- appeal has continued to grow over the years. Books, cartoon strips, web-sites, fan-clubs, annual commemorative conventions – they have received a fair share of admiration and adulation and that again, strangely much after their heydays. What is it exactly that makes Laurel and Hardy so enduringly endearing? I’ll tell you why.
It was 1993. I had just come to U.A.E. The life was dull and daunting- staying alone, enduring the never-ending 24 hour call duties as a doctor in a government-hospital. Then suddenly I remembered those two funny gentlemen who had tickled me to loads of laughter in my childhood. I needed to see them and needed to see them badly. I entered a video shop and said – “Just pack for me all the Laurel and Hardy videos that you have got in store.”
From that day onwards, the life was never dull again, the free moments became laughter-sessions and soon, I had become a total Laurel and Hardy devotee. Over the years, I have collected and watched their films – almost all of them, time and again. While watching, I have rolled up laughing, wiping off laughter-tears. By now, I know almost every joke, every funny moment in their films and yet, every time they still make me laugh. That’s their strength, that’s their greatness. In a world where the life has literally become a pressure-cooker, they serve as a perfect safety valve release mechanism, making us forget about the daily grind and taking us into their world that is silly, full of mishaps and misadventures and yet is refreshingly funny.
It is remarkable that even though both, Laurel and Hardy acted in many films without each other, it is only as a pair, they are still remembered fondly. It is almost as if one is incomplete without the other. Such enmeshing chemistry between two actors has seldom been witnessed and yet, it took long for the film-makers and themselves to understand and utilize that unique chemistry on screen.
Arthur Stanley Jefferson – a son of an English theater artist, changed his name to Stan Laurel at the insistence of his first wife. Right from childhood, he had nursed ambitions of becoming a comedian and that’s what he became. Norvell Hardy was born in a leading lawyer-politician’s family and took up his father’s name- Oliver after his death. He started off as a singer but then took up acting.
After struggling as a stage comedian for many years, Laurel made it as a leading man in silent comedy films in Hal Roach studio in Hollywood in 1923. Three years later, Hardy, who was already acting elsewhere in minor goony roles, joined him up. It was in Roach studio the best years of Laurel and Hardy were destined to come.
Lucky Dog (1919) – an unremarkable silent comedy brought them together on screen for the first time but not as the familiar Stan and Ollie but as two accidental foes, who get involved in a fight. Hardy played a robber and Laurel, an unwitting by-stander. Duck Soup (1927) really brought them together as a team. It was a zany silent comedy about two pals running away from law, taking refuge in a millionaire’s mansion and later pretending to be the owner and the maid to a prospective property buying couple.
Stan and Ollie – the Character- building:
For their admirers, Laurel and Hardy are not just names of good actors performing good roles. For them, they are Stan and Ollie, ‘The Boys’ – the lovable dumbos who seem so real, so human and that’s why so funny. This unforgettable characterization was the success of this pair and those characters evolved slowly – first through silent 2-reel classics like “Big business”, “From soup to nuts”, “Angora Love” and “Liberty” before reaching their perfection in the ‘talkies’. They were excellent pantomimes and used gestures of their face and body to an amazingly amusing effect. But I don’t agree with many Laurel and Hardy buffs and critics who insist that their best work was in silent era. In fact, I feel that they became even funnier with the advent of sound in films. The way they delivered their dialogues was a joy to behold. The sheer timing and (dim)wit that they brought into their comedy took their humor to much higher plane than mere slapstick.
Laurel’s Stan was a fumbling, stumbling and bumbling nitwit who could take ages to react even to a lusty bump on his head. One moment, he would scratch the raised tuft of his hair trying to solve a problem he would never understand, brandishing that silly fatuous smile and the next moment, he would pucker his face and break down into inconsolable crying. One moment he would come up with a brilliant idea and the next moment, when asked to repeat, he would mumble some unintelligible garble. His vacant stares, his inept handling of simplest of tasks and his surprising mastery over difficult magic tricks often drove Hardy’s Ollie to despair with that exasperated, pained look into camera. Yet, Ollie – who is always bullying his mate and ordering him about, is not as smart as he thinks. In fact he often proves to be the dumber of the two, his grandiose pompous talk and coy twiddling of neck-tie notwithstanding.
Together, they formed an unlikely pair of two totally contrasting physical and mental persona, whose friendship survives all the hardships. They were like two innocent childish bumpkins thrown into a cruel, selfish world and who in spite of all the problems in life, maintained a cheery up-beat nature. Their businesses were sinking, their wives were barking, their friends were scheming, their bosses were cunning, their roofs were leaking and yet, somehow they overcame all the hurdles, only to find themselves in an even bigger bowl of soup. Finally Ollie had to utter that famous one-liner, “Here’s another fine mess you have gotten me into”!
Not all their films are masterpieces, in fact very few are but still almost every film of theirs is blessed with so many side-splitting comic moments- in fact, laugh for laugh Laurel and Hardy outscore any comic artist – Chaplin, Keaton, Marxx Brothers and Jim Carey included! Theirs was pure comedy, devoid of any kind of lewd wisecracks, preachy social messages or the soapy emotional touches.
In films like Live Ghost and The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case, their fright and terror at an imagined ghost is hilarious. In Brats, they play father- son double roles, in Our Relations- the identical twins’ double roles and in Twice Two, even play their own wives- all so very convincingly! In Way Out West, in trying to use a mule to pull a rope to lift themselves on to a high gallery, they end up hurtling the mule up in the gallery. In County Hospital, Laurel accidentally pushes the doctor out of the window, who then clings for dear life onto the traction-pulley of Hardy’s fractured leg, who is then left dangling upside down in mid-air! In Scram, they accidentally end up intoxicating and fooling around with the wife of the very judge who has let them off with a stern warning and in Midnight Patrol, on their first day as policemen, they mistakenly allow a robber to rob a shop and arrest the police chief from his own house!
But one of their relatively unsung comic scenes is my favourite. It’s from Fra Diavlo (Devil’s Brother). Laurel and Hardy are captured by a bandit, who orders Laurel to hang Hardy on a tree. Bidding tearful good-byes to his good friend, Laurel asks an incredulous Hardy, “Would you like to be buried or shall I have you stuffed? I thought it would be nice to keep you in the living room!” and just before that bombshell, he has sobbingly confessed to his doomed friend, “Do you remember the girl you loved and wanted to marry but who didn’t marry you because she heard that you had a son? I was to blame for that. I told her – I was your son! Please forgive me!” The absurdity of that situation and their marvelous facial expressions just make you howl with laughter. Truly it’s timeless comedy.
So now when I see both my young daughters delightedly squealing and giggling at their antics, I just allow myself a smug smile of satisfaction. That means my tastes are not yet outdated. At least I have some icons that would still be idolized by this brash young new generation, so what if these icons have been there for last six generations!
L& H: Top 5 Short films
1. Live Ghost
3. The Chimp
4. Going Bye- Bye
5. Chickens Come Home
L & H: Top 5 Full Length Feature Films
1. Fra Diavlo (The Devil’s Brother)
2. Way Out West
3. Sons Of The Desert
4. Our Relations
5. Swiss Miss
L & H: Fact File
· Stan Laurel (June 16, 1895 – February 23, 1965) acted in 76 films without Hardy and Oliver Hardy (January 18, 1892 – August 7, 1957) acted in 213 films without Laurel.
· Together, they acted in 105 films.
· Contrary to his dull and dumb image, it was Laurel who was the brain behind their movies. He had a hand in writing, directing and editing in almost all their films. He received an honorary Oscar.
· Hardy- (fondly called as Babe) preferred to retire to Golf courses once he was through with shootings. He won quite a few amateur golf tournaments.
· Both of them had troubled personal lives with multiple marriages and divorces.
· They successfully re-worked many of their ‘silents’ into ‘talkies’.
· Their three reeler – Music Box (1932) won the Oscar.
· In the forties, their career went into decline when they left Roach studio and made 8 forgettable films for 20th Century Fox and MGM.
· 1952 –film Atoll K (Utopia) was their last film together.
· ‘Sons Of The Desert’ is a world-wide organization of Laurel and Hardy fans and holds annual conventions.