Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are often pigeonholed purely as physical comedians, and certainly slapstick is at the core of their act, but they were far more than that. They were interested in a surreal kind of wit that permeates their scripts – “I had a dream that I was awake and I woke up to find myself asleep”; “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be led” – and they realised characters that were both comic vehicles but also marbled with pathos. As Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut summed it up once in an interview, “There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These men are too sweet to survive in this world and are in terrible danger all the time. They could so easily be killed.”
It’s testament to their influence that the comedy world holds the duo so close to their hearts. Steven Coogan’s film Stan & Ollie is an affectionate look at their relationship that tells its story through the pair’s 1953 tour of the UK – a moment when they had fallen out of favour with Hollywood. The performances take centre stage: Steve Coogan brings Stan to life with a sensitivity that reveals the depth of his knowledge of the man himself. It’s available to watch right now on CHILI, the streaming service where you only pay for what you watch – as are these three Laurel and Hardy originals that you need to have seen…
Air Raid Wardens (1943)
It’s a classic Laurel and Hardy setup: the pair try to start a business but fail at every turn, so decide to enlist to fight in the Second World War. What follows is a tale of German spies, botched jobs and unintentional triumphs. The film was powered by a great team that included MGM’s comedy impresario Edward Sedgwick in the director’s chair. There’s a certain bittersweetness to it, however, as it’s one of their last good pictures and portends the 1953 tour that became the subject of Coogan’s film.
Bonnie Scotland (1935)
This golden-era Laurel and Hardy project became their highest-grossing movie of all time. It’s constructed on a premise that’s intrinsically funny: the pair play two prisoners who successfully escape from prison one week shy of the end of their sentence. They travel to Scotland to collect what Laurel’s character believes to be a sizeable inheritance. Once they get there – well, do you imagine they find what they’re expecting? In our estimation, the film is worth it for the fish-cooking scene alone. We won’t spoil it for you.
The Devil’s Brother (1933)
Based on the 19th-century French opera Fra Diavolo, The Devil’s Brother is a period piece with a period conceit: a bandit pretends to be the Marquis de San Marco in order to steal the jewels of the wealthy Lady Pamela. Laurel and Hardy felt some trepidation about embarking on the project, yet it became not only one of their favourite films but also much beloved by aficionados. The game that Laurel’s character plays – called “Kneesy, Earsy, Nosey”, in which you try to touch different parts of your body as fast as possible – caught the public imagination and briefly became a craze.