It is almost 100 years ago that a 20-year-old Lancashire lad called Arthur Stanley Jefferson boarded a ship bound for America with a comedy troupe. The troupe’s main attraction was a rising London-born music hall star called Charles Chaplin. These two British lads were going to revolutionise film forever.
Though Chaplin took fewer than two years to find a foothold in the burgeoning new art form known as cinema, Jefferson needed a further 20 years, a name change to Stan Laurel, and being teamed with a studio player called Oliver Hardy to cement what is still regarded as the foremost comedy double act of all time.
I first “discovered” them, like most people, from the endless showings on television when I was about six years old and became – and remain – totally smitten. Back then, one of the joys of the summer and Christmas holidays was to be able to tune in to BBC2, see fabulous double bills and hear the whole family laugh together. Today, alas, there are fewer telly programmes that can be a shared family experience, and classic comedy shorts are rarely to be found despite the plethora of channels.
Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick routines, simple dialogue and plots (mainly consisting of turning everyday tribulations into Herculean trials of endurance) were easily appealing to a kid. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the choreography of those routines and, more importantly, the sophistication of the sparse, spoken gags. At a time when screwball comedies were delivering comic verbal duelling at a pace that still impresses, Laurel and Hardy relied on the simplicity of a good line and an exasperated look directly into the camera.
This breaking of the fourth wall is as delightful and involving to a contemporary audience as it was intended to be almost a century ago. Stan and Ollie knew that to speak to the audience was to shatter the illusion and that too many glances would render them impotent. But catching Ollie’s eye after the umpteenth brick has landed on his head still comes as an unexpected surprise.
Much has been made of the fact that the Stan and Ollie characters were basically children in adult bodies, that they represented more innocent times, with simpler values. However, much of their output was under the dark clouds of the Great Depression and prohibition – hardly innocent and simple times. They represented the ordinary guy with no handout, no education and seemingly no prospects, who nevertheless strove forward dealing with life’s absurdities in an even more absurd manner.
The childlike curiosity of Stan – pressing the button marked “Do Not Press” – is the curiosity we’re born with but society knocks out of us. The pomposity of Ollie – one we all develop to varying degrees – is the riposte to society’s pressure to be an achiever. Both attitudes are constantly and remorselessly pricked in their movies. However, for me, the most engaging aspect of their movies is their relationship. Long before The Simpsons suggested that family dysfunction did not necessarily lead to decay, Laurel and Hardy’s on-screen friendship endured, no matter what comic calamities and infighting attempted to derail it. Part of the comfort in watching them was to know that by the end of the movie, the relationship would remain intact.
Also, unlike Chaplin, there was no room for pathos. Stan Laurel was a writer and director as well, but only interested in comedy. Whereas Chaplin’s social themes and political thoughts were played out in his films, Laurel and Hardy’s sole focus was to make us laugh. Arguably, they rode the transition from silent movies to talkies better than anyone else and, more importantly, their relationship endured.
A touching postscript about their personal friendship is illustrated by the anecdote of when, in the 1950s, they undertook a theatre tour of Britain. As their ship docked, thousands of fans were waiting. The boys assumed there must be royalty on the boat, too. When they were mobbed and lifted into the air and thus realised that all this adulation was for them, Stanley, moved beyond measure at the welcome by the land he had left 40 years earlier, promptly burst into tears.
I rediscovered Laurel and Hardy about 10 years ago when I first invested in a large plasma screen television. I set about watching my favourite films, enveloped in surround sound and crystal clear DVD technology. Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now and the James Bond films never felt so good. The biggest surprise, however, were those old black-and-white classics that I had only ever seen on a normal-sized telly at my parents’ house. Celebrated Laurel and Hardy shorts (such as Blotto, where Stan and Ollie get drunk on cold tea; Busy Bodies, where they make expected mayhem at a saw mill; and the feature classics Sons of the Desert and Way Out West) all seemed somehow funnier and more eventful on a big screen with big sound.
Now I have the opportunity to truly view these masterpieces as they were intended, on a cinema screen, with live entertainment and as a shared experience with an appreciative audience. We decided to mark the 80th anniversary of Laurel and Hardy’s switch from silent film-making to sound, and are lucky enough to have as a guest one of the few people surviving to have worked with Stan and Ollie – Jean Darling, an original member of the “Our Gang” series of films. By being in her presence, one can claim one degree of separation from the beloved comedy duo themselves.
When I was asked to choose a couple of my favourites to be screened that evening, I was gobsmacked. After getting myself up off the floor, I chose Thicker Than Water (1935) and the Oscar-winning The Music Box (1932). You know the one: it’s where Stan and Ollie have to deliver a piano up a monumental flight of stairs.
Having said all this. I must confess to coming very close to seeing Laurel and Hardy on the big screen before. In 1971, I was in India on a family holiday and my uncle suggested treating me to a trip to the cinema, where he excitedly told me they were showing the aforementioned The Music Box. Being seven years old, I was almost as excited as he was (and also relieved it wasn’t going to be a three-hour Bollywood melodrama). We reached the largest cinema in town, called the Ashoka – just as the air raid sirens went off. India and Pakistan had, rather inconveniently, started a war. We went back home, stuck some cotton wool in our ears and waited for the all clear. The moment was lost.
Lost, as it’s turned out, until now. If an air-raid siren goes off on the 9 September, I will be staying put this time. Why? Well, to quote Stan from one of his films: “Any bird can build a nest, but it isn’t everyone who can lay an egg!”